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A life of passion: Peter McVerry SJ

mcverry_01b.jpg“There’s an orderly kind of aimlessness in the basement of 26 Sherrard Street…” So begins Kathy Sheridan’s Saturday Interview with Peter McVerry SJ in the Irish Times, 20 December 2008. She evokes wonderfully the unique atmosphere in the drop-in centre in Dublin 1, a kind of “all-day common room for lost children ravaged by homelessness, drugs, domestic chaos, illness and a catastrophic sense of worthlessness”. The banter between Peter and the lads is easy and trustful. Some of them address him as ‘Hedge’ – an allusion to the hedgehog-like character of his hair. Kathy’s interview is wide-ranging, covering Peter’s childhood, his schooling, his young Jesuit life, and his passion for the work with homeless youngsters which he has been doing since he took a Corporation flat in Summerhill in 1974. Read the full text below. 

No questions, no judgments

Sat, Dec 20, 2008

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: Kathy Sheridan to Fr. Peter McVerry

THERE’S AN orderly kind of aimlessness in the basement of 26 Sherrard Street, in Dublin’s north inner city. Young people shuffle around, sluggish in voice and movements, but they look as clean and tidy as any of their peers outside.

A few of them greet the visitor with grave warnings to “watch out for the dog” and escort me unceremoniously into Fr Peter McVerry’s office, where he sits focused on a computer screen. It’s a normal, small office, with the significant addition of 12 lads in desultory conversation sitting against the walls. One of them is holding Jack, the infamous dog, while another rubs Jack’s ears.

Jack himself was a lost soul for a while, a nervy little Jack Russell acquired by one of the lads after much pleading and promises to care for him. Inevitably, it fell to McVerry to give him a home. After a late-night television appearance recently, I walked the priest back to his car, to find Jack waiting patiently in the passenger seat for his white-haired friend.

McVerry’s office doubles as a kind of all-day common room for lost children ravaged by homelessness, drugs, domestic chaos, illness and a catastrophic sense of worthlessness. A recent renovation endowed it with patio doors to the garden, a startlingly featureless space; grass and shrubs were banished because there were too many places to hide syringes, he says. That’s how things are done at number 26. “There are no questions here, no judgment. We just ask them not to use drink or drugs on the premises,” says McVerry. “The centre is somewhere for them to go, it’s dry and warm in the winter, and there’s a bit of a social life for them. They can leave bags here, have a shower and wash their clothes, there’s food in the kitchen and we bring in sandwiches at lunchtime.”

Meanwhile, the lads show no inclination to move from the office. “I need to do something for a few minutes . . . maybe a couple of hours,” he says a few times before they finally file out. “This is going to be the most interrupted interview you’ve ever seen,” he grins. Sure enough, a head comes round the door: “Hedge . . . I have to talk t’ya Hedge. I have to get me bus money . . . ”

“We’ll do that but you’ll have to give me a bit of time first,” says the priest. “Hedge, Hedge . . . I need to talk t’ya now, I have to go . . .”

“In a while. I need to finish what I’m doing.”

“But Hedge . . . ”

And so it continues.

No voices are raised. McVerry’s benign tone never wavers. It sounds like a never-ending conversation where everyone knows the script. The boy wants money, purportedly for bus fare to visit his mother; the priest suspects it’s for drugs so will only give him the exact fare. So later they will go to the shop together for the exact change. All this is left unsaid, except for the part about the shop. Finally, the boy closes the door, apparently mollified. Twenty minutes later, the door opens: “Hedge, Hedge . . . ”

Hedge? “It’s short for Hedgehog,” he says wryly and dates from an away trip to an English safari park with a bunch of children from Summerhill in Dublin’s north inner city. “When we were leaving the park, we stopped beside a security guard and I pointed to a lad behind me who had a cheeky little grin and said ‘we’re taking one of your monkeys’. And the guard looked back at me and said, ‘and we’re losing one of our hedgehogs’, . . . Because my hair can look a bit like that.”

Another lad bursts into the office and thrusts thick packages of prescription pills into McVerry’s hands.

The boy’s TB treatment regime runs more smoothly if the medicines are kept at the centre, says McVerry, cradling Jack on his knee like a baby.

SPACE FOR McVERRY is a mental, not a physical concept, he says. On a wall, a few dog-eared pictures reveal something of Peter McVerry’s world view. One is of Pedro Arrupe, a former superior general of the Jesuits, renowned for his mission to the poor and his personal lack of affectation. Another – bought in Paris by McVerry – is of a mischievous little boy giving the finger. A third is of a dark-haired youth who died six months previously.

