A long night’s journey into darkness

l-r Ger Spillane, Mid & South West Services Manager; Cllr Mick Finn, Lord Mayor of Cork; Rachel Murphy, Co-Director of Fundraising

Published: 17.10.2018

Pictured left to right: Ger Spillane, Mid & South West Services Manager; Cllr Mick Finn, Lord Mayor of Cork; Philip Gillivan, President of Cork Business Association; Rachel Murphy, Co-Director of Fundraising

Lord Mayor of Cork Mick Finn participated in our annual Shine a Light night on the 12th of October on Spike Island, Cork. Mr Finn also kindly opened the Focus Ireland Conference in Cork last month. In this blog post, he reflects on his experience of sleeping out for the night.

WAKING up in gale-force winds, soaked to the skin after a few minutes sleep here and there and knowing that the few things you have in your small rucksack are soaked provided the postscript for my first real experience of rough sleeping.

Along with over 50 others – men, women and children from 14 to 70 – I slept out under a dark October canvass on Spike Island as part of a national Shine A Light Night for Focus Ireland. The only difference with those who sleep rough on a daily basis or who have fallen into homelessness being the promise of a return to home later, which of course colours the experience.  Physically and mentally, it was difficult…I can still only imagine what it would be like if this were to be my daily ordeal.

The event had two aims: to raise funds for a charity whose goal is to end homelessness by providing support services and housing units to those who find themselves homeless and also to raise awareness of a situation which has so impacted on Cork and indeed Irish society for the last number of years.

The Sleep out

We gathered on the pier in Cobh at 6.45pm on Friday, October 12th. The group was very varied, with one young boy and his dad doing the event for the second time. A woman in her 70s had flown from London having heard about the homeless situation in her native Cork. The city’s business community was well represented by people working in finance, hospital, media, IT and most of the sectors across the board. Senator Jerry Buttimer, who also had participated previously;,Phillip Gillivan, President of the Cork Business Association and Joey Sheehan also took part as did a four-strong team from 96Fm as well as Irish Independent journalist Ralph Riegel who I’m sure has had nicer venues and conditions for his birthday! Well known food entrepreneurs Cully & Sully were the top fundraisers to date we were told, with some €10,000 raised.

Spirits were generally high as we boarded the ferry for Spike, a place I had been to on many occasions with groups of young people eagerly looking forward to summer activities on an island that is being enhanced by Cork County Council at every turn. This time around, however, we were getting the warts ‘n all immersion with a tour of the ‘punishment room’ and the cells which had housed Martin Cahill,  Brendan O’Donnell among other notorious criminals, embellished by tales of haunted prison corridors and exploits of riots and escape. (The haunted stairwells of the punishment room suddenly looked good later as the new inmates struggled with the conditions outdoors).

Representatives from Focus Ireland briefed the participants on the work of the organisation, with several harrowing stories hitting home of families and children caught up in the chaos of living from day to day in emergency accommodation. These stories were the good ones, however, as they culminated with bright tidings of new homes and completed journeys into the light. After hot drinks and some sandwiches, however, it was our turn to enter the darkness.

We were all handed sheets of cardboard, foam and black plastic. Childhood experiences in the Scouts on Doyle Road in Ballyphehane (the 20th Cork, just to be clear!) were drawn upon which made it easy to help those who were unsure as to how these were to be deployed alongside crucial equipment like groundsheets and sleeping bags. Such items also being all too familiar from walks around Cork City.

Everyone picked a spot in the open courtyard, with the high prison walls providing some low degree of shelter at the beginnings of a night that thankfully appeared tranquil. A few tunes on the iPod from Frank Sinatra and Snow Patrol would surely help with the procession to sleep. Some had come in groups and there was definitely a strength in unity as small conversations rang around the yard, slightly reassuring. Others stayed up well into the darkening morning, their exuberance a bit out of kilter with the nature of the evening, but again it helped to quell the growing unease of the slipping away of our familiar comfort zones.

Despite what I had thought were successful attempts to bed down my space, the elements played havoc with attempts at sleep. A howling wind developed during the early morning which made actual sleep impossible, complicated by the driving rain which was difficult from both feeling and sound points of view. Large sheets of black plastic flew around the space like large crows, for some reason accumulating around my space. Necessity being the mother invention, I packed the extra sheets around me much to the envy of some of my neighbours who had lost theirs! Efforts to cover bags, shoes and the meagre provisions brought along were in vain in the escalating winds. When it was time to go, this was one of the learning experiences of sleeping rough: the prospect of walking around later in wet clothes, and all possessions under threat, after an already difficult night on the outside.

Fleeting bouts of shut-eye, rather than sleep, had given way to a fog horn at 6am to rise. Most people had already moved and deserted the square by that stage, with bits of soaked cardboard and little corrals of black plastic the only signs of existence. Such a sight definitely focused minds at breakfast of coffee and scones; most of us who work and live in the city being all too familiar with these sights in one sense, yet totally unaware of the stories behind them in another. This was the real learning in the experience, along of course with the fundraising support I received from family and friends which will help in a small way in Focus Ireland’s ongoing battle.

Sounds easy and obvious to say, and might appear somewhat trite, but having experienced rough sleeping and being without a home for just one night, the need for this prevailing every-night experience of so many people to be eliminated – estimated conservatively at 10,000 (3,693 of those children) and including all those caught in the whirlwind of sleeping in B&Bs and hotels – should be the main and immediate focus of national and local government

And when we hear our national leaders declare our country is in recovery, I will remember this night on Spike Island – including the video images of a family of five living in one hotel room – until I know that this was a once-off experience for me that is no longer the daily experience of any human being.

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Tags: Awareness, Fundraising, Rough Sleeping

Author: Cllr. Mick Finn

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