Knights of the round tables
Volunteers will take on their biggest challenge yet to feed Dublin's homeless and the more vulnerable members of society on Christmas Day, writes Katie Byrne
At the beginning of October, the Knights of St Columbanus opened up an online registration seeking volunteers for their annual Christmas Day Dinner for Dublin's poor and homeless. They reached their quota of 350 volunteers in just 18 hours.
The event, which started in 1924 and is now in its 92nd continuous year, has never had any difficulty finding people who are prepared to leave their own Christmas Day festivities to help serve dinner to Dublin's homeless community. In fact, they field somewhere in the region of 1,000 inquiries from June all the way to Christmas Eve.
The reasons the volunteers give for taking part vary, says Adrian King, who took over as chairperson of the Christmas Day Dinner in 2011. "Most people are just thankful and want to give back," he says. "But sometimes there are sad stories, like people who are recently bereaved."
For the first 70 years, the event took place in the Round Room of the Mansion House. "During this time, Senator Feargal Quinn, his father Eamonn and his grandfather John were the driving force behind the dinner," explains Adrian. It moved to the RDS in 1994.
King says the event is an institution. "It's a feature of Dublin," he explains. "That's the only way I can describe it. The Lord Mayor and the Archbishop of Dublin come along. In the past, the Taoiseach and the President have attended and addressed our guests with words of hope. Mary McAleese and the whole family came one year. That was a real inspiration to both the homeless people and the volunteers."
There are surprise performances too. Brian Kennedy once performed for the guests and there's another mystery guest lined up for this year.
He - King will only say that it's a man - will be performing alongside their entertainment stalwarts, the Bastible Warren Irish Dancers with Eamonn Campbell, Eoghan Cooke and friends, and mezzo-soprano Norah King (who, incidentally, is Adrian's daughter). The Knights of Columbanus is an order of Catholic laymen "dedicated to the service of Christ in daily life". However, there won't be any religious practices or rituals on the day. "We will have a spiritual atmosphere," says King. "But more importantly, it's festive. People are there to enjoy each other's company. And giving up your time on Christmas Day is a spiritual and Christian thing to do."
Doors to the RDS open at 10.30am and a traditional three-course Christmas dinner, devised by celebrated chef Patsy McGuirk, is served to the poor and homeless of Dublin from 11am to 1pm.
The number of meals prepared has grown in recent years. In 2011, they provided 350 sit-down dinners and 850 takeaway meals. This year, they are distributing 3,500 takeaway meals in addition to 500 sit-down dinners - an increase of 500 meals from the previous year. The Christmas Day Dinner not only feeds the homeless community, it also caters for the HSE, Dublin City Council and organisations like St Vincent de Paul, ALONE, Age Action and the Peter McVerry Trust.
These organisations can order takeaway meals which are assembled by volunteers on Christmas morning at the RDS. They're then collected by the various representatives and distributed throughout the Dublin area - and beyond if required. "We have found that the need for takeaway Christmas dinners has increased significantly over recent years," adds King.
His team start planning the event in late September. Once the volunteer quota has been met (health and safety requirements dictate the maximum number that can register), a series of induction seminars are held on the first Sunday in December.
Volunteers are briefed on health and safety and the history of the meal before being allocated a task. Some volunteers plate and serve meals; some assist with the registration of volunteers and the management of traffic; some are responsible for the recycling of cardboard and the disposal of waste.
There are also hosts and hostesses - people who sit at the table with the guests. "We felt it was important to have someone that our guests could relate to," says King. "Everyone has different gifts. That's the special gift that they have."
Another group of volunteers work on what is known as the 'goody bag line'. Alongside all the meals that go out, they pass out a bag of provisions - nutritional items, hygiene items and Christmas seasonal items - sourced and delivered by Leydens wholesalers and donated by various suppliers (140,000 items went into 2,600 goody bags last year).
Since 2014, guests are also provided with a backpack containing a fleece, towels and hygiene items before they leave. The organisers travelled to China to source the goods directly.
"I was taken aback by how many goodie bags went out," says Eleanor Jones, who volunteered to work on the goodie bag line with her two friends last year.
"The amount of stuff that is needed is quite scary when you see it."
Eleanor, who works in marketing for an automotive group, travelled from Kildare to volunteer at the event last year.
She says her father was initially a "little unimpressed" when he heard she'd be missing mass, but he came around to the idea when he realised that she'd only be volunteering for a few hours and not the entire day.
Tipperary-born Pat Delahunty, who works in data centre operations for a multinational, also volunteered at last year's event with his wife and 29-year-old son, Shane.
"Adrian was looking for a photographer, which Shane does as a pastime. So when he said he'd do it, we decided that we'd all do it. Deirdre helped serve the meals and I took the job on the bus."
A free bus service is provided to and from the RDS with pick-up points at the Mansion House, Clery's Clock and the Four Courts, and Pat's job last year was to meet and greet the guests at each of the stops.
"It rained from the start of the day to the end," he recalls. "So when they got on the bus, they were wet and hungry because they had been out the night before.
"Some of them were drunk, some of them were high and some of them were roaring and shouting because they had their differences on the street the night before - but deep down, all they wanted was a bit of attention.
"The end of the dinner was the hardest part," he adds. "As we helped them back on the buses and dropped them off, I was thinking: 'My God, what are they going to do for the rest of the evening?' I didn't think it would affect me the way it did."
Pat will be volunteering once again this year. Like Adrian, he'll sit down to his own Christmas dinner at about 6pm.
He says it makes his family appreciate everything they have all the more.
"It gave us a different perspective. Sometimes you're giving out about life but volunteering at the Christmas Dinner makes you realise that you're not doing too bad at all."