From personal experience, a stroll through the streets of Dublin on Christmas Eve makes for a trip marred by juxtapositions. The splendour and shine of the capital’s lights – competing for attention with resplendent shop windows – contrasts with a startling, and frankly, sickening number of rough sleepers on makeshift beds. This sight is enough to make any onlooker wish away the excesses of the festive season; not to mention dull the glisten and glean of those Christmas lights.
Writing in any terms – grandiose or otherwise – that the city’s homeless crisis is on the increase is, by now, breaking news for no-one. Nor is the fact that some charity centres and hospices giving continual care to their patients face genuine financial struggles amidst a season known for its indulgent expenditures.
Where a spotlight truly deserves to be shone is on the trailblazers who, with those harrowing homeless statistics in mind, make fantastic strides every Christmas to fundraise, donate, clothe, feed and (crucially) give warm and welcoming company.
Their actions are a welcome antidote to what is, in less fortunate cases, the loneliest time of the year.
William Tilly’s Phantasmagorical Garden, Bath Avenue – in aid of Harold’s Cross Hospice
Even the staunchest of Scrooges will have their cockles warmed by William Tilly’s festive front garden. Boasting a fantastical display of multi-hued reindeers and smiling Santas, he sets up this eye-popping assortment just before the first main rugby match of November and winds down the decorations every year on the 6th of January.
At 82 years young, raising funds for those less fortunate is an inherent part of Tilly’s DNA, first evidenced in the raffles he would run in aid of blind children while working in the ESB. He and his wife (who passed away 22 years ago) would always put out a few outdoor lights for their family of six children, but this fundraising endeavour of his officially commenced 8 years ago. Initially encouraging donations for a variety of different causes – from the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin to Brother Kevin’s Capuchin Day Centre – Tilly then settled on the Harold’s Cross Hospice, having remembered the time they cared for his uncle 40 years ago when he had little to no family around him. Since then, the garden’s success has been staggering – a recent report given by the Hospice shows that over €91,000 has been raised, in well under a decade of existence.
Wide-eyed children flock from neighbourhoods near and far to explore this winter wonderland, with Tilly and his family merrily giving out sweets and Santa hats as kids queue up. To build up momentum for the 25th, the light display is left on longer and longer as each day passes; starting off with 5-7:30pm on November nights, it builds to 1am on the last week before Christmas.
The piece de resistance of this year’s festivities will take place on the evening of Saturday 9th December, which will see Santy (formerly known as Tilly’s good friend Deco) ride onto Bath Avenue on a Harley Davidson. Alongside a generous assemblage of kids presents covered by Tesco, Tilly also has €300 worth of surplus gifts stored away, all purchased out of his own pocket – additional proof that in this household, joy is both physically and figuratively in plentiful supply. A warm mention must also be made to Tilly’s other sponsors: The Bath, a beloved neighbourhood watering hole who cover the garden’s ESB bill each Christmas.
With a goal of raising €100,000 at the forefront of his mind, Tilly can’t imagine calling time on his glittering garden anytime soon: “[My] kids do be saying to me, ‘Da, will you give it up?’ but the joy this gives me.. I can’t describe it.”
Care After Prison Christmas Concert, featuring Focus Ireland’s High Hopes Choir
With its unique positioning as Ireland’s first peer led charity organisation, Care After Prison understands the importance of inclusion better than most. Its philosophy centres on offering an ongoing support system to those affected by imprisonment – from ex-offenders and their families to victims of crime. Diversity in CAP’s core members has been palpable from the outset: the charity’s principal team stretches from parole-board members and prison Chaplains to former convicts, all demonstrating remarkable insight into the psyche of CAP’s target population. As its CSS Manager Aisling Meyler reiterates, “[we] work off the ethos that everyone deserves a second chance, and with enough support and motivation anyone can change to lead crime free lives.”
This mission manifests in the form of free counselling for families and loved ones of those under, or awaiting, sentences, partnerships with a number of specialised help systems for victims of crime (available around the clock, seven days a week) and informative, supportive sessions for ex-prisoners that cater both to their practical and their emotional needs.
Considering CAP’s core values, it couldn’t be more fitting that the charity’s inaugural Christmas Concert on Thursday 14th December will champion inclusiveness. Featuring an eclectic mix of music and poetry in the 19th century surrounds of Whitefriar Street Church, the most prominent performers of the night will likely be the High Hopes Choir.
The latter was conceived three years ago by internationally-acclaimed Irish conductor David Brophy, who was spurred on by a strong desire to help homeless people across the country and change their lives through music. The ensemble is made up by a number of individuals affected by homelessness, and has a multitude of aurally-arresting concerts under its belt: from stints at Electric Picnic to garden-party gatherings at Áras an Uachtaráin.
Tickets range from €15 for Students, Seniors & unwaged to €40 for a Family ticket – full details can be found on careafterprison.ie.
The Christmas Day Dinner, Knights of the Order of Saint Columbanus
On the cusp of celebrating 93 consecutive years in operation, this seasonal offshoot of the Knights proves an indispensable presence every 25th December. Operating on full steam during a day when Dublin’s regular homeless services have shut their doors, the Christmas Day Dinner committee kick-start operations at 10am from their decorated RDS base. Last year saw a free shuttle coach service depart every 20 minutes from 9:30am onwards, setting off from Dawson Street (opposite the Mansion House), Inns Quay (by the Four Courts Buildings) and O’Connell Street (at Clery’s Clock). A return service commenced from 12:45pm, catering to the needs of over 400 RDS guests in need of shelter.
As Adrian King, Chairperson of the Christmas Day Dinner Committee, affirms, an all-embracing environment is created for “the homeless, the poor and any other person who may have little food or money”. Over 3,500 hot, three-course Christmas meals were rustled up by 300+ volunteers last year – the same number of helpers has been confirmed for 2017’s edition. These figures also encompass the production of “take-away” Christmas dinners, especially created for those unable to travel on the day, which are delivered thanks to the efforts of St. Vincent de Paul, Simon, Age Action and a plethora of additional charities.
Both RDS guests and take-away recipients benefit from the bonus “goody-bags” or hampers that accompany each dinner; bursting with everyday essentials such as toiletries, household products, warm and woollen hats, gloves and scarves, fresh foodstuffs and festive treats.
Devised to help their receivers beyond Christmas and into St Stephen’s Day (when services for those less fortunate are still closed), these morale-boosting packages are preceded by a host of spirited entertainers. Last year’s musical guests included Kevin Warren’s Irish dancing ensemble, the John Dooley-directed “Christmas Day Dinner Choir” and the sonorous outpourings of mezzo soprano Norah King. Their performances made the ultimate finishing touch to a day filled with laughter, shelter and togetherness: values that this holiday season should, universally, always strive to inspire. christmasdaydinner.com
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady
Photos: Malcolm McGettigan (William Tilly, Aisling Meyer)
Karen Wade (Adrian King group shot)