Monday 26 February 2018

'It's a man thing. I think we all find it hard to show emotion'

An encounter with a man on the street led Phil Thompson to helping the homeless overcome their addictions

Leaving free: Tiglin residents John Doyle and Brian Thornton with Tiglin CEO Phil Thompson Photo: David Conachy
Leaving free: Tiglin residents John Doyle and Brian Thornton with Tiglin CEO Phil Thompson Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Like the thousands in Dublin's city centre that day, Phil Thompson was walking down Dublin's Nassau Street when he came across a homeless man begging for money.

But unlike the others who passed by, he explains: "I told myself: 'If he was still there by the time I get back, it's my cue to do something'."

He bought a takeaway meal: "If I didn't have anything to say, at least I would have something to give," he recalls, and when he rounded the corner, the same face met him again, so the two men sat and ate.

Fast forward 16 years and Phil is sitting in the front room of a large property in Greystones, Co Wicklow, which has seen dozens of men come through its doors as broken spirits and leave free of alcohol and drugs.

The property, Carraig Eden, hit headlines this week when it was saved from private sale. Now Phil wants to show the power of the work carried out here.

It's been a long road. After the encounter on Nassau Street, Phil sold his clothes shop and worked at a homeless shelter.

"There was a four-year run where every Christmas Eve or Christmas Day someone died. I remember one man in his 20s came in on Christmas Eve with all his presents for his children. I could sense his excitement and nervousness at the thought of seeing them the next day. Later, while doing room checks, we found he had overdosed. Two or three days later I was standing by his graveside, watching his young children and thinking about the unopened presents where he left them.

"Addiction is a great remover," he says, "It will remove your dignity, your belief, your confidence, your family, and ­- if you leave it long enough - your life. That was a defining moment for me. It motivated me to do something."

The Dubliner began sending people with addiction to a year-long course in Scotland, which was designed to give people access to education and life skills. When they returned they had completely changed and he decided to set up a similar service here. And so Tiglin began in 2008.

Today two of the 30 men housed at the property sit beside him to share their stories. John Doyle (50), from Wicklow town, had endured a childhood of trauma before discovering escapism in alcohol and drugs. "I quickly realised it would take away a lot of the pain. I was very depressed and I was using it to mask my feelings but it was only making me feel worse in the long run."

A suicide attempt on the waterfront in Wicklow town two years ago led him to a psychiatric hospital before he arrived at Tiglin.

"I was very angry and bitter and I hated everyone," he recalls. "I had buried my emotions so deep I couldn't cry. Even when my dad died I couldn't cry. I hadn't since I was a child. Then one day it just happened. The floodgates opened and I couldn't stop. It went on for weeks and... sorry," he says, becoming emotional.

"I was a bit embarrassed by it. It's a man thing - we all find it hard to show emotion. But I realised more and more each day all these feelings were coming to the surface and I have found incredible healing in it. I have a great peace in my life now. It's a lot more than friendship in the house, they are family."

Dundalk man Brian Thornton (36) was a sports-mad student who was vigilant about alcohol intake until he began suffering from panic attacks. One night out his friend gave him the perfect solution.

"Here, drink that," he said, putting a pint down in front of him. By the second drink, Brian felt his fears subside.

His dependence on alcohol slowly began, as he explains: "Every day I found a different reason to drink. I felt frustrated because I had no purpose. I was working at a job I didn't enjoy and that took over my life, so at weekends I would say 'I am going to have a good blow-out now because I am earning good money and I deserve it'." Several years working in construction in London sent him over the edge.

"Everyone would be on for drinks every night but while they would go home I wouldn't." He hit rock bottom on a three-day binge and was confronted about getting help. It took a month of calls to secure a place in Tiglin and Brian came through the programme to get sober.

"Now, if I am having a tough day, I am just having a tough day. No one is happy every day. Give it 24 hours and there are always people you can talk to."

Phil has watched those coming though his doors graduate, he has attended weddings and christenings and has even been asked to be best man. He sees it as a privilege - to share a man's happiest times, when he has seen them at their depths.

Sunday Independent

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