Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 08 Jun 2018










Professor ALASTAIR CHRISTIE, School of Applied Social Studies in University College Cork, on 8 June 2018, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on CAITRIONA TWOMEY


Caitriona Twomey describes herself a ‘volunteer’ in Penny Dinners.  But she is clearly a special type of volunteer.  She is a volunteer who has spent the last twelve years, seven days a week, helping to create this amazing organisation that currently produces approximately 2000 freshly-made dinners per week and provides a welcoming space for people taking part in a wide range of activities, as well as a place of sanctuary and companionship.  Penny Dinners is truly an amazing organisation, but before I describe what currently happens in Penny Dinners and Caitriona’s remarkable contribution to this organisation, let’s go back in its history.


Penny Dinners was formally established in 1888 at a meeting in the Imperial Hotel.  A committee of ‘ladies’, as stated in an article in the Cork Examiner, was set up, and started to raise funds for a kitchen and food.  Funds were raised by selling tickets for a penny throughout Cork.   Penny Dinners opened in 5 Drawbridge Street on St Patrick’s Day in 1888 and provided freshly produced meals seven days a week.    While this article provides the first official record of Penny Dinners in Cork, the organisation may have ties that go back to the soup kitchens run by the Society of Friends (Quakers) at the time of the Famine in the 1840s.  At that time the practice of paying one penny is said to have been established and this penny was used to pay for a quart of soup and half a loaf of bread.   Back in the 1840s, there was high demand for this type of support with, and by 1847, it was reported that 1400 quarts of soup being provided each day free to those in need.  The demand for food resulted in the setting up of the Adelaide Street soup kitchen which was adjacent to the shipyard.  Being placed so close to the shipyard allowed for steam to be piped from the shipyard furnaces into the kitchens to heat up the soup.


Providing food to people who are hungry in Cork remains a core focus of Penny Dinners today,  and demands for this service have been rapidly growing. Penny Dinners are not just feeding people who would have traditionally been associated with poverty - the 300-plus adults who are homeless in Cork - but are now also feeding new groups of people -  people who are sometimes called the ‘new poor’: people in all types of precarious employment with zero-hour contracts and few basic rights; families with small children; people who may be just about managing to paying their mortgage or their rent, but who can’t afford food; and those people in marginalised communities.   These ‘new poor’ are part of the estimated 800,000 people living in poverty in Ireland today.


Caitriona’s family have had a long record of supporting people in Cork who are living in poverty.  She speaks very fondly of both her parents and how they shaped her understanding of how important it was to help others.  Caitriona explained to me that it was largely through her father, Tom Lynch, who was Cook Sergeant in Collins Barracks, that she became involved in Penny Dinners.  She said that every Christmas morning he would disappear and not reappear till much later in the day.  Along with her sisters and brothers, Caitriona would get frustrated as they would have to wait till he came home before they could have their family Christmas dinner.  It wasn’t until Caitriona was twelve, and after some persuasion, that the mystery was explained and Caitriona was taken by her father to the College of Commerce, where he was the main organiser, along with a number of other soldiers and civilian volunteers, in providing Christmas dinners for people who were living in poverty in Cork.   After this, Caitriona went along every Christmas to help her father provide these free dinners.   She told me how nervous she was when she started to volunteer, but how proud she was of her father’s generosity and organisational skills.  By now, Caitriona had started to notice that it wasn’t just at Christmas that her father helped people living in poverty. He would regularly provide food and other basic necessities to those people living in need throughout the year.


So, it almost seems inevitable that Caitriona would become a volunteer with Penny Dinners.  And it was twelve years ago when Caitriona made the commitment to become a full-time, seven days a week volunteer in Penny Dinners.   Since then, with help of her family, other volunteers, and a range of donors from people making small donations of food and money to larger organisations making major contributions, Caitriona has been able to transform Penny Dinners into the thriving, innovative organisation it is today. 


Penny Dinners, as well as providing the approximately 2000 dinners per week, both within the centre on Little Hanover Street and delivered to various centres around Cork and individuals’ homes, now also coordinates a wide range of other activities.  Caitriona has a passion for music, especially classical music.  So, it is perhaps not too surprising that Penny Dinners has a choir.  The Cork High Hopes Choir has now gained a well-founded reputation for wonderful music making and has performed at a number of venues around Cork, including UCC.  And if you wander down Little Hanover Street on any Tuesday evening you are likely hear the strumming of guitars, as the Penny Dinners building is transformed into a music studio for budding guitarists.   Not stopping there, Caitriona has plans to create an orchestra.  So, if you play an instrument this may be just the time to become a volunteer in Penny Dinners.  