On a noticeboard there’s a large scattering of memorial cards, recalling young lives lost to drug overdoses and Aids. One commemorates Newry-born Eamon Collins, a former IRA man murdered in 1999, whose post-paramilitary existence included time with McVerry, who he helped with a youth-diversion programme.

When Peter McVerry was born in Belfast 64 years ago, his parents, John, a GP, and Eleanor, a Welsh nurse and convert, “who became more Catholic than the Catholics themselves”, hardly foresaw this future for him. But it was Eleanor’s devout Catholicism and John’s 24-hour commitment to his patients in his Newry practice that were his most formative influences. “Sometimes, he would be out two or three times a night to patients . . . I think that’s where I got my sense of service.”

Wasn’t there at least an equal chance that such relentless, intrusive service would be off-putting for a small boy? He gives an answer that becomes surprisingly familiar: “You accept the world you are born into.” He was sent to Clongowes Wood, the Jesuit boarding school in Co Kildare, where his father had been, and enjoyed the structured life. “I was a good student.”

He was all of 15 when he starting thinking about joining the Jesuits. “Yes, I know. Nowadays they’d just tell you to go away.”

Anyway, girls or romance were not an issue, by this account. “In a male boarding school, where you only got home three times a year, girls weren’t a central focus – and because you were away from home for much of the year, you weren’t expanding your network of relationships during the holidays.”

Simple as that? “At that time, the world you lived in was the world you lived in . . . At that stage, you weren’t sufficiently aware of what was going on outside in the world to reflect critically or to challenge it. I accepted the church the way it was. I saw priesthood as a way of service to others. My experience of the Jesuits was of teaching in a school and I think I had in mind that I would also be a teacher.”

Was it all a bit vague? “I had absolutely no experience of life. They certainly wouldn’t accept someone like me now. I suspect if I’d just gone off to college and got a degree I’d probably never have joined the priesthood.”

In fact, it was all so relaxed, he was thinking of dentistry as a good fall-back. “Anyway, I fitted in. The noviceship in Emo [Court in Co Laois] was just an extension of boarding school.” And that was that. He studied chemistry in UCD, wearing the black suit and Roman collar, with hundreds of others who looked like him. There was no loitering allowed around college but no regrets either. “I never seriously thought of leaving the Jesuits,” he stresses.

AS WE TALK, the disconnect between the Jesuits, with their fondness for clever rhetoric and elite schools, and this man, addressed as Hedge by his damaged young friends, seems ever more profound. He says that stuff about Jesuit rhetoric is all a myth.

“The great thing about the Jesuits is that they don’t restrict themselves to the mission and the ministry. There are Jesuits who are professional astronomers and Jesuits who give retreats. Therefore some end up with very high-profile jobs, which I think creates the myth that this is what Jesuits are like. In fact, the vast majority were ordinary teachers in a school . . . but they don’t get the public attention.”

After college, he taught in Belvedere College in Dublin for a couple of years, and ended up running a youth club catering for the children of the nearby Hardwicke Street flats. “They were very different to the kids in Belvedere. The relationships were very straight. There were no politics, no middle-class conventions. If these kids were annoyed with you, they’d tell you to ‘f**k off’ – and that was very different.” As for social-justice issues, he had “no sense of it. I just accepted what I found.”

He studied philosophy and theology in Milltown and remained involved in the youth club while still exploring options for the future. He began a part-time PhD in chemistry, attempting to develop a theory for predicting the distance between atoms in a molecule, but wearied of it. Meanwhile, he taught chemistry in Kevin Street Institute of Technology, and began wondering if he might like to teach in a third-level institution

He was 30, still rather passive and a tad aimless, when the newly galvanised Jesuit order committed itself to a path that saw justice as an integral dimension of the Gospel. They looked for volunteers to work with the poor, and in 1974 got a corporation flat in Summerhill. “I said I’d give it a try and that was the beginning of the rest of my life. The six years in Summerhill totally transformed me.”

From passive youth worker to angry young activist; from the man who “just accepted it” to throwing his life into bettering the lot of Dublin’s poorest. They opened a youth club and within it, a “massively successful” crafts centre, making pin-and-thread pictures, leather goods and stools that they sold at fairs all over the country.

“People were full of admiration for what these inner city ‘thugs’ could do. And I started reflecting on the life and opportunities denied to young people. That’s when I became angry.”

The slights that most scorch his memory, ironically, are related to pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979. “He was to stop off in the church on Sean McDermott Street but was behind schedule and he passed us by on the way to meet the bishops and dignitaries in Dublin Castle. That really pissed me off. The other thing that pissed me off was when the Corpo painted the railings and walls on Mary’s Mansions [on Sean McDermott Street] for the visit – but only on the two sides that the pope would see.”

