IT’S Cork City’s oldest charity with origins dating back to before the Famine and a small cohort of dedicated volunteers always there to lend a hand to those in need.
The Sick Poor Society, a household name in most homes in Cork, this year celebrates its bicentenary, and the charity, which prides itself on providing a “personal touch”, is showing no signs of slowing down.
The charity provides everything from food vouchers to coal and assistance to families with children going back to school.
Speaking to The Echo, John Moher, who has volunteered with the Sick Poor Society for almost 15 years, said the current branch of the Sick Poor Society is the last remaining one.
“The Sick Poor Society was founded in 1820 by a Bartholomew Murphy of Blarney St but that was in the North Cathedral Parish,” John said. “The Sick Poor in the North Cathedral Parish became defunct or just died out in 2000.
“There were Sick Poor Societies in the Middle Parish, in St Patrick’s Parish, and they have all gone over the years for whatever reason.
“Our own branch of the Sick Poor [the Sick Poor Society of the South Parish] is the last one remaining.
“What happened was, there was a group of wealthy merchants here in the city — one of them was the founder of the Cork Examiner, John Francis Maguire.
“He was living in the city and was lord mayor on three or four occasions. When the Famine was here people were literally dying in the street coming in from the country and they were so scandalised that he and a group of likeminded people set up a group called the Friendly Brothers.”
Using their own resources, the Friendly Brothers buried the dead in St Joseph’s cemetery in Ballyphehane.
They continued this work until after the shadow of pestilence had passed, however, even after the Famine ended, there was still widespread poverty in Cork.
In an attempt to mitigate some of this suffering, the Sick Poor Society of the South Parish was set up in 1853. The charity built its own rooms in the grounds of the South Parish Church and on July 6, 1856, Pope Pius IX gave pontifical approval.
More than a century later, the charity is still going above and beyond to help vulnerable individuals and families. With schools set to reopen shortly, the demand for its services is increasing.
“The summer is generally quiet but then from about August onwards it gets busy with schools going back. From August to about May would be very hectic,” John said.
Whilst some individuals approach the Sick Poor Society directly, the charity also gets a lot of referrals from government agencies, from social workers, and from schools.
The first thing volunteers do when they receive a referral is visit the family to establish a relationship with the person or people they are helping.
It is this personalised treatment which John values about the charity and it is the reason why he has given over a decade of service to the Sick Poor Society.
“We’ve always had a personal touch and we’re very low key,” John said. “It isn’t only financial or material help — sometimes people just need an understanding ear.
“You might often go to a family for four or five or six weeks and let’s say they’re slowing paying off a big bill, like a gas bill or a back-to-school bill and you can see when they’re getting on top of the problem, they’re getting back to their old selves and they’re getting more confident.
“As well as getting help, they’re also getting someone they can confide in and talk to.”
Over the years, John has encountered some difficult situations and understands just how easily people can fall on hard times.
“You’d come across a lot of bereavement, a lot of addition — gambling, drink, drugs.
“You often hear the expression that we are all only three or four pay checks away from becoming homeless and that is so true.
“The deposits for houses and the deposits for apartments are so expensive — things are very difficult for people. It’s very easy to lose your house, to lose a job.”
John said that the charity has also seen a lot of elderly people fall on hard times.
“You might have two elderly pensioners in a house and they’re not too bad when there’s two pensions coming in, but if one passes away, they still have all the same bills but they have only half the income.
“Then you have elderly people who might be living in a three-bedroom house. They’re only living in one room, but they still have to heat the entire house.”
As well as providing financial and material help to people, the Sick Poor Society also provides advice to people.
“We encourage people to consolidate their loans in a credit union — we do a bit of work like that.
“Sometimes people get overwhelmed. They might have two or three loans in the credit union.
“We get it consolidated to a manageable one they can pay every week.
“When people realise they can pay it back and get on top of their finances, it’s fantastic.”
John said the charity has also seen people become embroiled in a vicious cycle with money lenders.
“What we’re very big into is if we can stop people going to money lenders at all and encourage them to come to us first.
“Very often people go to money lenders for relatively small amounts but what they don’t realise is the rate of interest they’re playing.
“Let’s say if parents go to a money lender to look after their children for Christmas, very often by the time they have it paid back it’s the following Christmas and the cycle starts all over again, because they’ve been paying a money lender, they haven’t had a chance to save.”
All of this incredible work is carried out by about 20 volunteers on limited resources.
The charity does not receive any grants and relies on door-to-door collections, money left to the Sick Poor Society in wills, and donations from businesses at Christmas to keep going.
“It was an ingenious idea back in 1853,” John said.
“How they started originally, even though some of the founding members were very wealthy people, what they did was they had a thing called ‘walks’.
“Now the city back in 1853 was very small compared to what it is now and they used to collect door to door. That was always the main source, but in recent years that has declined because people don’t tend to carry money.
“The amazing thing about the Sick Poor is that the people are so ordinary.
“The vast majority are ordinary parents and grandparents themselves in very ordinary jobs, from every walk of life, every background.
“The great thing about the Sick Poor is that there are no salaries, no expenses — everything is voluntary.
“When we visit a family we do it at our own expense, we use our own cars.
“There is no administration at all in the Sick Poor. Everyone that’s there is there for a good reason.”
This sentiment was echoed by the charity’s president, Don Murray, who first got involved at the request of a friend.
He has stayed for over a decade because of the incredible people involved in the Sick Poor.
“I found that it was very personal and intimate,” he said. “It wasn’t a huge charity and I found I made friends very quickly.
“All of our members have the same goal. It’s been like that for the last 13 years since I joined and it’s not going to change.
“We have a great age profile — our treasurer is 95 and the youngest members would be in their 30s.
“Nobody has a commitment, but everyone is committed.”