Former Defence Forces members find shelter in hostel

Brú na Bhfiann offers a haven for retired personnel down on their luck

A homeless initiative run for ex-personnel of the Defence Forces is close to capacity and homeless veterans has 'become a huge problem' in recent years. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Mick Tynan served 37 years in the Defence Forces. Aged 61 and retired from the Army, he didn’t expect to find himself homeless. But that is what life has dished up for him.

Were it not for former comrades who run Brú na Bhfiann, the six storey hostel for former Defence Force members down on their luck, ex-quartermaster sergeant Tynan might be grappling with rents beyond his means or, like many other, he might be reduced to sleeping rough.

Tynan wears his travails lightly. A small man, wiry and fit-looking, he pads about the roof garden of Brú na Bhfiann in Dublin’s Smithfield tending potted plants and bestowing loving attention on a tiny chestnut bonsai tree, grown from a chestnut he pocketed some years ago in Munich.

“I love that plant,” he says as though doting on a favourite child.

The Army was Mick Tynan’s life. In fact, it was his family’s life.

His grandfather fought (and survived) in the Somme. His father spent his working life in the Defence Forces and so it can hardly have surprised anyone that Michael, signing up for the FCA in 1972, joined the permanent Defence Forces in 1975 and remained in until 2012.

He saw four tours of United Nations duty in the Lebanon, and one each in Liberia and Bosnia. He loved the soldier’s life.

“It was a great life,” he says. “I’d go back tomorrow. It was hard times. It was good times. . . There’s three things I miss about the Army – the crack, the overseas and the free medical!”

But perhaps most, he misses the camaraderie that comes with soldiering. During his time, he saw the Army embrace higher training standards and become better equipped.

“No matter where we go overseas, everyone’s in awe of our equipment, the way we’re trained, and how good we are.”

Not long after he retired, Tynan’s marriage ran into trouble, he was forced to sell the family home to settle debts but made himself homeless in the process.

He turned for help to Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann, the organisation which seeks to ensure the welfare of ex-Defence Force service personnel – much of it through the Brú na Bhfiann hostel in Dublin, as well as two other houses in Athlone and Letterkenny and an expanding number of veteran support centres, mostly linked to Defence Force barracks around the country.

Brú na Bhfiann (Home of the Warrior) is a six storey hostel built in 2004/5 as part of the huge apartment development on the western side of the old Smithfield market square. It has 30 bedrooms for homeless ex-service people and 10 other rooms (three of them doubles) that serving and retired personnel can rent for one-off individual stays.

The whole place is modern, clean and bright and is filled with the sort of photographic and flag memorabilia that one would expect to find in an ex-serviceman’s facility.

A leaflet in the entrance hall beside the sign-in book tells its own story, however. Produced by the Defence Forces’ personnel support services, the leaflet has one word on its front in big capital letters: suicide.

Inside is pertinent advice on signs to recognise (in oneself and others), coping tips and advice about turning to others for help.

Hostel residents

Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann chief executive Ollie O’Connor and hostel manager, retired Regimental Sergeant Major Richard Dillon, speak of the former soldiers who have been through the hostel, some for a matter of weeks, some staying for years before getting their lives back on track.

Some do, and then slip back; some are overcome by depression (for a variety of personal and, perhaps, service-related reasons) take their own lives and some others never check in to Brú na Bhfiann, but lurk outside, across the road, perhaps too embarrassed or shy to take that necessary step of seeking help.

“The vast majority of people coming through here, it’s marital breakdown, it’s family breakdown, it’s a severe lack of affordable accommodation, a lack of social housing,” says O’Connor.

In 2016, Brú na Bhfiann cost €838,000 to run. Of that, €183,000 came in the form of a grant from the Dublin Regional Homeless organisation and €44,000 from the Department of Defence.

The remaining €600,000 has to be raised through fund-raising by the organisation’s 1,400 members across 39 branches, and also from letting those 10 rooms.

But the single most significant contribution is by way of the Fuchsia Appeal – the fuchsia, which grows wild in the west of Ireland, was chosen as the veteran’s care symbol in memory Trooper Pat Mullins from Donegal and Private Caomhán Seoighe from the Aran Islands, the only two Defence Force soldiers to have died overseas and whose bodies were not recovered.

The month-long fund raising appeal - which was launched on Wednesday by Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett and runs throughout July - has a target this year of €150,000. But what’s missing, according to O’Connor and Dillon, is certitude of funding, as well as the amount given by the State.

The organisation hopes to make a sustained effort to tap into corporate sponsorship. The head of one foreign owned company with an operation in Dublin learnt recently about Brú na Bhfiann, came to visit and immediately donated €20,000.

Dillon argues with passion that the State owes something to former Defence Force personnel down on their uppers, many of them with no service pension or a very small one.

“The amount of hours that people spent in shitty ditches on roads, on the rooftop of Portlaoise Prison, in Mountjoy, all those cash escorts, explosives escorts - that gave the State stability,” says Dillon. “Why can’t we get [financial] stability from the same State?

“We don’t want millions... We just want you to support us with the stability that you could give us.”

Back on the roof, Mick Tynan pots up a neglected geranium and counts his blessings that former comrades in arms are giving him the helping hand he needs.