Penny Dinners: A lifeline for so many

Donal O’Keeffe spends a day at Cork Penny Dinners, hearing from the dedicated volunteers who work there and some of the many people who rely on their important support on a day to day basis
Penny Dinners: A lifeline for so many

All hands on deck: the kitchen crew in Cork Penny Dinners on Christmas morning. Left to right: Frank Burns, Liam McLoughlin, Gary Goggin, Caitríona Twomey, William Mulcahy, Oli Korkas, Philippe Chabalier and Fernando Morales. Picture: Donal O'Keeffe.

IT is still dark and freezing cold on Little Hanover Street when, just before 7am, head chef Philippe Chabalier arrives to open up the kitchen in Cork Penny Dinners.

It’s a Tuesday in December and Philippe is usually the first one in on weekdays. As Philippe gets the place set up for the busy day ahead, he is soon joined by fellow volunteers Fernando, Gordon, Adam and others. At the weekends, the role of head chef is usually split between Caitríona Twomey, the charity’s co-ordinator, and her fellow volunteer, Bríd Hegarty.

At 9am, when the doors open, there is already a queue waiting for food. The street and the pavement are wet, and the temperature is four degrees. Across from Penny Dinners, five women, varying in ages between 30 and 60, pick through coats and other items of clothing arrayed on a pair of trestle tables. One says they are all Ukrainian, but she only has a little English, and none of the others have any.

William* is in his mid-sixties and was born in the county home in Co Waterford. Raised initially by nuns, he was adopted but was then rejected by his adoptive mother. He had undiagnosed dyslexia and was dismissed in school as a daydreamer. Sent to the Brothers of Charity in Lota, he escaped at the age of 15, heading to England for an eventful and hard life.

He lives now in a flat in the city, and gets his meals from Penny Dinners. He passes the days walking around town, but his knee isn’t great and he’s waiting three years for an operation.

“Do you see that woman there?” he says, gesturing at Caitríona, “she’s a walking saint.” She laughs and calls him a charming rogue. He cackles at that.

By 10am, the sun is shining and it’s a degree warmer, but still very cold. Across the road, a man and a woman sit on the pavement. When The Echo reporter has to step off the road to avoid a car reversing the wrong way down the street, the man says “There you go, it’s definitely a backward country”.

At 11am, the temperature is up to six degrees. A woman who does not wished to be named makes an undisclosed cash donation. She tells The Echo she has driven from Co Tipperary to support Penny Dinners.

“I just decided I’m not going to do Christmas presents this year, and you can see for yourself the work they do here,” she says. “I just wanted any money I would be spending to go on food for people who need it.”

Jane, a woman in her 30s, says the Penny Dinners volunteers are lifesavers. A Hollyhill native, she says a bad relationship tipped her into addiction, and she has been homeless “on and off” for the past 12 years.

“A lot of homeless people have to deal with circumstances which come from addiction, but a lot don’t as well, and it’s not fair that everyone gets painted with the same brush,” she says. “Each individual has their own story and they all come from different backgrounds, they might be in the same circumstances, but their backgrounds are totally different.”

By 12.30pm, there is a queue up to the top of Little Hanover Street, and from now until 1.30pm, there will never be fewer than 30 people standing in line. The numbers are staggering. For a solid hour, hundreds of people wait for a meal.

Several of those queuing for food at lunchtime are South American students and their stories are all strikingly similar.

Diego, from Brazil, says that while he knows there is never any judgement in the charity, he still feels guilty.

“I pay my rent, I go to the supermarket, and I have no money, so I come here two days and I know some people come every day, but I don’t like [doing that], because this food is for homeless.”

Caitriona Twomey, Cork Penny Diners, at Cork Penny Dinners, Little Hanover Street, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Caitriona Twomey, Cork Penny Diners, at Cork Penny Dinners, Little Hanover Street, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The volunteers at the door cannot get the food out fast enough, but somehow they keep the green-and-white bags coming. Caitríona will later describe it as “organised chaos”, but that’s not quite true. The process is extremely fast-paced, almost scarily so at times, and it is indeed extremely organised, but it never threatens to descend into chaos. Penny Dinners is a well-oiled machine, and while the people running it are all volunteers, they are no amateurs, and when it comes to serving hot, nourishing meals at high speed, they clearly know what they’re doing.

Before the pandemic, people could sit and eat their meals in Penny Dinners. Now, with the explosion in the numbers seeking the charity’s services, there is simply no room for them in the building.

Around 2pm, when the rush has died down, Caitríona says they have, since the doors opened this morning, served between 800 and 900 meals. Over the course of the day, some 30 volunteers will work different shifts in the charity. Caitríona is the co-ordinator, but everyone seems to know what they’re doing, and they just get on with it.

Everyone working in Penny Dinners is a volunteer, and the charity runs entirely on donations.

“There’s never any judgement here, because we know that things are often be complicated,” Caitríona Twomey says. 

“For instance, we often get home helps calling in. Before they could cook a bit of stew for people, now they’re not allowed. Nobody looking at them would know they’re home helps, so no judgement, because you never know all the facts.”

In the afternoon, the two vans are loaded up for a trip to Castlemartyr, where food is distributed by Liz Maddox of the Castlemartyr Carers and Disability Group. Penny Dinners routinely delivers food around the county, and often beyond.

