On 16th December, I went with my cousin Laura to see Glen Hansard play in the Guildhall in Derry. I decided to call it my staff night out. Recently setting up my own business and becoming self-employed means that staff nights out are a thing of the past. Glen was accompanied by a group of musicians playing strings and piano. It was great to hear a few Leonard Cohen covers among the variety of songs from his two solo albums. The music was relaxed, but I felt that there was something different about Glen’s performance. It was passionate and emotional, but it was like there was something else. I can’t explain.
Four weeks later, Laura and I were lucky enough to be two of 180 people in the audience at Seamus Heaney HomePlace for a solo concert that Glen played there. Other than to say it was really special, in the smallest music venue I’ve ever seen him play, I can’t describe it. Hearing Glen read poetry between songs in the hometown of a poet he really admires seemed to be a privilege for him. For me, it was the perfect venue to bring my guide dog Sibyl to her first ever gig, and she behaved well. It was nice to say hi to Glen after, as well as meeting some Frames friends I hadn’t seen in a while.
The second concert, (which was definitely the better of the two) was a more relaxed performance, but there was a good reason for that. The same night that Glen played in Derry in December, he featured on the Late Late show. He sounded nervous and frustrated. He didn’t speak for long, but that was our introduction to Apollo House and the Home Sweet Home campaign. This involved a group of people occupying a vacant office block in Dublin city centre, and providing accommodation for homeless people who would otherwise probably have spent Christmas on the streets. The group left the building on January 12th in compliance with an order from the high court. During their time there, almost 90 people stayed and moved on to six-month supported accommodation where they can live comfortably and feel safe. In my opinion, this was the best thing to happen in Ireland since the marriage equality referendum. It showed how powerful people can be if they work together. Each person’s small part can make a big difference.
So why am I writing about Home Sweet Home now? The answer is that I don’t really know, other than the fact that I’ve been thinking about it very often since before Christmas. It’s very easy to ignore a problem if you can’t identify with it or have no experience of it. It’s easy to say things like, that will never affect me. That’s only a city problem. People who end up in that situation got themselves there or didn’t try hard enough to get out of it. People with addictions can’t be helped. There are enough beds for people who are homeless, why don’t they just be grateful and take them? Of course the real story of homelessness is much different and much more complex than that. The Home Sweet Home campaign told the stories of some of the people living through these experiences. It made them more real. It made us listen and pay more attention. Our government are being put under more pressure to actually do something about the housing crisis, and the people of Ireland aren’t going to stand and do nothing any longer. This campaign won’t be going away any time soon.
Glen Hansard was only one of many activists who supported the Home Sweet Home idea, and he was always very clear about that when he spoke about it. Homelessness is a cause that he’s been involved in for a long time before this campaign even existed. It was never done for publicity, like some people who have done nothing better themselves have been suggesting. Through his music, he was able to promote an idea and a message, and encourage other people to give their support. For someone like me who loves music and was going to the gigs anyway, he really helped capture my attention in a way that other people or the government certainly wouldn’t have. Music can be very powerful! When you’ve been watching someone perform and hearing them talk about music for the last fifteen years, you have an idea of the kind of person they are, and sincerity is a big thing for me when it comes to charity. That’s something so many people in Ireland, even some who are employed in charities lack.
I’ve been frustrated that I couldn’t do much to help with Home Sweet Home during the last month, apart from offering to volunteer if a suitable opportunity came up. However the whole thing has made me realise that there’s much more I could and should be doing to volunteer and help others in general. Even small one off things could help make a difference. Being blind definitely makes it more difficult to go where you want spontaneously, and to help people with things in the same way that sighted people can. When you are blind, you are often the one who needs help, and automatically are linked to specific charities and organisations. That can be frustrating, but it can’t be my excuse. I want to do more to open my mind and benefit others. I have no idea exactly what yet. I just know that this is something I’ve intended doing for a long time, and Home Sweet Home has given me the push that I needed.
When my family and I left Phuket Island in December 2004 to travel to the airport after being caught up in the tsunami, I remember feeling guilty. I knew I was lucky to be safe and to be alive, but I felt bad for escaping and leaving the people behind. Their lives and their town was destroyed. They’d been so good to us, helping us to get out of there, and we were leaving the country and leaving them to sort their lives out. I know there’s nothing we could have done right at that time, but that day changed something in me that I’ve never bothered to properly explore. I’ve always had a gnawing feeling that I should be doing more, because I know I’ve had such a lucky easy life compared to many people. So this is it. This is the year. I have no idea what I will become involved in, but I do know that the Home Sweet Home campaign and the events that took place in Apollo House over Christmas and New Year have made an impact on me in a way that I really wasn’t expecting.