August 8th: The Magic of Wicklow

After a busy week of interviews, research, and gallivanting across Dublin, I decided to escape the city for a bit and spend sometime in the Irish countryside. From what my host family told me, there’s no better place to be on a rare sunny day than Glendalough, home of the enchantingly beautiful Wicklow Mountains.  From my view, the mountains are somewhat of a metaphor for Irish Culture: mysterious, majestic, and undaunted by anything.

When I stepped off the tour bus and into the historic monastic settlement in Glendalough, my imagination instantly transported me a thousand years back to the tenth century. I was trying to imagine the reactions of the early settlers of Ireland the first time they encountered the mountains, and how utterly entrancing it would have been. Sadly I only had a few hours to spend wandering about the mountain range, but I plan on returning some day.

The next stop on the day tour was a place called “Powerscourt Gardens,” and it is most certainly named incorrectly. Simply calling it a garden gives the impression that there are a few flowers here and there that are tended to by an old woman with a passion for horticulture. No. This place was a palace straight out of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. Surrounding the stately mansion were flowers of all shapes, sizes, and colors from across the globe. The lawn was perfectly manicured and more well groomed than Donald Trump’s hair. I couldn’t help but think about the vast dichotomy between Powerscourt and what I had been witnessing in the past few days. Here was a place one could only dream of ever owning; brimming with eloquence and royalty at every turn. Meanwhile in Dublin, homeless families cram into a packed hotel room and live paycheck-to paycheck. I’m by no means discouraging beautiful monuments and estates from existing. It’s just sad knowing that the cost of one “object” could easily feed and house hundreds of people.

Nonetheless, a beautiful day in the country.

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August 6th and 7th

Sorry for the lack of bloggage (if anyone is in fact reading this.)

Thursday, August 6th:

After being shooed away by several non-profit organizations, I was beginning to feel a bit wary of my mission. Thankfully, I hit a huge breakthrough when I met with DePaul Ireland, a support system for people who are homeless or about to become so. DePaul’s platform is split into four main components:

  • Homelessness and vulnerable families services,
  • Homelessness prevention services,
  • Homeless addiction services,
  • Homelessness and criminal justice and mental health services.

If you were wondering, they are affiliated with DePaul University in Chicago as part of a global initiative to end homelessness. I truly believe that’s the kind of cross-border collaboration that we need. After waiting no longer than five minutes in the lobby, I was greeted and treated to coffee by a woman named Kristina, who (as it turns out) is originally from Louisiana. She told me that I reminded her of herself when she was a young journalist and was incredibly helpful in terms of pointing me where to go with my project. Because of the confidential nature of working with the homeless, we had to talk off the record. She did, however, connect me with the organization’s official spokesperson so I can cite them in my article.

While on my way for a quick lunch, I encountered a woman who desperately just wanted milk,eggs, and bread–the essentials of any good home. This moment is forever etched in my mind, as she was the first homeless person to simply want food, not euros. Usually I offer food and am met with something along the line of “no, I’m fine, but I’d like some money,” but she legitimately just needed to feed her family. Her family is one of 350 this year who never expected to be homeless. When most people think of homeless, they picture a wool coat, beanie-clad man with a mangy beard. From what most of the organizations I’ve worked with have told me, the “new” homeless person in Ireland isn’t exactly conspicuous. They blend in to society as what we perceive to be normal and return to hurting households.

Towards the end of the day I made a pit stop at the Old Trinity Library and nerded out over the Book of Kells, a 9th century illuminated manuscript depicting the four Gospels originally published off the coast of Scotland. Three years ago I was looking at a picture of it in my art history textbook and just yesterday I was three feet from it. The craftsmanship needed to create the book was unreal.

Friday, August 7th:

On a stereotypically rainy Dublin day I took cover in the historic Christ Church at the city’s center. (Not a bad place to be while waiting for the rain to subside). Given my unabashedly forward nature, it wouldn’t surprise anyone that I struck up a conversation with the head priest. It turns out she was a former journalist as well (go figure) and told me about a man she knows who directs a choir entirely comprised of homeless people. Making it my top priority to track down this man, because that’s amazing.

(Will add more updates later–need sleep.)

Wednesday, August 5: Unexpected Paths

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

In today’s case, not sticking to plan was actually immensely helpful. I left home around lunchtime after researching several organizations to get in touch with and proceeded to head out for my first destination: Liberty Church.

Because of my poor map reading ability and insistence on using “manstincts,” I ended up getting off at the wrong bus stop. To make matters worse, it began to rain, and I took cover in a local cafe. This was a good thing for two reasons. 1.) I had a delicious baguette sandwich that I can still taste, 2.) I spotted a sign while sitting at my table in the cafe that read “Recovery Relief Center.” It turned out to be a non-profit run by a church (not the one I was planning on going to) that runs support groups and sends volunteers out on Friday nights to feed people. If it all works out, I’m planning on volunteering with them this Friday to get an inside look.

