After two centuries, Dublin's oldest charity is still helping the deserving cases that other bodies can't reach, reports Rosita Boland.
Anyone observant who wanders around Dublin will have noticed the distinctive building on Palace Street, at the entrance to Dublin Castle, with its intriguing lettering on the facade: "Sick & Indigent Roomkeepers Society. Founded 1790." There are other buildings around the city, where similar kinds of lettering still remain on facades and gable walls, advertising foodstuffs or merchants or grocers. Mostly, the products or places they advertise have long since disappeared, and only the faint lettering tells of what was once there.
Despite being more than two centuries old, and having moved from its Palace Street premises in 1992, the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society is thriving. It's a remarkable testament both to the people who set it up and to those who have kept it going over the decades.
Georgian Dublin may have had its fine buildings which housed the wealthy, but then, as now, there was also a sector of its population who struggled financially. Whole extended families often lived in one room, in dire poverty. Often, their only hope of improving their lives while recovering from sickness or waiting to get a job was by benefiting from one of the charities established at the time.
The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society was founded by seven tradesmen with a social conscience. They were: Samuel Rosborough, linen draper; Christopher Connolly and Patrick Magin, both grocers; Philip Shea, carpenter; Michael Stedman, stonecutter; Peter Fleming, fruitseller; Timothy Nowlan, pawnbroker; and Laurence Toole, schoolmaster. They first met on March 15th, 1790, and as Deirdre Lindsay recounts in her book, Dublin's Oldest Charity, they resolved that the society be formed to benefit "Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers of all religious persuasions in the city of Dublin". Members set a subscription of 2d a week. Monies were then to be distributed to people in need, as recommended by members.
In 2005, the society still operates, in Dublin city and county, for exactly the same reasons for which it was set up. In the intervening two centuries, the society has accumulated a sizeable amount of capital, mostly through bequests or donations. This money is invested in stocks and shares, and the society makes its charitable payments from the interest. Last year, it helped 373 families, spending an average of €624 in each case.
As recently as 20 years ago, people came directly to the Palace Street premises. "If they were registered with the parish, a family could get up to £40 a year, as well as sheets and blankets," explains the charity's current chairwoman, Aphria O'Brien.
The charity is now based in rented premises in Lower Leeson Street, with a board of 15 people, who meet once a month. The Palace Street building was sold because it needed major and costly renovations requiring money that would, the charity felt, be better spent in other ways. The move to Leeson Street also coincided with a change in the way that cases were assessed and funds allocated. At the monthly meetings, the board now considers cases which are put to them by various social welfare bodies, such as Mabs, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service.
So what kind of case does the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society now support? As it is a private charity, it has the flexibility to give assistance in cases which would not qualify for help by State-run organisations. For example, if you went to a social welfare office and asked for money to go on the first foreign holiday of your life, they would probably laugh you out of the building. But this is what one young mother with multiple sclerosis asked Derval Murray, senior social worker in neurology, at Tallaght Hospital last year.
"She was a single mother of a young son on a low income, and she had developed MS. She had had to give up work," Murray explains. "To go away anywhere, she would have had to have help. The money allowed them to go away to the Canaries for a short holiday with her parents. It was a wonderful opportunity to give her and her son some quality of life. The charity is invaluable to Dublin - it can do unusual things for people."
Lorraine Waters, co-ordinator of Mabs in Dublin South-East, has referred several cases to the charity.
"We had one family of a young couple in their mid-20s, with three children," she says. "One of the children was diagnosed with severe muscular dystrophy. The father was on a very low income, and since so much time was spent with the child in hospital, he missed a lot of work. They got behind with all their bills and rent, and their phone and cable was cut off. What the charity did was clear their bills, set up a token pay-as-you-go system for their electricity and reconnect the phone and cable TV. With a sick child at home long-term, they thought having TV in the house was important. With most bodies, something like that wouldn't be a priority."
If the charity hadn't helped that family to a fresh start, they would have had little option other than to go to a moneylender, Waters believes.
"That would have been digging a deeper hole for themselves," she adds.
Sometimes the charity helps people who don't even ask for help. Last year it funded an elderly couple whose bed had collapsed and broken. For more than a year, they had been sleeping in armchairs, a fact discovered only when a social welfare officer arrived early one day and found them still asleep. The charity bought them a bed and mattress.
The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society's annual church-gate collection will be held in Dublin this Sunday. To contact the society, tel: 01 6769191