‘I think, in his own way, he’s galvanised the community... he’s taught us about the need for compassion’
Inner city community buries homeless man who slept rough for more than 20 years
Few people knew the name of the man in the doorway – but almost everyone knew him to see.
With his wispy white hair and flowing beard, he walked the streets of Dublin’s south inner city with a Dunnes Stores bag in one hand and a bundle of newspapers in the other.
For about 20 years, he used a sheltered alcove on Oliver Bond Street as a place to sleep.
He spent most of his days picking up litter, placing it in bins, or sitting for hours at a time in the local churches.
Children in the area called him “Moses” or “Santy”. Other knew him simply as “Dusty” or “John”. No one knew for sure. He was an intensely private person who refused most offers of support or accommodation.
He died last January, aged 83. In temperatures of close to freezing, he was brought to St James’s Hospital where he died a fortnight later. His funeral was delayed for almost two months to allow time to find relatives, although gardaí weren’t able to find any.
It was a death that might ordinarily have gone unnoticed in the often harsh and hostile world of the inner city.
Yesterday, however, more than 150 people – locals, shopkeepers, regular Massgoers – gathered to remember a man to whom few people had ever spoken. Dozens of floral tributes and cards have been gathering in the doorway where he died over recent weeks.
“I think, in his own way, he’s galvanised the community,” said Jane Forde, a local nun who stayed with him during his final days in hospital.
“You know, people say the country is banjaxed and that we’re a less caring society, but the care and offers of support he got from people shows another side to society. He taught us about the need for compassion and the importance of reaching out to people in need.”
Few knew much about the man in the doorway until he was brought to hospital in January this year. For neighbours such as Teresa Hogan, his background was a mystery.
“For 20 years he was in the same spot every morning and evening, facing my flat,” she says.
“He could have been vulnerable, but everyone looked after him or kept an eye out for him.”
“He always struck me as well-educated or well brought up. He was so clean and so independent. He would dress neatly and tidy up after himself. I don’t know, there was just something about him. And his skin – his skin was beautiful.”
Rumours swirled around about him: some speculated he was previously an academic, others were adamant his brother was a member of the judiciary or the medical establishment. In truth, no one knew.
At a distance
He kept people at a distance. Anyone who offered help or approached him out of the blue – care workers, priests or locals – could either get a gruff “thank you”, or else get drowned in a hail of expletives.
“To live on the streets, you have to be a bit tough,” Tony Geoghegan of the Merchant’s Quay Project says. “If you’re vulnerable, people will just take advantage of you. I think he learned that. You need a hard veneer to keep people away who might prey on you.”
People who helped him tended to offer support in subtle ways: outreach workers from various charities often left food or blankets outside his doorway; at the charity shop where he bought clothes, they would put aside items they felt he might want or need; others might leave money under his blanket if he was asleep.
Bernie Houlihan, an outreach worker with the Merchant’s Quay Project, was one of those who helped arrange for him to collect his pension. It mostly seemed to go on getting his regular dinner of egg and chips at Vincenzo’s, the local chipper, buying clothes from the charity shop or a few cans of beer.
No one might have known his name – until Jane Forde sat with him during the final days of his life at the intensive care unit at St James’s Hospital. The doctors found he was terminally ill from cancer.
When she arrived at the hospital, she says he spoke to her for the first time. “He said, ‘you’re the woman who gave me a walking stick’,” she recalls. “And then he told me his name, Ned Delahunty, and that he was 83. I was shocked. I thought, maybe this was a man in his 60s.”
In his final days, he took a turn. “I held his hand – and he didn’t push me away. At one point, I think he asked me, ‘Do you think I’m going to die’ . . .
“I felt privileged to be able to sit and hold his hand each night, even though he had kept many of us at a distance for so long.”
The care from the doctors and nurses at the hospital, she says, was excellent. “They couldn’t have been kinder. If it was my own grandfather, I couldn’t have been happier with the care he received.”
He died peacefully on January 17th.
The life of Ned Delahunty, the man in the doorway, remains a mystery. For locals such as Julie Howley, his life and death meant something more.
“I feel that his one story throws up the real challenge of our time,” she says. “As a society we share a responsibility to challenge the systemic issues that stack the odds against certain people and lead to them living, and sometimes dying, in appalling conditions.
“But it is also our job to enable the individual’s story to be heard so that they won’t be just a statistic but a real and full human being.”