A man with a mission for his local community
"We didn't chase funding, we chased people", Joe Donnelly, of the Fair Play Community Cafe in Ringsend, tells Lucinda O'Sullivan
"We used to vandalise this place. We had cider parties here in the 1960s." Said Joe Donnelly, talking of his young life growing up in hard times in Ringsend. He was referring to what is now the Fair Play Cafe, set in the former Mission Hall in Ringsend. This cafe, childcare facility and garden centre, which focuses on bringing an ethos of hope, love and togetherness, to the local community is one of the best kept secret treasures in Dublin. All of the above are delivered on here under the direction of Joe and his wife Sharon, with a generosity of spirit that is quite extraordinary. It not only benefits the local community in a practical sense, but the net profits each year are then distributed to a different project either in Ireland or in the developing world.
It's easy to see Ringsend's attractions - close to town and Googleland, beside the water, with a great community of people who have lived in Ringsend for generations, and now a whole new generation of people blending in. This upswing of the new, cool Ringsend has brought in shops, cafes and eateries, including the Artisan Parlour, Basil's Pizza, Lotts & Co and more.
Joe told me that the Mission Hall was built by two sisters, from the Bewley's Cafe family. "They were the daughters of Victor Bewley, who lived in Willow Park in Blackrock 100 years ago. They had no children and died in the 1920s, but they were great philanthropists and passionate about the YMCA. About 60pc of the population in Ringsend at that time was Protestant. They combined with Sir William Fry, the solicitor, with great vision for future generations, in seeing places like Rathmines, Parkgate Street, Ringsend and, I think, Crumlin, getting YMCA facilities to help lower class people get a foot on the ladder." In the 1990s, there was talk of demolishing the hall to make way for apartments but, according to the Bewley sisters' last will and testament, it had to be kept in perpetuity and each generation had to name trustees. Joe was approached by the trustees of the time, who were all in their 80s and wondering whether they should sell out or see if something could be done. "So, we eventually took it on as a sort of 'mission impossible', trying to take it from the 19th century to the 21st century. It was full of dry rot and there hadn't been tuppence ha'penny spent on the place, so I knew I was going to have to either chase a lot of money or get people to give their time. Because I'd worked at welding on building sites all over the country, I had connections. Because I'm from the community myself, we were able to listen very carefully to people to see where the gaps were in the fabric of the community and try to fill them. We started a playschool, because there was a big need for that. We started a cafe serving fresh healthy, tasty food, because Ringsend literally had been drowning in a sea of grease and batter! We added a garden centre where you can literally just get lost right in the heart of the city's docklands. We didn't chase funding, we chased people. We decided too that everything should wash its face, as my granny would say. The playschool is financially viable; the cafe is too, so that means we have a FÁS worker and a Tús worker. The garden centre can't afford to pay staff, so it's all volunteers." All the net proceeds go to different projects. Last year, the profits went towards the rescue and rehabilitation of child soldiers in the Congo.
Joe left school at 15 years old, because his dad had died when he was just 13. "I grew up in the flats around the corner. My mother was left with eight kids, two boys and six girls. She had a nervous breakdown, the usual old-school kind of stuff. I say to my kids, the only bereavement counselling we received was at my father's grave, with my uncles saying to my brother, 'you two get out and earn money and hand it up to your mother, or else you'll have us to answer to'. So, I left school at 15, feeling guilty for having stayed to finish my Group Cert and then, quite miraculously, as part of my journey with this place, I got a chance to do a Masters, I would've settled for a Leaving Cert! I did my thesis on hope. I researched it from Aristotle right up to the contemporary, cutting edge post-modern thinkers."
Joe adds: "There is recognition, through human experience, of promoting hope, for the absence of hope promotes despair. So, if you're deprived of beauty, your head is down. If you're living in a community that's defined by glass, steel, concrete, and there's no living beauty there, it actually produces a palpable sense of despair in communities. We unashamedly put our hands up and say we reaffirm the value of beauty in this community, with whatever resources we can get in making this place beautiful with flowers and rabbits and canaries singing, this kind of stuff. We reaffirm the value of children, we put whatever resources we can to see children can prosper and thrive in their community - and we affirm the value of community."
The ladies were working busily as Joe and I talked in what is a really cool, funky and welcoming environment. A table and chair is fixed upside down to the ceiling, while the back wall is wallpapered with good news stories on newspapers' front pages. The food is delicious with lots of posh sambo combinations using fab breads like rosemary and red onion focaccia, spelt and honey loaf, stone ground Guinness breads and more. These can be filled with anything from pulled pork or shredded chicken with hoisin noodles, blackened beef with caramelised onions. Salads include Moroccan couscous, Waldorf, Greek and sweet potatoes. They also do delicious artisan pies and pasties including steak and kidney, beef and stout and Cornish pasties. As well as this they had one of the best gluten-free breads I've had to date, made by Robert Ditty of Ditty's Bakery in Castledawson, Northern Ireland, which is available in a number of shops countrywide.
Walking out through the outdoor dining area bedecked with flowers, a cruise ship was parked on the Liffey, you couldn't but feel uplifted. Joe and Sharon have created an extraordinary little bit of paradise.