A semi derlict 3 story house on the corner of Charlotte Quay ajoining a river in the old Irishtown was selected to be a “Simon Community”.
In the early 70s this was a movement with the aim of providing night shelter and food for homeless men. The house had about 10 rooms with bare timber floors. We fitted 50 beds into them, put a kitchen together, called ourselves “volunteers” and we were open for business or “clients”.
Everything was free to the clients with only 2 rules: no drink and no fighting.
The house quickly filled up and for the following 3 years I spent from 6 pm every Saturday to 10 am on Sunday there.
Each night of the week had its own crew. It was a twilight world that few people come in contact with….the world of the homeless who come in every shape and size and all ages.
The experience for me was, at times, enlightining, sad, humourous and, heartbreaking. But never never boring.
A neighbour of my wife to be at that time congratulated her on her engagement to me and remarked how brave she was, thinking I was a “client”. So much for my dress sense.
I remember so many “characters” who inhabited this world, all gone now to the great nightshelter in the sky.
There was Jack, a gentle soul, who spent most of his life operating a crane in Limerick docks. But he had no family. I remember so well Jack sitting on a stairs under a bare lightbulb indulging in his only hobby – reading “zane greys” American cowboy novels.
His sight began to go so we bought him reading glasses; but over time his sight got worse, where it got to the point we bought him a big magnifying glass and Jack struggled on reading his “zane greys”. One Saturday night we found Jack sitting in a chair, no book in his hands. He had given up the struggle. His only pleasure in life denied him.
Gabe. Now here was a man whose only mission in life was to drink as much as possible in the shortest possible time.
He was always a gentleman and very inteligent. Each December he would commit a crime…. to wit; a breezeblock into a shop window.
In court, conducting his own defence, he would urge the judge to impose a one month prison sentence, (he was on first name terms with the judge) The judge usualy obliged and so Gabe would spent christmas and new year in a nice warm cosy cell well fed; and even a few bottles allowed on Christmas day with his dinner.
Cowboy was a man who stood 5 feet tall in his socks but he had a big heart and was always willing to help prepare food and dispense the tea and coffee. His constant companion was a photograph of his ex wife. They had parted 30 years previously.
When he had a few drinks, he would profess his love for her and on quite a few ocassions he would announce that he was depressed and was going to drown himself in the river across the street. Of course we tried to comfort him and make a fuss over him until I realised this announcement was only made when there was a low tide and the water would not reach his ankles. It was his way of getting a bit of attention.
Pat was a light fingered, “gentleman” (so I left my wallet at home every Saturday night). He divided his time between “the Simon” and the prison.
Each time he was about to serve a sentence he would ask me for a radio and I would oblige. Until I found out he was making the same request to dozens of other people. He had a nice little business going selling radios to the prison inmates.
All through the night the house was constantly patrolled for signs of a smoking blanket from a dropped cigarette or to comfort a sick client. On a few occasions someone would die in their sleep.
Many friendships were formed during that time over the endless cups of coffee and tea through the night in that creaky old house which would become silent by about 2am.
Preparing breakfast began at 6 AM. The huge pot of porridge, gallons of tea and coffee and the endless buttering of bread. The house would be buzzing again by 7 AM and the clients, fed, would, Winter and Summer leave the house to face another day on the streets of Limerick until the Sunday night crew would open the doors again at 6PM.
A sad existence and a constant battle to maintain their dignity living in the twilight world of the homeless.
Today the city has a custom built hostel run full time by a religious order. The old creaky house on Charlotte Quay was pulled down in the late 70s and expensive appartments built there. But anytime I pass by I remember the sights sounds and smells of “the Simon.
Liz M says
I enjoyed reading this story. Reminds me of a good friend of mine. She has a one bedroom 1st floor apartment for herself and her son. She feels sorry for others and takes them in. Now the 4 of them live there and on random nights, so do another half dozen. She needs a place like the “Simon.” God Bless her heart.
eugene toner says
i remember gabe and cowboy and i have a framed picture of the latter.
Marian Dineen says
Glad you wrote the article, Billy. I remember you well. I was also a volunteer at that time. They were a great group of people to work with.