FOR more than 26 years Martin Waters has made the misery of others his
daily concern. As president of the Castlebar conference of St Vincent
de Paul, his has been one of the compassionate faces of a caring
organisation reaching out to hundreds of people on their uppers.
Nothing surprises him. As the yawning chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished widens, Martin and his 45 colleagues strive to deal with the distress, the despair, the hardship, the melancholy, the anguish, the quagmire of hopelessness into which so many people lucklessly stumble.
Once it was the simple matter of a few visits to houses, of knocking on doors and delivering a few bob weekly to the needy. Now the ills, springing from the dark side of a modern, affluent society, are far more complex.
Hardship comes in all guises, ruthless and indiscriminate, open and in ambush. Ensnared people become desperate and Vincent de Paul is their last resort, their only remaining refuge.
The consequences of domestic violence, the influx of young, single mothers, displaced psychiatric patients, depression, suicide etc are among the myriad social problems stemming from this materialistic age. Almost overnight they mushroomed and all of them were problems for which Martin Waters and his crew were not prepared.
When that first battered woman walked through the SVP door Martin was taken by surprise. It was a new phenomenon. “We hadn’t a bull’s notion how to deal with domestic violence. They were coming in crying, badly marked, their kids scared. Sometimes you would have two or three in the week and we did not know how to handle it.”
It was a crisis situation. Not even the Health Board could offer any succour. If there was a child abused they could deal with that. But not with women. Women in domestic violence was a community problem and must be dealt with by the community, Martin was told.
Thus community representatives were called together - the clergy, the councils, the Gardaí etc. Urgent action was sought and help willingly offered. Funds were made available from the Health Board to employ a project worker, and from the County Council to erect a refuge centre.
Josephine McGroarty, who was familiar with the problem, having worked in London and Dublin, took on the project. She established outreach clinics all over the county as an initial step which women suffering from domestic violence were able to attend. Eighteen months or so later they opened their brand new Refuge Centre on a site on the Breaffy Road provided to them by the parish priest Fr Paddy Curran.
“We now had a building to which women in trouble could go. Josephine, who runs the refuge, was very good. It is going exceptionally well, so good that people have come from as far away as England to have a look at it,” said Martin. There is support now for the victim; they have someone to talk to, to listen to, to confide in.
Separation is now a soaring crisis. Separated women are turning to Martin’s organisation in ever growing numbers. No violence, just separations. A spouse walks out with all the emotional and financial problems that generates. Help and advice are made available to victims and there are fairly generous allowances for them.
A problem of immense proportions also facing society is the influx of young single mothers. “They have to drop out of the education system to rear their kids. Many of them are around 18 or 19 who have been looked after by their mothers and who come to a flat not knowing how to organise budgets, or do housework.
“They are worried; they are on their own most of the time, looking after their children, and they are very lonely. It is the biggest problem we are facing. Many are coming into the town from outside areas, and from as far away as England. They have no connections with the town, no relatives, nobody to fall back on.”
Another issue - originating in the closure of St Mary’s Hospital - is the number of psychiatric patients making do on their own in the town. In the hospital everything was done for them … meals prepared, clothed, put to bed, called in the morning. They were totally institutionalised. All of a sudden they were told they would be living in a house. They are not domesticated, not ready to look after themselves.
“They smoke a lot because it seems to calm them. When they come out and collect their allowance, the first place they go to is the shop. They’ll buy loads of cigarettes, maybe 120. They’ll pile them on the table and one of their friends will come in and say ‘you have a lot of cigarettes, I’ll take a pack’, and they’ll end up in the middle of the week with neither cigarettes nor food.”
None of those social ills presented problems for Vincent de Paul when Martin Waters joined it back in 1980. A native of Cornamona and a fluent Irish speaker, he came to Castlebar that same year working with Telecom from which he retired a couple of years ago after 40 years service.
He was urged to join the society by Frank Shovlin to do weekly visits to patients in the Sacred Heart Home. “I did that for ten years every Monday night. Some were great story tellers. They would share their thoughts with us. I got to know some lovely old people, but when they died it was as if a personal friend had died. You felt lost, you had got to know them so well.”
He became vice president of the area, and when the president, Mick Ruane, became ill and died, Martin was asked to take over as president, assuming responsibility for the running of the society. Fund-raising and the allocation of houses to people was his main task, all of it voluntary, all done after his normal day’s work.
It was once the practice of SVP volunteers to go to people with their weekly allowance, but that’s not done anymore. They deal with the problem now. Back in the forties and fifties it was an all male organisation, and a bit condemnatory. What changed all that was the introduction of women volunteers to the society.
“When I joined it was very male orientated, oldish males as well, very set in their ways. They almost begrudged giving out money to people. In our manifestos we would say we were non judgmental, but when the women became involved they brought a greater understanding of problems to the organisation. Kay Veale is our area president and she is hugely involved,” said Martin.
Housing development for the less well-off has been a huge undertaking by SVP in the town. Schemes at Garryduff and Shruffan are now being complemented by an impressive project under way at Castle Street, the construction of 19 new apartments.
People in their fifties and sixties who could not afford to buy accommodation will be targeted for the new scheme. A government grant of 90 percent has been made available to finance the work which they hope to have ready for occupation next year. It will bring their total number of housing units to 55.
No grants are available for the services they themselves provide. All of the money taken in at their annual parish collection each November is spent on the needy of Castlebar. What they collect on their clothes shop in Linenhall Street goes towards the housing fund.
Martin Waters says there is still a huge amount of people in the community in need. Christmas is the worst time of the year. They help more than 300 people over that period, which lasts throughout January. Nothing provides him with more satisfaction than coming to the assistance of a person going through a temporary bad patch.
The pressure on mothers to keep up with their neighbours is a cause of considerable grief … people who can’t afford it paying up to €400 for first Holy Communion dresses for their children, and forced to seek help from SVP as a consequence.
Suicide, and the loss of life in road accidents are problems that must be faced by the community, says Martin. “We have the leading expert on sucidology here in Castlebar in John Connolly and what he knows about suicide should be brought out into the public.”
Seminars and church sermons should be devoted to those topics, he says.
“If young lads did not drink until they were 21, it would eliminate 40 percent of suicides. Freedom is now the big thing. But we have not learned to deal with it. We have a lot of new wealth in this country and are only now maturing into it. .”
Many people are turning up at their offices in Pavilion Road very depressed and dispirited, threatening to take their own lives. Some are genuine, some are not, and neither Martin nor his colleagues have sufficient training to deal with the plight of those people.
“Young men of course will not come near us. It is mostly women and that’s why they are better able to cope with their problems.”
SVP have now commenced a youth service for teenagers who have idle time on their hands. “We cleared out the place downstairs and invited the Transitions Year students from the colleges to come in and form a committee to see what we could do for them in the way of youth services.”
Castlebar Community Development Association, of which Martin is chairman, has made available €400,000 from the proceeds of the sale of the old Enterprise Centre in Castlebar towards the provision of a youth information centre in the town. They are prepared to join in a partnership with anyone interested in taking on the project … one further project in a gallant voluntary effort to reach out to the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and the marginalised of society.