LIKE many of the best ideas, it was not inspired by anything in particular. I was in a Cork City pub... and sober, I hasten to add.
However, possibly because my editorial colleagues in the Irish Examiner had imbibed one or two, they were more receptive to my idea, once they got over the prospect of doing something none of us had done before, or even considered.
It started thus: “Lads, how about we try carol singing for charity?”
Once they were on board, I set about organising it with the help of Cork Simon, compiling the carols, organising a bit of practice — essential, as few of us could sing and the more forthright would argue, rightly, we still can’t — but the upshot was that here I was, walking up Oliver Plunkett St on a sunny Friday morning in December 2007 to gather outside the GPO and thinking to myself: “God, I hope it goes well and we’re not booed off the street, or worse. If we make €250 I’ll be happy.”
I needn’t have worried, joy to the world was evident: One woman alone gave us €250, saying “50 for you, 50 for you, 50 for you...” as she proceeded around the group.
A bunch of lads in the GPO opened a window and threw down €20, asking could we “fuck off now”. After a couple of hours of merriment, we retired to the ‘round table’ in The Long Valley bar to count our takings and enjoy one of their famed spiced beef sandwiches, only to end up singing for patrons and being generously rewarded, including by proprietor Peadar Moynihan. Even the teller in the bank threw in €30 to round up the figure, which was... Well, the people of Cork were outstanding and, if my memory serves me well, we raised over €2,000.
I suspect, the generosity was down to the Celtic Tiger era lingering, but mostly because we were doing something for the much-respected Cork Simon. In addition, I feel those forced to endure us appreciated that we were not an actual choir, just a bunch of chancers having fun for a good cause. While the economic situation has, understandably, seen smaller donations over the years — €50 notes are not so evident any more — many people still grace our buckets during our two-hour effort, which was back to our old haunt outside the GPO this year, donating €1,000. It brings our total to date to almost €10,000 for the needy and many happy memories for us.
Sophie Johnston, research and communications co-ordinator with Cork Simon, says the charity relies heavily on fundraising events by ordinary people embracing the extraordinary time that is Christmas, when people are encouraged more than at any other time of year to think of those experiencing a rough time.
“We are seeing more demand than ever before for our services, which are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and it’s only possible with the support of the local community.
“This year, we need to raise €2.8m to keep our services running. The Christmas period is very important. People are generous all year around, but, at Christmas, people think of others less fortunate than themselves and are particularly generous to Cork Simon in the run-up to Christmas.”
Many hear and heed the call. For example, the charity has appeared on the radar of local currach club Naomhóga Chorcaí, who this year are adapting their Saturday public row to raise funds for Simon.
“We had a fundraiser amongst ourselves at Port of Cork for one of our teenage members, who was travelling abroad,” said Rose Magner.
“Then, we thought, coming up to Christmas, it would be good to do a similar fundraiser in support of Cork Simon.
“We christened it ‘Coffee and Currachs’. It took place on December 10 on Lapp’s Quay and allowed the public the opportunity to try their arm at rowing a currach.
“We had tea, coffee, cakes, and music from club members. All in all we put on a day of festive rowing fun for a good cause and we raised over €1,600.
“Everyone appreciates the importance of the service provided by Cork Simon, particularly at this time of year,” she added.
“In terms of helping Simon, what’s important to remember is that by giving of themselves, people can raise funds, but at the same time you can make it an enjoyable experience for everyone.”
Another doing his bit is Clifford O’Hanlon, 88, who recently organised an Old-Time Movie Night in Doneraile Community Hall, in conjuction with the local active retirement association.
“We do a lot for charity, so it’s not just about the social side for our group.
“We try to give back to our local community more than what we receive,” said Clifford, who was born in London, but moved to Cork in 1969.
“Simon has been very close to my heart. “Being 88, I’ve seen the vagaries of life. During that time, I’ve seen decent, hard-working people, but life hasn’t dealt them the best of hands. In my own life, I’ve been up and down like a yo-yo, but in the final analysis, I came out on a high.
“It always made me feel sympathy towards people who have worked hard, but found themselves homeless, due to bad breaks.
“My wife, Anna, has been a great encouragement to me in that regard.
“It’s only natural that you want to help people. In our own comfortable lives we often fail to realise there are people less fortunate in this world.
“The most important thing that people on the street need, apart from the physical support, is hope... that they are wanted, that they are not worthless.
“I think Simon gives that to them.
“A couple of years ago, I got together with people in a writers’ group, people of talent, so I put together an anthology of short stories, Recollections, and I gave the profit of that to Simon Community, amounting to €700.
“As for the Old-time Movie Night: I have a collection of old films, going back to 1913. I’ve got the originals of Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, for example.
“On the night, we had cartoons, the likes of Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry, plus The Three Stooges and a Laurel and Hardy film, Way Out West. Unfortunately, a lot of people felt that it was only for retired people, so we only had 19 people turn, up, but we still raised €182.
“As a result, we put on another show at the home of one of our members, Marie Kiely, in Shanballymore. Her house is quite large, and we got much bigger numbers with the result we raised over €800 in total.
“For us, it’s a two-way street; you are giving something back to the person that is donating, which is very satisfying, while we are also have a good laugh for a good cause.”
Sophie says the support is more important than ever, due to an increasing demand for their services.
“Our services operate through 50% statutory funding and 50% fundraising. Unfortunately, we are experiencing increasing demand.
“Since the beginning of this year, an average of 54 people per night are relying on a Cork Simon emergency bed. Our capacity is stretched, as our shelter normally accommodates 44 people. It’s terrible, but every night, people are turned away, as we are overflowing.
“It’s very difficult for the staff, but obviously, it leads to a very traumatic experience for people having to sleep rough on the streets.
“The bottom line is that there is not sufficient housing. There are many ways people become homeless and we are meeting more and more people from all different backgrounds knocking on our door and seeking support.
“Rents in Cork rose 14% over the 12 months from September of last year. This is driving more and more people into homelessness and, crucially, making it extremely difficult for them to exit homelessness.
“Currently, rent supplement for a single person in Cork City is €550 per month, but the average rent in Cork City for a one-bed property is €867 per month. So, you can see the difficulty that people can face.”
Simon helps people address those difficulties, but it’s up to us to help Simon.
‘It doesn’t matter what you do to raise money’
In the eight years since I proposed the Sing For Simon carol singing, I and my small, but enthusiastic Irish Examiner group have come to realise and rely on the fact that the people of Cork have a high tolerance, are forgiving, and, most of all, appreciate it when people are trying to do something good, even if the result is bad.
Truly, it doesn’t matter what you do to raise money for charity, and how you do it, just do it. Joy to the World indeed.
Cork Simon has its own ideas, says Sophie Johnston, research and communications co-ordinator.
“We have a busy calendar in the run-up to Christmas, with many events listed on our website. For example, people can take part in our Christmas Jumper Day fundraiser. There are Christmas Day swims. Of course, there is carol singing, and, (she says, joking) “as you appreciate, John, you don’t need to be a singer. It’s about doing something for the greater good. For the more athletic, there is the Turkey Trot and also the Seven Heads Walk,” says Sophie.
“We would encourage people to take part in our fundraising events, but we would also invite people to come up with their own ideas, the more imaginative the better. We are only too happy to help.”