Friday 23 February 2018

Why happy communities are out to lunch

Nature: Enjoying the beauty of summer
Nature: Enjoying the beauty of summer

Fiona O'Connell

Life seems light-hearted in this wonderful weather, what with June "bustin' out all over" as Carousel proclaims. Trees resemble giant broccoli again, while hedgerows are a shock of green and white, thanks to cow parsley. Wild cherry trees have replaced last month's haunting blasts of hawthorn, with crab apple in bloom adding a romantic pink blush.

No wonder laughter is also easy, as illustrated by the blackboard I spotted recently outside a pub in a nearby village. "Hungry?" it reads. "We have food. Thirsty? We have alcohol. Lonely? We have Fintan."

Social isolation is hard to imagine when the sun is shining, yet its darkness persists beneath the lengthening days, with untold numbers of troubled souls among us. And unlike those immortalised in Ralph McTell's Streets of London - one of the most recorded songs ever, significantly - they are not confined to cities.

This is the case in Ireland, thanks to a health system that leaves many who are mentally ill drifting through towns and villages, where they linger a while before disappearing to heaven knows where.

Those passing through this country town come in all sad shapes and sizes, of both genders, young and older. Rarely are they obvious at first sight. It is only when you see them still hunched by the river, long after the sun has set and other folk have gone home or to meet friends, that you realise something is amiss.

It isn't just strangers who suffer in silence. There are neighbours and acquaintances who appear cheerful; a facade that fades once they close their front doors behind them. Even this tight-knit community has not escaped the suicide epidemic that continues to plague our country.

There have been a few awful occasions since I moved here when I've woken to find tables set up on the far riverbank. Alas, these are not bearing refreshments for a kayaking competition or a Tidy Towns clean-up; they are there to provide sustenance for volunteers searching for locals who have gone ominously missing.

What's more, despite all the media hype about folk feeling happier as they age, increasingly it is older people who are struggling most. The closure of traditional centres of social interaction - the pub, post office and small, community-based businesses - undoubtedly plays a pivotal part in their sense of abandonment and irrelevance.

All the more reason, then, to celebrate today's seventh annual Street Feast, the brainchild of a group of volunteers who wanted to find a way to reduce isolation and boost community resilience. These life-affirming lunches hosted by locals for locals are taking place across the country.

When life piles too much on your plate, isn't it better to share?

Sunday Independent

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