Last visit to homeless brings President McAleese full circle
MARY McAleese's last day as President took her career full circle as she returned to the charity that educated her on life's hardships as a teenager.
In her final official duty, Mrs McAleese unveiled a plaque commemorating the launch of the newly refurbished Back Lane homeless shelter for men in Christchurch, Dublin, run by charities St Vincent de Paul and Depaul Ireland.
Her first association with St Vincent de Paul was when she volunteered as a teenager, washing dishes every Saturday at a shelter on the Falls Road in her native Belfast.
Today, she met residents, some of whom suffer addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and talked about a time in her life when she too experienced the "misery" of homelessness.
"Back in 1971, my family were violently put out of our home and left to rely on the charity of family and friends for a very unhappy and terrifying period," she said.
"The memory of losing almost instantly all the things that we had taken so much for granted has always stayed with me but we were fortunate that, although the emotional effects of the trauma were lifelong, we were able to put a home together again and start all over.
"The first revelation for me of life's real hardships was through a hostel just like this," she said.
Residents who talked to the President paid tribute to her genuine and down-to-earth personality.
Gerry McCarthy has been living in the shelter for a year.
The separated 52-year-old lost his five businesses in Dublin when he turned to drink after his wife left him.
"I used to live in Rathfarnham and would have met people in the area who thought they were too good, they were stand off-ish," he said.
"President McAleese is not like that. Those people wouldn't have achieved half of what she has, but they were like that.
"But she is such a lovely woman. She is very genuine, very down-to-earth."
Resident Frank Brady praised Mrs McAleese for her dignity and courage when he read a poem at the engagement.
"To boldly go where no-one has gone before is the introduction to Star Trek," he said.
"It took them light years to try and achieve their goal. It took only a mere 14 years for Mary and Martin McAleese to achieve their goals with dignity and courage."
He also dedicated the words of Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Water to President McAleese, saying: "When you're down and out, when you're on the street, when evening falls so hard, I will comfort you."
President McAleese, who will leave the Aras this evening, said people should not take for granted the importance of having a home.
She said: "It's not just a place, it's not just bricks and mortar, it's a place where you have your family, it's a place where your friends can come to, it's a place where you have your memories, it's a place where you throw off your shoes at the end of a tiring day."