‘ 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
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.
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