Often, when in his civvies, he was witness to “the most appalling remarks” thrown by gardaí at the young. “Yes, you could say that those six years totally and completely transformed me.”

ON JANUARY 1ST, 1979, he opened Tabor House, a three-bedroom flat that became the first hostel for boys aged between 12 and 16 who were sleeping rough. The following year, he moved to a flat in Ballymun with Fr Michael Sweetman, where they asked for a flat to house over-16s – “and to my surprise and their regret ever since, they gave it” – an unfunded, understaffed, chaotic, overcrowded access centre for all-comers, utterly ill-suited to its original purpose.

Twenty years on, he still lives in a Ballymun flat, in a Jesuit community of four. The original three-bed flat for homeless youngsters has grown into an organisation employing 60 people, with three hostels, a drug detox centre, two drug-free after-care houses, a drop-in centre, a drug-stabilisation programme and 12 apartments, primarily for people with mental-health issues.

But despite this work and the mammoth regeneration of the town, he is adamant that the social problems of Ballymun – and elsewhere – are “worse than ever”.

“Crack cocaine is the drug of choice. Heroin puts you to sleep but this makes people very violent and aggressive. It used to be that if you had a difference you’d have a ‘straightener’ in the street; now you go home and get a knife. It has created a level of violence unheard of 15 years ago.”

His radical solution is the legalisation of drugs, mainly because nothing else has worked. “The drug problem is worse than it has ever been. All we’re doing is ratcheting up the same old policies. And we already have legalised one drug – methadone. It’s dangerous – people die of overdoses. It’s harder to come off; to go cold turkey, people often go back on heroin. Anyone who wants it has to register as a drug user, then you are assigned to a doctor, and then you go to a particular chemist.

“There used to be an enormous black market in methadone but as a result of this system, that has almost disappeared. That would be my model for the legalisation of drugs though I prefer to talk about controlling the supply of drugs rather than legalising them – unlike alcohol.”

He is well aware of the opposing arguments. “It does require a lot of teasing out because it is so radical. The climate is either dominated by moral concerns or fear, so that’s the context in which discourse on drugs takes place. Any politician or party who advocates it now can forget about re-election. And we are part of the UN Protocol on the Elimination of Illegal Drugs and we can’t unilaterally pull out of that . . . but we need to challenge that.”

He envisages that the drug-user would suffer penalties. “They would have to register as a person who used drugs and there could be disincentives, such as not being able to get a driving licence and a reduction in employment opportunities.”

Meanwhile, he perceives gross hypocrisy in a society prepared to send cannabis users to prison – “when the only harm they can do is to themselves” – and at the same time make money out of alcohol.

As for the poor and homeless, he sees little change in the 12 to 15 years of the Celtic Tiger. Attitudes have got worse and more censorious, he believes, because the numbers lifted out of poverty have meant that the entrenched poor became more hidden. And “though we had more money than we knew what to do with, we didn’t solve the problem of homelessness”.

He despairs of the emergency services for the homeless young, often consigned to hostels where they are merely prey for the more street-wise.

Those who feel that Peter McVerry is a constant thorn in their side are probably not being paranoid. His work is all-consuming and is inseparable from his private life. He rarely watches television, never goes to the movies and reads about two books a year (probably related to spirituality and the Gospels). Weekdays are 15-hour days. Weekends are spent around the prisons.

“Sunday afternoon is the nearest I get to time off. I’ll generally read the papers and I might watch some sport.” He follows Aston Villa because he was at school with a former Villa goalkeeper.

Christmas day for Peter McVerry will be in one of the hostels, usually in the Whitworth Road house in Drumcondra, Dublin for over-18s, which will be open access. “We have a solicitor and his wife who have cooked Christmas dinner for 15 years for the 10 or 12 of us there. They bring it to us on Christmas Eve and we heat it and portion it out on the day. That’s a huge benefit.” In the evening, he will have dinner with his Jesuit brethren.

Does he spend time with friends over Christmas? “My friends are the homeless people that I work with. My work and my life merge seamlessly. My phone is on 24 hours. I sleep and live in the Jesuit community. I don’t see myself as coming from a private life into this – I won’t even call it a job. To me it’s not work. People say: ‘Do you take a lunch break?’ I say: ‘From what?’ The job satisfaction is second to none.”

As we part, Hedge and Jack are walking towards the shop between two lads to get the bus fare for the boy who wants to see his mother in Clondalkin.

© 2008 The Irish Times