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press releases 2001

fr. peter mcverry sj

Few people live to see their name become synonymous with a cause. Father Peter McVerry is one of them. For over a quarter of a century, he has been a public champion of the young homeless, a passionate and tenacious voice for those who lack the clout, the confidence and the means to expose one of the great scandals of contemporary Ireland - young people sleeping rough on the streets of one of Europe's most comfortable, youthful, up and coming capitals. In countless articles, interviews, sermons and Summer schools he has confronted the Irish people with the shame of homelessness in a society that has the means to eliminate it ready to hand. The price, or as he might argue, the prize of his outspokenness on behalf of the marginalized, has been that he himself has sometimes been cast in the role of prophetic outsider, a nuisance, someone people wish would just go away; an ironic turn of events given that homelessness lies at the very heart of the Christian narrative in both a literal and a figurative sense. A room at the inn remains a dream for many.

A Northerner by birth, Peter McVerry received his primary education in Newry, then to Clongowes Wood for secondary schooling. He had what he describes himself as a privileged middle class upbringing, a family served well by the social and educational structures he would later challenge so forcibly. On leaving school he entered the Jesuit order, secured a science degree at UCD and taught for some years at Belvedere College. In 1974, the Jesuit order was given a flat at Summerhill in Dublin's North Inner City: Peter McVerry volunteered to join the small community there. The move to Summerhill was, in his own words, to prove a watershed event. Here he came face to face with a cycle of disadvantage and deprivation he never thought possible in Ireland. A society that had been good to him up to that point appeared to have failed, to have forgotten and forsaken many of its own members. What he saw challenged his values, the theology he had been taught and his faith.

The lessons learnt in Summerhill set the agenda and the parameters for his future ministry. Teenagers in the area left school early, hung about the streets and fell foul of both judicial and education agencies. A youth club was set up to address this issue as was a craft enterprise producing those "pin and thread" pictures that adorned many Irish homes in the 1970's. Leather belts, braces and bands were also manufactured and sold at fairs, carnivals and shows throughout the country. Certain goods even found their way onto the shelves of Dublin's more up-market department stores: stores where the young producers themselves had often been less than welcome. While working at this club, Peter McVerry discovered that many of its members slept rough and decided to open a hostel to provide twelve to sixteen year olds with shelter. However, on leaving their hostel these sixteen year olds were returning to the street - the hostel was only providing a temporary solution. So, following persistent overtures, Dublin Corporation gave him the keys to a flat in Ballymun in 1983. This he turned into a hostel for 16 to 18 year olds. Since then, Father McVerry's network has grown exponentially and now comprises four flats in Ballymun, houses in Glasnevin and Drumcondra, and a detox centre in North County Dublin. His hostels cater especially for those who fail to meet the regulations of many other hostels - that residents must be employed or be attending a course. In particular he has sought to cater for those deemed to be simply too difficult by other agencies.

If homelessness has become the focal theme of his priestly ministry, his public utterances have left us in no doubt that its most harrowing and damaging effects are not the absence of a roof over one's head, having no shelter, no bed; the real damage is damage to personal dignity. Central to his Christianity is each individual's, each teenager's God-given and infinite dignity. This dignity is currently not experienced by the homeless young in their dealings with the rest of society. Their typical impression is one of not being wanted, of feeling that they simply do not matter. The entire thrust of his crusade on behalf of the young homeless of our city has been to re-affirm and restore to them this sense of their dignity, worth and value.

A related theme and one to which he returns with almost fugal fervour is his conviction that having a home can no longer be treated as a privilege but as a right. The right to shelter, to security, to food, to education to having a place to lay one's head down at night - these are all fundamental human rights, not rewards to be dispensed by a charitable social system and dependent for funding on events such as coffee mornings run by Jesuit priests and their co-workers. By making his own home a home for the homeless he has given his public utterances on this issue a unique charisma and credibility.

A recent advertisement for the television channel TG4 claims it to be a "súil eile", to offer a different slant, an alternative perspective on Irish life. Such a claim could equally be made for Peter McVerry. He has consistently sought to question the prevailing wisdom on a wide range of social issues. Statements by public office holders that seem at first sight to be intuitively appealing, reasonable and unproblematic suddenly appear questionable and problematic when subjected to his brand of critical scrutiny. His ability to be a "súil eile" and to be so to such telling effect is due to two main factors. First, he is a man who knows how Ireland works, or at least how it is supposed to work. Second, by aligning himself with the marginalized, the homeless, he has been able to reflect back at society an alternative interpretation of how these people might view such issues as budgetary cuts, social housing and employment schemes.

He has also confronted us with an alternative perspective on what we mean by success. In a society where success is primarily measured in terms of external factors such as mortgage value, spending power, occupational status, educational achievement and what might loosely be termed "connections", Peter McVerry has championed a different vision of success that focuses instead on internal factors, on a sense of one's dignity, a sense of self worth and the sense of self achievement that results from holding down a job, a stable relationship, securing independent accommodation, overcoming a drug or alcohol dependency. Súil eile.

In pursuit of his public crusade he has marshalled an array of finely honed skills - the skill to lobby, to organise, to cajole politicians, to embarrass politicians, to master the well timed sound bite, the skill to gently subvert the conscience management manoeuvres of the more privileged. His exercise of these skills has inevitably lead to him being cast in the role of dissident outsider, happily a role he is content to occupy for the foreseeable future.

A Athair Peadar, táimid fíor bhuíoch díot agus an-bhródúil as an éacht atá déanta agat ar a son siúd nach bhfuil díon, dídean ná dóchas acu. Nár laga Dia thú agus go neartaigh Sé thú agus do chuid oibre sna blianta atá romhat.

It is a great honour to introduce Fr. Peter McVerry.