The services provided by the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP ) in Galway cover a range of activities that fall into the realm of social justice. One such service that is very important but not well known, is the provision of accommodation – both in sheltered form (where full supports are in place ) and independent living single units where additional services such as visitation ensure that loneliness and isolation does not become an issue for the vulnerable person residing there.
I recently met with one elderly person who now lives in a one bed-roomed apartment in the city, to record his life experiences and found that, like many of his generation, he spent years as an economic migrant working in England before returning to his native county of Galway.
In the 1951 census, the records show 488,981 Irish people living in Britain. Anthony (not his real name ) was one of those. He didn’t travel around to various cities to follow work; luckier than most, he secured his job as a truck driver in London.
But he never thought he would stay. Like many emigrants, still living in the UK who I met while conducting research for my thesis on the subject, his leaving was, in his mind a temporary one – he would make that journey home.
Meanwhile, to keep him going, he recalls there were regular trips for the all important annual festivities, the Galway Races and the Christmas holidays that ensured ‘home’ was never too far away. And there were the letters, he wrote home every two or three weeks he says. And his mother wrote back.
Like so many of his peers, Anthony sent some of his hard-earned cash home; those remittances are on public record via the Central Statistics Office. During the years between 1939 – 1969, our economic migrants sent £2.2 billion to Ireland in the form of telegrams, 'the wire' and money orders from Britain alone.
On his return to Ireland, Anthony secured a small ground floor apartment to provide ease of access from SVP. He looks forward to the visits twice a week (occasionally more ) from the SVP volunteer who he has come to rely on and looks forward to seeing.
They have built a rapport which became evident during the interview with his volunteer in attendance. While there are simple tasks Anthony requires help with, maintaining his independence is of utmost importance.
What stands out most when I speak to that generation now in their 80s is their strong work ethic. They had nothing to fall back on; there was no social welfare if they were out of work; health and safety as we know it today was non-existent. and they worked hard in all weathers and in dangerous situations at times.
He recalled periods of time when there was no work due to severe frosty weather; there were three weeks in London when there was nothing and proudly he explains, having built up a relationship with the local butcher, he was able to get meat on tick until he had funds again. He cooked a pig’s headin the saucepan with cabbage adding “the smell of it was grand when you’d lift the lid.”
When one asks a person, now in their twilight years, who left Ireland in the 40s – 60s (still in exile ) where home is, they invariably say Ireland and proudly mention the parish, or town-land, and then the county they came from. There are too many like Anthony who cannot make that return journey; a lot of those are scattered throughout Britain.
And we owe them, within their lifetime a debt of gratitude, for their many sacrifices when we needed it most, those eagerly anticipated remittances that built the Irish health, welfare and educational system while supporting families at home.
Today in Galway, SVP provides a home to 30 individuals. For Anthony and people like him, the provision of a home makes all the difference between existing and living.
Everyone deserves that for, ‘home is where the heart is’. And witnessing as I did a gentleman with a hearty laugh and a twinkle in his eye sat comfortably in his cosy living room with the heating on, you could tell he was at home when he said “Ye’ll have a cup of tea”.
In every Irish homestead of his generation there was always a welcome and a warm cup of tea. And, a bellyful of stories, if you had time to listen to them! I anticipate a return visit.