‘ No mat­ter who you are, your life is im­por­tant’

Alice Leahy, the tire­less cam­paigner for the home­less talks to Rosita Boland about her me­moir, the smell of poverty and read­ing books with a happy end­ing

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

There is a scene about a third of the way through Alice Leahy’s me­moir when she is con­sid­er­ing tak­ing a course in pub­lic speak­ing. She asks Ir­ish Times jour­nal­ist Fin­tan O’Toole for ad­vice as to whether she should do it or not.

“No, Alice. You could give it,” is his re­sponse.

He was right. There’s not much any­one could teach Alice Leahy ( 76), a so­cial ac­tivist for al­most her en­tire life, about how to put her mes­sage across. She has long been a tire­less cam­paigner, ad­vo­cate and voice for the home­less – she set up Trust, now known as the Alice Leahy Trust, in 1975.

The Stars Are Our Only Warmth is the ti­tle of Leahy’s me­moir. It was writ­ten with the help of jour­nal­ist Cather­ine Cleary, over a pe­riod of al­most three years.

We are sit­ting in a Dublin ho­tel, talk­ing over cof­fee. When I ar­rived, Leahy was al­ready in con­ver­sa­tion with two women, who had recog­nised her be­fore she had even sat down, and come over to talk about the work she does. It says a lot about how highly that work is rated by or­di­nary mem- bers of the pub­lic that she has such recog­ni­tion: work­ing with the home­less of Dublin could never be con­sid­ered to be any­thing in the realm of celebrity.

Leahy, now 76, grew up in Co Tip­per­ary, near Fethard. Her fa­ther worked on the An­nes­gift es­tate; a Geor­gian coun­try house, where the fam­ily had the es­tate cot­tage. “We are the last of a gen­er­a­tion that re­mem­bers the big house and its army of work­ers.”

She trained as a nurse in Dublin; at the then Royal City of Dublin Hos­pi­tal in Bag­got Street. ( The nurses’ ac­com­mo­da­tion at the time was lo­cated in the build­ing which is now part of the Dy­lan Ho­tel, on East­more­land Place.) Then she went on to spe­cialise as a mid­wife, train­ing at the Ro­tunda.

The Ir­ish pub­lic health ser­vice may still be lack­ing in many ways, but at least the role of women in run­ning hos­pi­tals is now more demo­cratic than the dra­co­nian- type stan­dards of the 1960s.

“I think a lot of nurs­ing sis­ters were like nuns,” she re­calls. “The nurses were all women and they ran the hos­pi­tals al­most like con­vents. They were very in­sti­tu­tional kind of places. I had the sense that work­ing in the hos­pi­tal took up all their lives and that th­ese women were ex­pected to ded­i­cate their lives to the work.”

Leahy’s so­cial con­science was ev­i­dent from young adult­hood. Many of the preg­nant women she came in con­tact with at the Ro­tunda had come from in­ner- city back­grounds where money was very short. She ac­com­pa­nied the district nurse – equiv­a­lent of to­day’s pub­lic health nurse – on her home vis­its to women about to give birth, or who had just left hos­pi­tal af­ter giv­ing birth. They went to the most de­prived parts of Dublin at that time, into homes where Leahy iden­ti­fied the smell of poverty for the first time.

“It has changed lit­tle and you recog­nise it in­stantly be­cause it never leaves you. It is the dank­ness of old un­heated walls, mould, and all that goes with that,” she writes.

Does the poverty she en­coun­ters now have the same kind of smell. “It does,” she says. “It is not the same type of poverty, but the smell is the same. And it’s one we are likely to en­counter again down the road for years to come, with some of the hous­ing com­plexes that have been built.”

In the 1970s, Leahy made the de­ci­sion to leave a ca­reer in nurs­ing and to work in­stead for the Dublin Si­mon Com­mu­nity. The home­less and vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple it served were the peo­ple she wanted to most work with. It is prob­a­bly still the least pos­si­ble glam­orous ca­reer any­one could choose. Why did a young woman want to take on this dif­fi­cult and chal­leng­ing work; a job that be­came a life’s work?

“I grew up in a com­mu­nity where we all looked out for each other. So I de­cided I would like to get back to work­ing more with peo­ple. I wanted to put my nurs­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to good use, and I did,” she says.

id‘ e‘

The sim­ple a that mas­sive so­cial cap­i­tal is cre­ated when the State pro­vides good pub­lic hous­ing has yet to take a real hold on pub­lic pol­icy

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