Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name . . .

Crosscare Cafe in Dublin’s inner city is a meeting place for the whole community

Crosscare staff member Denis Middleton serving customers Teresa Adams, Anne Grimes and Dazy Maher at the Crosscare Cafe on Portland Row. Photograph: Alan Betson

Crosscare staff member Denis Middleton serving customers Teresa Adams, Anne Grimes and Dazy Maher at the Crosscare Cafe on Portland Row. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00

“I feel welcome here,” says Gillian as we sit on couches at Crosscare’s Community Cafe on Portland Row in Dublin’s north inner city. She’s on methadone after years of heroin use and doesn’t feel very welcome in many places.

“A lot of us wouldn’t be accepted in cafes around the city centre,” explains her friend Damian. “You’d get asked to leave, for no reason whatsoever.”

“People look at us differently,” says Gillian. They talk a little about their issues with drugs, how addiction crept up on them.

“One day you wake up and realise your life is ruined,” says Damian, who used heroin for 14 years and has a bit of a tremor in his voice.

Crosscare, the social support agency of the Dublin Archdiocese, delivers services such as meals to young people, the homeless and others in need within the greater Dublin area.

One of the things Gillian likes about the Community Cafe is that her mother also comes here, so she gets to see her more often. There aren’t many places where different parts of the community can meet. Recently, seats were removed from along the nearby canal to discourage drug dealers who congregated there. “I feel sorry for the old people who used to like to sit there to feed the birds,” says Damian.

It was important for Michael McDonagh, senior manager for food services at Crosscare, that the cafe become a multigenerational space for the whole community. It’s a warm, well-lit, newly designed dining room with two computers, a silk print image of Audrey Hepburn, a shelf of books, and a modernist-looking grandfather clock.

“Every person is created in the image and likeness of God,” reads an inscription on the wall. Anyone is welcome and while clients include older and more vulnerable people, they also include mothers with children, students and office workers on their lunch breaks.

Community spirit

The food kitchen that was here two years ago, run by the now retired S

r Magdalene McHugh, was a more traditional, old-fashioned place that catered mainly for older people.

“Sr Magdalene was lovely,” says a man called David Gray (“I’m not the singer!” he stresses). “She used to come over and say ‘Come on now get that dinner down ye’ like a real mammy. Everything came from cans . . . corned beef.”

“She made you say grace,” chuckles 63-year-old Ann Grimes, who has been bringing her elderly neighbours here for years.

Grimes’s own indomitable community spirit was evident in a YouTube clip in which she can be heard bravely intervening when two men were attacked on Talbot Street. “Ah here, leave it out!” she yelled, becoming an unwitting internet sensation.

“It went haywire,” she says. “It was in the paper. On the radio. But it was good fun. I was even with the Jedwards for two weeks. They’re lovely but they’re wired up. They have people tying their laces for them!”

“Leave it out!” calls a man from across the room. She rolls her eyes.

Everyone here seems to know one another. David Gray sits every day with his friend Theresa Graham. “I never knew her before but I made great friends with her the minute I came in,” says Gray. “The first day she made me feel really at home. Is it strange for a man and woman to have a lot in common?”

He starts listing the things they have in common: “We both like punctuality. We don’t like sloppiness. When we lend things we like them to be given back without having to ask.”

Gray and Graham have both had a hard time recently. Graham lost her partner two years ago. Gray suffers from hepatitis C. He gives us an unflinchingly gory description of a recent medical procedure. Graham talks a little about Elvis, whom she loves, and whose image adorns the walls of her flat. “I saw him in Graceland,” she says.

“Well you didn’t see him. You saw his tomb,” says Gray, correcting her gently. “I’m more of a Boy George fan myself.”

Everyone mingles

At lunch time, the room fills with people from nearby colleges and workplaces and everyone mingles together. A high-quality, three-course meal costs €3.

Seventy-five-year-old Patrick Maguire is wearing a striking pair of red-tinted glasses because “I saw Elton John wearing them and I thought ‘I’m getting a pair of them!’” He spent years as a cocktail barman in London. One of his specialities was called ‘Pat’s Delight’.

A man with a cracked voice tells me about losing three family members to Aids right at the start of the HIV epidemic. “The prison guards came into my brother in suits with masks on them, all plastic, and told him he had to get out, that he had three weeks to live,” he says and his eyes well up. He lives in sheltered housing. He doesn’t give his name.

Liam Kitt was once an investment banker. He touches his head and makes a sizzling sound, to indicate, I think, what a Satanic livelihood this was. “The library used to be the fulcrum of a community,” he says, “now I think it’s the community cafe.”

Stephen Doody, studying fine art at DIT, thinks that supporting local initiatives like this is very important.

“There are lots of little community theatre groups and community gardens around Dublin. There’s a lot of community out there if you look for it.”

The staff of Crosscare like to see to see different parts of the community mixing.

“You see people from the area meeting who haven’t seen each other for years,” says Dennis Middleton as he serves up coffee.

Michael McDonagh calls it “a melting pot. You hear stories of older people being afraid to go to the shop because of a gang of young lads hanging around.

“Here, older people and younger people get to know each other again. They sit beside each other . . . There’s never any trouble. They see this as a safe space and they protect it.”

Edie Collins comes here every day with her son Brian. Up until last year, Brian says, she did all her neighbours’ gardens for no fee. “Well, I loved gardening and hated to see their gardens overgrown,” says Edie. “They were too old to do it.”

Giving ashes

On Ash Wednesday, Edie was in the church, saw a bowl of blessed ashes, filled some bags with it and brought it to the cafe. “I ended up going around the room giving everyone the ashes.”

“They all wanted it,” says Brian. “They all had ashes by the end.”

So there’s a real community here? “There is,” says Brian. On cue, David Gray comes over to reiterate “how accepting everyone here is”. He seems a bit moved by it.

“Sure, you’re one of the family,” says Brian and pats his arm.