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‘It was crawling with rats the size of kittens’ – Fr Peter McVerry on his transition from privileged life to squalor in the tenements

Cleric says his drive to help others was instilled by his dedicated GP father and devout Catholic-convert mother

John ScallyIndependent.ie

He is one of Ireland’s best known humanitarians. But who is the real Fr Peter McVerry?

One lesser known fact about him is that he can claim to have helped shape Irish sporting history.

Fr McVerry is renowned for his campaigning work for the homeless. Before he began this work though, he taught in Belvedere College and was “persuaded” to coach the rugby team which included a teenager who was to become one of Ireland’s greatest rugby players, Ollie Campbell.

The teenage Ollie was a big fan, saying: “We thought he was great and knew everything about rugby.”

Fr McVerry was born in 1944 and grew up in Newry with his father John, a GP, and his mother Eleanor, a former nurse who hailed from Wales.

He recalled: “For many years, my father did not have a ‘practice’, with assistants or partners to help share the burden at nights or weekends. He was on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even when we went on holidays in those early years, we went to a seaside town six miles away so that he was still available for his patients.

“I remember the phone ringing during the night and he would get up and go out to see a patient, and I never heard him ever complain.

“I learnt a sense of service from him, that life is about helping others and making the world a happier, healthier place.”

He has equal respect for his mother and her sacrifices. “My mother was a Welsh Protestant, who met my father while working in a hospital in England. In those days, if my father, a Catholic, married a Protestant, the Catholic Church would condemn him to hell for all eternity.

“To spare my father that fate, she became a Catholic, and like many converts, she became more Catholic than the Catholics themselves.

“So we were brought to mass every Sunday without fail. Attendance at the family rosary every night was compulsory, no excuses accepted. I got a strong sense of faith from her.

​​​​​​“I think it was a huge sacrifice for her to become a Catholic – I always suspected she was ostracised by her own family, as I never heard her talk about them... Her family was always a mystery to me, an unknown and unknowable part of my history. In those days, the most sinful thing you could do in that strong Welsh Protestant tradition was to become a Catholic.’

Fr McVerry owes both his parents a great debt.

“They shaped my future life for me. When wondering what I would do in life, a sense of service, motivated by faith, seemed to me to be the obvious path I should take.

“I told them I wanted to join the Jesuits, and they questioned me to make sure that this was really what I wanted to do, and then they supported me all the way. I am just so grateful to them, both for the life they gave me and the learning I received from living with them.”

The young McVerry was sent to be educated at Clongowes where his father had been. “I had been thinking of a career in dentistry but I was 15 when I started thinking about joining the Jesuits,” he added.

But it wasn’t until 1974, when he moved to Summerhill, Dublin, in 1974, that his life became shaped by witnessing poverty. Up to then he had a privileged and comfortable life, but the people of Summerhill changed him completely.

“I went to live there with two other Jesuits in the old tenement buildings. Each house was divided into eight flats. Two things shocked me. First, the conditions in which people lived there were appalling. We had a top-floor flat – luckily when we moved in it wasn’t raining.

“The place was crawling with rats, and the rats were the size of little kittens and immune from every poison that was ever invented.

“In our flat, on the top floor, you just listened all night to the rats running on the ceiling, fighting each other, squealing, dragging bits of food. But on the ground floor, or the first floor, parents would tell you of waking up in the morning and finding a rat on the baby’s cot.”

Things were to turn even more bleak for the young priest. “But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that there was no sound-proofing between flats.

“Each house had at least one family with problems, and the problems were usually drink-related. In our house the family with problems lived in the flat below us. Both parents were alcoholics, spent the evening in the pub and, about three times a week, came home at 1am and had an almighty row. They would be shouting and roaring at each other, cups would fly across the room and smash against the wall, and you would hear their three-year old child crying in one of the bedrooms… You didn’t sleep through this.

“At that time, no child had ever gone to school in that area after the age of 12. So they were hanging around the street all day and half the night, most of their parents were unemployed and couldn’t give them any pocket money, so what were they doing? A little bit of robbing.

“And by the time they were 16 or 17, they were doing a lot of robbing and going to prison. It was as predictable as day follows night.”

During those years Fr McVerry concealed the extremities of his living conditions from his parents,

“When I went to work with homeless people in the inner city of Dublin, I think they found that a bit confusing.

“When people asked them what I did, they wanted to be able to say I was a teacher, or a parish priest or something with a recognisable label. But all they could tell them was that they didn’t know exactly what I did – I worked with robbers or something.

“I remember my father coming up to my flat in the inner city one day, and there was a young lad on the floor, drawing on a sheet of paper. Trying to make conversation, my dad asked him, ‘And what does your father do, young fellow?’. ‘Me da was murdered,’ he answered.

“That was my father’s first and last visit to the inner city. I never told him that, later, that young fellow was also murdered.”

In 1979 Fr McVerry opened a hostel for homeless boys aged between 12 and 16, but almost immediately saw the need to extend this to older age groups. In 1983 he founded the Arrupe Society, to provide housing and support to homeless youths. This later became the Peter McVerry Trust, committed to reducing homelessness and the harm caused by drug misuse and social disadvantage.

Asked what drives him, he tells a story of a child who is on the beach and picks up a starfish and throws it back into the sea.

A man comes along and asks him: “There are thousands of starfish on the beach. What difference do you think you are making?”

The child answers: “I am making a difference to that starfish.”

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