Rising debt – An Irishman’s Diary about the Mendicity Institution

One of Ireland’s oldest charities and 1916

Among the unfinished business of 1916, politics aside, is the small matter of £104.14s still owed to the Mendicity Institution in Dublin 8. The bill arises because the homelessness charity, then based in a house facing the Liffey at Usher’s Island, was a rebel garrison during Easter Week, and the scene of fierce fighting. In fact, the total damage was estimated at £391.9s, of which the then government paid £286.15.

But that still leaves the aforementioned £104.14s outstanding in the books. And using the helpful "pint of plain index" provided by the adjacent Guinness's Brewery, the Mendicity's manager Charles Richards puts the sum's modern value at "€48,000". As the centenary of the Rising nears, Richards will be writing to Irish and British officials, and "anyone else who might listen", about how they could help achieve "closure" on the matter.

The "Mendo", as it is known, will have its own major anniversary in the foreseeable future. It turns 200 in 2018, making it the second oldest charity in Dublin, after the Sick & Indigent Roomkeepers Society.

Like the latter’s, its name may need explaining to a modern audience. It dates from a time when, after the Napoleonic Wars, mendicity (ie begging) was rampant on Dublin’s streets. The emphasis was on suppressing what was considered a public nuisance, albeit by philanthropic means.

That the charity was still needed in 1916, and remains so today, is an illustration of the truth of Yeats's poem about what Parnell said to the cheering man: "Ireland shall have her freedom and you [will] still break stone." But during Easter Week, at least, it wasn't supposed to play such a prominent role.

The original plan was that Sean Heuston and his small party would hold it for a few hours, just long enough to distract troops from the Royal Barracks across the river while the garrison at the Four Courts established itself.

In the event, the Heuston contingent held on for three days, by which time it had tied down several hundred troops.  Towards the end of the fighting, it’s said that the outgunned rebels resorted to catching the hand-grenades being hurled at them and throwing them back – a dangerous game.

Nothing the modern-day Mendo has to do is quite a risky as that. But it has its own dangers, and the problems thrown at it by a society are sometimes too hot to handle.

It was unusual for a while in operating a Sunday service, when other food charities were closed. That became unsustainable, unfortunately, due to the violent behaviour of some of those turning up.

The charity continues to provide dinners six days a week, however, and still houses an after-school homework club (with food) for local children.  But in recent times, its remit has expanded to other areas, such as dealing with homeless migrants.

The problem came to a head in 2011, when three street drinkers of eastern European origin died in quick succession. Since then the institution has been working with a Polish charity called Barka (“Ark”), which tries to rescue such people and get them into detox facilities back home.

The modern Mendo operates a "shed" and workshop where men on the streets can occupy themselves and do gainful work. They make sleeping bags according to the design of Emily Duffy, a Limerick schoolgirl whose idea featured at this year's Young Scientist competition.

Using non-flammable material, with quick-opening velcro straps, the bags are intended to minimise the dangers to homeless sleepers, one of whom was set on fire, fatally, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park two years ago.

In giving homeless men work (with some small payment), the Mendicity is returning to its roots, when mere handouts were frowned upon. But the core service of daily dinners – 25,000 a year – is still dispensed on a no-questions-asked basis. A visitor might look too well-dressed to need one. It doesn’t matter. He or she won’t be required to explain.

An irony of the institution's address, by the way, is that it shares a city block with No 15 Usher's Island – the location (via James Joyce's The Dead) of literature's most famous dinner, now regularly recreated for special occasions.

Happily, the Mendo benefits from this. It gets the proceeds from an annual Feast of the Epiphany banquet in Arthur’s Bar, on Thomas Street. But if you can’t make that this January 6th, the institution will always welcome direct donations, which can be sent to its address at 9 Island Street, Dublin 8.