Dublin freeman McVerry still wedded to job of ending homelessness
His dog Jack and Sudoku – what more could the campaigning priest want?
Peter McVerry and his dog Jack who are joined by Smokey for their evening walks. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Catching Fr Peter McVerry for a chat is like jumping on a moving train. There is a window of opportunity in Belfield once he has addressed the UCD St Vincent de Paul Society, or he offers to nip out from a workshop he is running at Dalgan Park the next day.
In the end, The Irish Times is allowed to encroach on his one outlet for recreation: an evening stroll in Ballymun with his dog Jack.
“He gets me out a couple of times a day,” he explains when the subject of pastimes comes up. “I do the Sudoku too. That’s sort of an addiction these days.”
Before you can say Love/Hate, though, he adds: “I rarely watch television. There is nothing I would want to see apart from maybe the news. I’m quite happy to read something and be alone and pray and be quiet.”
McVerry has been busying himself since he first opened a hostel for homeless young people in Dublin 34 years ago. The trust that now bears his name spent €7.4 million last year on a variety of services and when McVerry (69) is not checking in on the drug treatment or street-to-home programmes, he is visiting the prisons through which many of his young charges come.
Or he is delivering speeches or writing – he is the author of two books on spirituality and social justice – or he is fundraising, lobbying, agitating, helping or sympathising with people in crisis, or just speaking up for those who can’t get a hearing.
Occasionally he is also picking up awards and, to an already crowded trophy cabinet (needless to say his ascetic lifestyle prohibits him from actually having one), he will add the Freedom of Dublin City early next year. It was announced last week that he will share the honour with rugby star Brian O’Driscoll, both being “inspirational leaders . . . who walk the walk”, Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn noted.
“I’m very honoured by it,” McVerry says, “and appreciate Dublin City Council who I’ve criticised so often in the past. And if it can highlight the issue of homelessness, then it’s a good thing.”
Does the priest, who was born in Belfast and reared in Newry, now feel like a Dub? “No, I don’t,” is the frank reply. “I feel the North is my home still. I feel Dublin is my adopted home. When my mother was alive I used to go home every week, and I still go up and down a lot. It’s a way of staying in touch with my roots.”
The capital city has changed dramatically since he moved south, first to Clongowes as a schoolboy and then to the Jesuits as a novice. “In many ways Dublin has improved enormously – a lot of the slum housing has been eradicated – but in other ways it has disimproved. I think the sense of community has diminished.
“There is a much greater unwillingness to get to know your neighbours now. There is a fear that if your neighbour knows you are out at work all day, they might rob you. That lack of trust runs throughout society.”
Where does the blame lie? Is it with the planners, the council or its predecessor, the Corpo?
“There are much deeper things going on,” he replies. “There’s a very strong sense of individualism, and this was accentuated by the Celtic Tiger years which helped to break down the sense of community and solidarity that was there.
“The idea that life is all about getting, getting, getting – having a car, holidays, houses – all of that contributed to the breaking down. People started seeing each other as a threat – a threat to their job or their income or their place in society. The gated communities are a symbol of what is happening in Ireland. People are cutting themselves off rather than reaching out. People are seeking to protect themselves from others.”
He takes pride in the fact that “we reach out to more homeless people ever than in the past; the service we provide now is far more professional and a higher quality than when we started”.
But having to fight on the issue all these years later “does make me angry – because it’s not necessary for young people to be homeless in 2013”.
He has come to terms with priestly life in a church that he has described as “the single biggest obstacle to God and faith”. The latest pope – a fellow Jesuit – has put a spring in his step. “There is a real sense of relief that something has changed. I think we are moving into a much healthier church, which I hope will put social justice at the heart of its agenda.”
While he has occasionally wondered what it would have been like to have lived an ordinary life, he notes marriage wouldn’t have been compatible with the sort of workaholic vocation to which he is wedded and from which he says he gets great satisfaction.
For family, he has the Jack Russell that he took into his home 10 years ago. “Actually, I’ve one and a half dogs,” he says. There was another abandoned dog that used to sleep the odd night in his Ballymun flat but would then disappear for long periods.
“I moved to a different block when mine was being demolished, and one day I found him outside the front door of the third-floor flat I’d moved into. He’d found his way to me.” Smokey now stays with a neighbour but joins him and Jack on their evening walks.
In the latest newsletter of his charity, McVerry reflects on his own legacy, asking rhetorically: “Why do I keep going?” He replies by telling the story of a child who is walking along the beach, picking up a starfish as he goes and throwing it back into the sea.
“A man comes along and asks the child: ‘What are you doing? There are thousands of starfish on the beach. What difference do you think you’re making?’ And the child picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. ‘I’m making a difference to that starfish,’ he replied.”