In another fortuitous turn, I stumbled upon the vaunted St. Patrick’s Cathedral (although it’s kind of hard to miss). Aside from being named for the most notorious saint in Ireland, St. Patrick’s was breathtakingly beautiful. I instantly felt close to God upon walking in and marveled at the Gothic architecture. I couldn’t help but analyze everything in art history terms, quickly pointing out every flying buttress and vaulted ceiling I could find. I also made friends with a few Brazilian students and ended up going to the ensuing choral mass with them. We later shared a quintessential Irish meal consisting of Guinness beef stew, soda bread, and mashed potatoes at a local eatery called the Old Mill.

After saying goodbye to my new friends, I set off for Grafton Street–an area where many homeless people panhandle and beg. I approached a woman cocooned in a light blue mesh sleeping bag and offered to buy her some food. She refused the food (and eye contact) at first, but relented and allowed me to ask a few questions. Her name was Helen.She has been a heroin addict since the age of 18 after growing up in a tumultuous household filled with abuse. She saw drugs as the only option and has been on the streets since 2002. Helen’s situation was heartbreaking, because she legitimately believed that she was past the point of no return. One comment that stood out to me was the fact that many homeless who reach this point end up selling their life to drugs or even committing suicide. I encouraged her to find help and referred her to local agencies that could help.

At one point in our conversation, a Garda (Police) officer approached us and scolded Helen for panhandling outside an ATM. Once the officer was out of earshot, Helen remarked that the officers “mess with” some of the homeless people and even try to provoke them. Whether this is true or not is beyond me, but from what I’ve heard from the people I’ve talked to, the police aren’t exactly the most generous to them. To be fair though, it is their job to keep people safe, and sometimes that means removing homeless individuals who are getting too aggressive.

The day didn’t exactly go as planned, and I still have a huge bucket list of things I need to accomplish to make this article all it needs to be, but I’ve reminded myself to take a deep breath and remember what this trip is all about: “Inspiration through exploration.”

I’ve certainly been inspired.

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Tuesday, August 4: First Encounter With Homelessness

Before I begin, I have to start by saying that Ireland is amazing. The people are incredibly friendly, the food is spectacularly bland, and the scenery is unbeatable. Life is perfect here, it would seem.

For some, though, Ireland isn’t seen through rose-colored glasses. In the city today, I spotted a myriad of homeless individuals in some of the more tourist-centric areas. You may not have noticed them if you weren’t looking, however. Most were cloistered up in some kind of sleeping bag or blanket, “turtling” inside their makeshift forts to escape the harsh Dublin winds. When they did peek out, it was only to check if anyone had tossed a few euros in their Styrofoam cups.

Before I approached any of the homeless individuals, I stopped by Focus Ireland, a non-profit organization that seeks to get people off the street and return them back to the workforce. A representative named Melissa agreed to meet with me for an interview later in the week. I’m hoping she can provide some insight as to what exactly is being done to help remedy the highly apparent issue. From what I’ve gleaned so far, it doesn’t seem to be a lot.

Two homeless individuals in particular stood out to me today: Keith and Steven. Keith gave me a brilliant interview at the modest price of a few crisps and a soda, and Steven had written a poem in chalk about unnecessary judgement of homeless people. From what they told me, neither were into drugs, alcohol or other addictions. They were instead caught in a catch 22 wherein they could not hold a steady job. In order to have a job in Dublin, one must have a permanent address. However, all the money that they saved for a permanent home had to be used for food, clothing, and temporary housing.  Speaking of which, both Keith and Steven feel that there is a distinct lack of housing options for low-income individuals. I haven’t fact checked this yet, but Steven even claimed that some of the temporary hostels encouraged drug use as a means of coping. I’ll expand further on my findings when I write my full-fledged article, but it’s almost 1:30 in the morning here and I need to catch some Z’s.

Here’s Keith and Steven:

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Day One: A Home Away From Home

Regardless of how far one plans to travel, a good adventurer knows the value of a home base. It’s a source of comfort, food, and regeneration after a long day of exploration.

I can now safely say that I’m blessed to be staying with Dermot and Phyl (my host family) during my time here in Ireland. After generously waiting up until midnight for me to arrive, they instantly made me tea and a sandwich and ensured that I was feeling comfortable and at home. We talked into the late hours of the night about traveling, places I needed to see, and oddly enough, San Francisco.

I was even more delighted/surprised  to wake up this morning to 1.) The Sun and 2.) A breakfast table full of smiling faces from across the globe. To my left sat a fellow university student from Germany, to my right, an older British woman with the wittiest  sense of humor, and across from me her daughter, an English and Classica teacher from London.

I’m going to go enjoy the sun while it lasts, but I’ll be sure to update soon.

As the Irish say,

cheers.