Later, back on Little Hanover Street, it’s gone 6pm, the clean-up is still underway after a hectic day, and in the kitchen, preparations are ongoing for the following morning. Caitríona says they all want to be gone by 7pm, to give privacy to the recovery group which meets there every Tuesday evening.

Much later that night, close to midnight, it’s freezing again, and the white Penny Dinners van is pulled up outside St Mary’s Dominican Church on Pope’s Quay. There are people sheltering for the night in the portico of the church, and Tomas Kalinauskas and Caitríona are bringing them hot food and some soft drinks, while making sure they have enough sleeping bags and blankets for the night.

For Cork’s rough sleepers, it’s a cold, lonely and dangerous life. Without Penny Dinners, it might be that much worse.

Caitríona and Tomas say goodnight to the people outside St Mary’s. In a few short hours, Philippe will arrive at Little Hanover Street before dawn and the day will begin afresh in Cork Penny Dinners.

  • Names of service users have been changed.

Up to 1,000 hampers could be distributed in one week

The Cork Penny Dinners warehouse is located in an anonymous-looking building in an industrial estate on the northside. There’s quite a bit of security, and Tomas Kalinauskas unlocks the shuttered doors and turns off the alarm before reversing the Penny Dinners van, a recent donation from Macroom Motors, into the building.

There is a black mountain bike mounted high on the wall inside the door, above a portrait of a handsome young man. On the crossbar of the bicycle is a yellow banner reading “Paul Coveney 1994 – 2020”.

Paul was a Penny Dinners volunteer, and part of the recovery group which meets every week at the charity’s premises. During the pandemic, he was an integral part of the Knight Riders, a group of volunteers who cycled around the city every evening delivering food packages to Cork’s homeless community through the various lockdowns, when the tide of humanity went out from the city, leaving behind those who had nowhere else to go.

Paul was a gentle, kind person whose life ended tragically two years ago, and he is fondly remembered by his friends and fellow volunteers.

The warehouse is where Penny Dinners volunteers prepare hampers to distribute. Tomas says each hamper would contain the makings of a decent weekly shop for an average family.

“For a family, it’s a good dig-out. You would still probably need to add fresh fruit and veg and some meat, so with that, you might even get two weeks out of a hamper,” he says.

Adrian Duggan and Vincey Murray are on duty today, and Adrian lists the usual non-perishable food items which make up a hamper.

“You have two cereals, one porridge, two boxes of teabags, jam, coffee, sugar, Ambrosia rice, fruit cocktail, custard, jelly, gravy, biscuits, crackers, sweets for kids, beans, peas, noodles, curry, spaghetti, soup, red sauces, brown sauces, salt, rice, spaghetti sauce, tins of tomatoes, tuna, sweetcorn, all for dinners that are easy to cook,” Adrian says.

“Nine in the morning, me and Vincey make hampers, the two of us, and we try and get as much into each hamper as we can.

“Weekly, we try do a hundred hampers a week, now, it could be 200 one week, it could be 50 the next week, but it would balance out. We try and do 50 hampers or so, three mornings a week, just to try and be on top of things. Now, that doesn’t always happen, but we do our best,” he says.

Caitríona Twomey says that between Adrian and Vincey and the other volunteers who work in the warehouse, the charity can distribute as many as 1,000 hampers a week.

First mention of Penny Dinners made in 1888 newspaper report

LEGEND has it in Cork that Penny Dinners can trace its roots back to Famine times, and it is true that in 1847 an Adelaide St soup kitchen struggled to pump out 1,400 meals a day, eventually diverting steam from Ebenezer Pike’s adjacent shipyard to heat vats of soup.

The first mention of Penny Dinners is in the Cork Examiner of March 15, 1888, which carries on page 2 (the front page was for ads) a report, “Introduction of the Penny Dinner movement into Cork”.

It reads: “The idea of supplying dinners to the poor for a penny was started in London some years ago, and most successfully carried out there. The movement has lately spread to Dublin, where it has been attended with a similar success. The example of London and Dublin has now stimulated the zeal of some charitable ladies amongst ourselves. Accordingly a meeting for the purpose of starting the penny dinner movement in Cork was held in the Imperial Hotel on Monday last.”

The article then lists in alphabetical order the 57 or so women in attendance at the meeting, beginning with Mrs Allman and ending with “the Misses Whitelegg”.

The report continues: “This new project was warmly, even enthusiastically, taken up. A committee was formed, and we are glad to see that the committee is composed of ladies, the name of every one of whom is a guarantee that the charitable work, there so happily inaugurated, will be carried out energetically and perseveringly. It has been amply demonstrated that one penny will procure the materials of a substantial meal, varied each day.

“The public are asked to provide funds to procure the necessary appliances, cooking-range, utensils, estimated to cost about £50, as well as the wages of two attendants, and a small sum for rent and coals. A room has been taken at No 5 Drawbridge Street. It will be opened on Saturday next, St Patrick’s Day, and then, and every day after, dinner will be supplied from 1 to 4 o’clock.

“In hope that the promoters of this latest charitable effort here will adapt the system so successfully carried out in London and Dublin, of circulating books of tickets, each ticket costing a penny, so that employers and others may have an opportunity of relieving, in a very safe and very effective way, the great distress that exists amongst us at present. We wish the movement every success.”

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