Honorary degree for head of Cork's Penny Dinners

Caitriona Twomey at Cork Penny Dinners. Pic: Larry Cummins

A volunteer who is the powerhouse behind Cork’s Penny Dinners first developed the helping gene when she realised that when her father went “missing” on Christmas morning he was actually out feeding the city’s elderly.

Caitriona Twomey, who is to receive an honorary doctorate of laws at UCC tomorrow, says she and her siblings used to get a little annoyed when their father Tom Lynch did a disappearing act on Christmas morning.

“We would be cheesed off, because we were waiting to open our selection boxes and he was out gallivanting. One year, we even wrote him a letter about it!

“He still didn’t tell us what he was doing. He just laughed and threw his arms around us.

“When I was older, I found out that he was down in the College of Commerce looking after the elderly with food for the day.

When I was about 12, he brought me with him. I didn’t know what to do at first. I was embarrassed. Then, the people at it were trying to give me a few bob. I was just a kid. That was the start of [this sort of work], really.

Caitriona, who grew up near the North Cathedral in Cork City, remembers the old-fashioned, bright, festive decorations adorning the tables and the great joy her father brought to people with his unassuming kindness. 

Tom, who was in the army, died in 1996 and, after his passing, Caitriona heard numerous tales of his generosity.

On one occasion, a man approached her on a train to inform her that her father and late mother Breda had saved the roof from over the head of his family. 

The man said that, once he promised Mr and Mrs Lynch he would “give up the drink”, they handed the money over to him. They declined to take the cash back.

Caitriona, who has run Penny Dinners for 12 years, says her mother Breda was also kindness personified. 

Her father used to joke that the war in Bosnia kept Breda busy with her charitable enterprises. 

The family were always on the go, as they owned takeaways and shops, so Catriona was used to a life of 4am starts.

The official remit of Penny Dinners is to provide a daily food service to the needy in Cork.

However, Caitriona works around the clock, seven days a week sourcing accommodation for individuals, dropping food to housebound clients who can’t get in to the building, and overseeing night classes on-site.

She says the fact that the country has moved on from recessionary times has had little bearing on the numbers who present at the service in need of a hot meal and a drink. 

A large number of families avail of the daily food service and women with bare cupboards often come in seeking assistance.

The end of the recession didn’t make any difference here. We have lots of people. Some people are able to move on from here. Some people stagnate and can’t get out.

"They can’t get employment. You have issues around mental health and so on.”

Ms Twomey is grateful for the support of the 90 volunteers who keep the show on the road and to the companies and schools who contribute daily.

She will receive her honorary degree tomorrow at UCC alongside a number of distinguished names, including British crime writer Martina Cole. 

Cole is the youngest of five and was born in Essex to Irish parents. She is a patron of Women’s Aid.

You can donate to Penny Dinners on corkpennydinners.ie

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