A Christmas like no other for Cork’s oldest charity

The annual Penny Dinners Christmas lunch has been cancelled because of Covid-19 concerns, but volunteers will do everything in their power to make sure nobody in Cork goes hungry this Christmas Day.

In normal times, Santa Claus would arrive on Christmas morning on the Polar Express at Kent Station, his night’s work done except for one last call. Every year the big man drops in to the Penny Dinners Christmas lunch and delivers Christmas presents to some of the most vulnerable people in Cork. Covid-19 has put paid to that tradition, at least for this year.

I called in to Penny Dinners last week and was surprised immediately by the downbeat mood of the volunteers, because there’s usually an industrious, friendly air to the place, with volunteers preparing food or putting together hampers, and slagging each other like it’s an Olympic sport and they’re planning on going home with gold.

The charity’s Little Hanover Street has been closed to service users since the pandemic hit in March, with takeaway meals available at the door. The long tables and pews, which used to offer respite and dignity to people with nowhere else to go, are full now with donated food and household goods.

Penny Dinners is the oldest charity in the city, with roots dating back to a Famine soup kitchen. Legend has it the charity was founded by Quakers, and even if that’s not quite true, it’s still a decent story about good people, so print the legend.

Catriona Twomey, Penny Dinners co-ordinator, told me everyone in the charity was “heartbroken” that this year’s Christmas Day lunch for service users had to be cancelled because of concerns about Covid-19. She said that Penny Dinners always puts the safety of its volunteers and service users first, and “with a heavy heart” had made the decision to cancel the annual lunch.

“We had a meeting and, in light of the pandemic, we felt we had to err on the side of caution,” Catriona said, adding that their plans have been adapted to ensure that Christmas will still happen, just not as normal.

“We will deliver a full Christmas dinner, supplied by our friends in the River Lee Hotel, to everyone who needs one, and we will bring Christmas gifts and dinners to people in hostels, hotels and B&Bs.

“It won’t be the same, but people’s health has to come first. We are here on Christmas Day from 9am to 3pm, and we are urging anyone who needs a dinner to come to our door and we will look after them.”

Catriona also told me Penny Dinners’ knight riders will be out on their bikes on Christmas night, as every night, delivering food parcels as normal, and she said the charity will continue to support numerous other charities across the city.

“Santa will still be with us in spirit, and next year he will be back in person”

Volunteer Charles O’Sullivan praised the work of PJ Coogan of 96fm, and Michael Mulcahy of the Little Island Business Association, who he said had moved might and main to secure alternative premises before the annual lunch had to be cancelled.

“Ah look, it’s heart-breaking to see people’s hopes dashed after so much hard work had gone into planning a safe Christmas for volunteers and service users,” Charles told me. “We’ve been Covid-free all throughout the pandemic, and we take health and safety extremely seriously.

“We had everything fully prepared in terms of securing a well-ventilated, alternative premises, our friends in Sanitise Ireland were going to sanitise the site, and the community gardaí, the army and UCC security were going to steward the event.

“We had all the boxes ticked and now the wind has been knocked out of us.”

Catriona told me she and the volunteers find it very upsetting to think of people being lonely and eating their Christmas dinner “on the footpath” this year, but this is what would happen for some people.

“It just breaks your heart to think of people being lonely on Christmas Day. We so wanted to see their smiling faces, and to let them know that they’re part of the family.”

Despite this setback, Catriona said the volunteers and service users are practical people, and look forward to brighter days ahead once the pandemic passes.

“This is the first time in over a decade we won’t be having a Christmas lunch,” she said, “but Santa will still be with us in spirit, and next year he will be back in person.

“We believe a miracle happens every day on Little Hanover Street, and we will wait for Christmas 2021, which will be bigger and better than ever.”

In the meantime, the everyday work of Penny Dinners continues, with thousands of food hampers delivered across the city every week, and Catriona said the charity is struggling to meet demand.

“The public are always so good to us, and we would appeal to people to continue to donate, to help make sure nobody goes hungry at Christmas, or at any time throughout the year.”

Donations can be made at Penny Dinners, Little Hanover Street, Cork, or on the charity’s website.