Every evening, volunteers set out on bikes from Penny Dinners, delivering food and supplies to Cork’s homeless community. Donal O’Keeffe accompanied the Knight Riders on their rounds.
It’s 7.30pm, and outside Cork Penny Dinners’ Little Hanover Street premises, the white van is loaded up with crates filled with food. Eight volunteers wheel around on bikes, raring to go. Some are recovering addicts, people who were once homeless and who want to give something back.
Catriona Twomey, Penny Dinners co-ordinator, calls the cyclists “Knight Riders”. Like that programme with the talking car, someone says.
“If these bikes could talk,” says one cyclist, “they’d tell some story.” He’s Tommy Long. He’s 36, and he’s been clean nearly two years now.
On Tommy’s arm is tattooed a reminder: “No matter what, don’t pick up that first drug”. He says “I know if I take a drink, I’ll take coke, and then I’ll take a tablet, and then I’ll be back on the heroin, and then I know I’ll die.”
Tommy says heroin destroyed him, but Catriona helped save him. That’s why he’s here tonight.
Another cyclist, Conor Flynn, agrees: “This place is a gift. Seeing people reaching out and helping would restore you.” Conor is 44, and has been clean for eight years. He had previously been sober for three years but, he says, “I f*cked up. Then it took me 13 years to get clean again.
Driving the van tonight is David Feeney, from Hollyhill. With him is Derry Falvey from Farranree. They’re both “on the Covid pay” and have been volunteering the past while. In the back of the van is Paul, in charge of distribution.
The van pulls out, outriders leading the way.
The bikes were donated by Cillian Read of the Bike Shed, and David Whelan of 1st Choice Property, and they really earn their keep, with Tommy reckoning they do about 20 kilometres “seven nights a week, back-and-forth around the city, from Kent Station to the Western Road”.
First stop is Daunt’s Square.
Pulling up outside Dealz, Dave and Derry open the back doors, and cyclists grab bags and disappear in and out of Cork’s warren of back-streets and alleyways. They know everyone on the streets by name, and where to find them.
As Tommy says, “We’ve been there.” People call to the van, too, and are each given a green-and-white-striped bag holding a cup of soup and a hot dinner of chops and mash and veg.
On Patrick Street, at the top of Carey’s Lane, a dozen Deliveroo cyclists sit on street furniture, awaiting the next job.
Outside Ulster Bank, volunteers from Cork Homeless Help and Support set up their trestle tables. People mill around, social distancing be damned, when suddenly a fight breaks out at the top of Academy Street.
Two men are locked together, punching each other in the head. Other people break them up, but the bigger man is bleeding and looks dazed.
He follows his opponent down the street, roaring abuse, the other man shouting back death threats. Tommy says this is a long-running feud, and then he zooms away to give food to a man sitting on the pavement outside Dunnes.
At the lights on Patrick Street, behind Father Mathew, a man staggers toward the van. Dave asks would he like some food. “Aw nice wan, man,” he replies, “I was actually looking for ye.” Paul gives him a green-and-white bag.
It’s 8.30pm, and Dave parks on Oliver Plunkett Street Lower, by the entrance to the Lapps Quay carpark, beside the doorway where Kathleen O’Sullivan died homeless two winters ago.
By the fire door behind O’Brien Office Systems, ten people lie on the pavement, all the worse for wear, empty cans scattered around.
A smiling bearded man - “John Swan, the Lough” - says they all lived in “Tentsville on the Mardyke, until Timmy -Hourihane- was murdered” in February.
He says he usually sleeps now in a wood half-an-hour away, surrounded by nature. He talks fondly of a vixen and cub there. “They’d nearly eat out of your hand”.
John says the worst thing about Covid-19 is the recent changes to Social Protection payments: “The double-bubble is a disaster. You get two weeks’ dole and you think you’re a movie star with the money, and then you’re broke for a fortnight.
John’s girlfriend, “Jane Doe”, sits beside him in the doorway, hugging his leg. She says she would be dead if not for Penny Dinners. “Catriona is the heavens, and the lads on bikes are the stars”.
On George’s Quay, the van stops. A homeless person usually sleeps near Velo Café. Tonight, there’s no sign, but Tommy spins by: he met them already and they’re sorted for grub.
Across the river, beside the Holy Trinity church, the lights burn bright in RTÉ Cork. On the radio, John Creedon plays Ruth Brown.
“I’m gonna go to church on Sunday, ’cause I got nothin’ left to lose, and it’s a real good day for the Blues”. It’s nearly 9pm.
Dave and Derry drive around town, delivering food to hostels, B&Bs and hotels where homeless people are staying.
On Penrose Quay, there’s a moment of comedy as they offer food to three men drinking on a bench. Alarmed, the men motion to a moored ship: they’re Russian sailors.
On Oliver Plunkett Street Lower, half the crowd from earlier has gone. Three men lie beneath blankets, asleep.
John Swan is dozing in the doorway. Jane Doe is gone.
Back at Little Hanover Street, the volunteers unload empty crates. Tomas, who usually drives the big Penny Dinners van, says the Knight Riders have made this part of their service “strong, fast and efficient”.
Catriona Twomey rattles off the figures, and they’re frightening. Penny Dinners currently serves 400 dinners every day, which is way up, and the Gardai distribute 300 hampers every day, and the Knight Riders hand out 150 meals every night.
She says they can only keep the show on the road thanks to the public, and supporters like the River Lee Hotel, the South County Bar, Apache Pizza, and Lavish, and, of course, the volunteers.
An older man approaches the emptied van and asks if there’s any food left. Dave says, no, it’s all gone, sorry. The man turns away, looking miserable.
Tommy shouts “Wait, wait, there’s one bag left!” Conor hands him the green-and-white-striped bag. “There ya go, kid, that was meant to be.”
It’s five to ten, as darkness falls. On the radio, John Creedon signs off with Rico Rodriguez’ ‘Children of Sanchez’. On Little Hanover Street, the lads lock the door on Penny Dinners.
The work begins anew at 7am, and the Knight Riders will be back in the evening to do this all over again.
To donate to Penny Dinners, please visit corkpennydinners.ie.