Peter McVerry’s story and the destruction of Dublin’s inner city

A documentary about Peter McVerry asks harsh questions of the government, and wonders who will take up the baton for the homeless and marginalised in Dublin

 Fr Peter McVerry in May this year.  Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

Fr Peter McVerry in May this year. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

In a week when Mother Teresa has been controversially canonised, RTÉ turns its cameras on a man who works with homeless people in Dublin’s inner city. Peter McVerry: The View from the Basement (Tuesday, RTE One, 10.15pm) tells the story of the Jesuit priest from Newry who has devoted his life to helping disadvantaged people in the poorest parts of the capital. Is he a saint? Perhaps not, but he’s certainly someone who’s found his calling.

McVerry grew up in Newry and had a privileged life; he attended Clongowes Wood College, where he played for the cricket team and excelled in maths and chemistry (he tried to come up with a formula for predicting the distance between atoms in a molecule). As he describes it, his innate sense of faith and service led him to join the Jesuits at age 18.

We learn he was a conformist, never questioning authority, never challenging the status quo, never shaking the tree. That all changed when he was sent to teach in Dublin’s inner city as part of his Jesuit training. He was posted to Belvedere, the fee-paying school in the heart of Dublin’s north inner city, but when he saw the utter poverty and deprivation that lay on the other side of the school walls, he and two other priests volunteered to move into a tenement in Summerhill and try to minister to the poorest flock in Ireland.

“I went into the inner city with a very middle-class attitude,” he admits. “Here were young people who were out robbing and I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to come in here and change these young people.’ The only person who had changed was me.”

This is not just the story of McVerry: it’s the story of the systematic destruction of Dublin’s inner city, first by wrong-headed planners, then by a heroin epidemic, and now by the escalating, increasingly violent feuds between rival drug gangs. The Summerhill tenements were demolished to make way for office buildings, making many families homeless. The Ballymun towers were built without regard for the basic needs of people who would end up rotting away there. McVerry set up a hostel in one of the tower flats, which often housed up to 15 homeless young people. In one poignant scene, some of the survivors look over old photos of life in the cramped flat.

When the Matt Talbot bridge was opened in 1978 with great fanfare, McVerry condemned it from the pulpit. He was angry that the government had spent a million quid to help middle-class people shave three minutes off their journey back to the leafy suburbs, when abject poverty was happening just a stone’s throw away from the bridge. From then on he became more of an activist, badgering politicians to act on homelessness and addiction, and going to court to force the government to abide by child protection laws. Eventually the workload became so great, it necessitated the setting up of the Peter McVerry trust.

The programme ends with the pertinent question of who will take up the baton for the homeless and marginalised in Dublin after McVerry dies (he is now in his 70s). Is McVerry a saint? Perhaps he is, but he certainly wouldn’t want anyone wasting money on a canonisation ceremony while there’s still poverty to be fought.

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