In addition to this, Penny Dinners has developed a programme called Food for Thought.  This is an opportunity for UCC students to visit Penny Dinners and learn how to cook.  We don’t often think of poverty within the UCC student community, and yet Penny Dinners regularly provided meals to students who have just run out of money.   UCC students also have strong track record in giving, as volunteers, as well as receiving help from Penny Dinners. And I’m pleased to say that UCC staff, particularly members of the General Services team, some of whom are here today, also make significant contributions to the everyday work of Penny Dinners.   It would take too long to list off all the services that Penny Dinners provide,  but let me just say that they work in some of the most innovative ways with some of most marginalised in our society, including members of the Traveller Community, the Roma Community and asylum seekers.


All of this has been achieved with the encouragement, support, persuasion and leadership of Caitriona Twomey. And there is more.  After three years of fund-raising and saving, Penny Dinners has been able to buy a building nearby on James Street. This building will be primarily used for storage and the preparation of food.  However, the building has a number of other rooms and one of these is going to be used as a medical clinic.  There will be a volunteer GP service one day a week and volunteer nurses will be available on other days. There will also be a volunteer podiatrist and a volunteer optician.  There is already a hairdresser around the corner who helps to provide free haircuts.   It is difficult to understand how Caitriona on a purely voluntary basis can keep all of this going, but she does, and she says that she thrives on it.


Penny Dinners provides remarkable services, but it is also a remarkable place.   While we are encouraged to celebrate diversity within this ever increasingly vibrant and diverse Ireland, there is also a vital need to find commonalities and opportunities for solidarity that cut across these diversities.  If we are interested in developing a more socially just Ireland, and I hope that we all are here today, we need to cherish the bonds that highlight our common humanity.  It is these bonds that make us realise how important it is that we reach out and help each other.  Penny Dinners is one of those rare spaces which encourages this to happen.  Caitriona ensures that there is a blurring between volunteers and service users.  Everybody that goes into Penny Dinners is given the opportunity to help in all sorts of ways, as well as to receive.  Everybody is welcome, nobody is judged, it is assumed that everybody has strengths and something to give, maybe not immediately, but with time, respect and compassion we all have something to offer.   It is also assumed that volunteers will learn and gain as much as those using the services.  This is where Caitriona says she gets her energy to continue. She says she learns something new every day and feels profoundly cared for by the volunteers and all the people who come into Penny Dinners, as well as by her own very special family.   It is undoubtedly quite remarkable what Caitriona has been able to achieve.   


To finish, I was trying to think of a way to explain what sitting in Penny Dinners feels like.   I’m not sure I can, but let me try to give you some insight.  The last time I meet Caitriona in Penny Dinners we moved away to a quiet area of the dining room, so that we could have a chat and a cup of tea.  Of course, it’s not too easy to find a quiet spot in Penny Dinners, even if it is three o’clock in the afternoon and the lunches have all been cleared away.  Caitriona was apologetic because she had to answer a few phone calls while I was there, but we did manage to talk about some of her hopes and plans for the future of Penny Dinners.  While we were chatting, one of the men called over to Caitriona to say that he was off to rehearsals as he was in a play at the Cork Arts Theatre.  There was another man who was sorting out a new delivery of clothes and asked Caitriona for some advice. Then two members of the Garda Síochána wandered in and sat down with a cup of tea.  Everybody was very relaxed and why wouldn’t they be, as I soon found out that one the guards plays the drums for the guitarists on Monday evenings and the other one is a regular volunteer.  There is a trip to France planned for next week and a young man came into the building looking rather sheepish.  He confided in Caitriona that his passport had just run out of date, so he wouldn’t be able to go to France with the group.  This seemed to cause no fuss, a form to reapply for a passport was quickly produced, advice was given about where to get some photographs, some funds were given to help with the costs, and one of the Garda offered to meet the service user at Anglesea Street Garda Station later that day to get the forms signed.   A solution was found and an opportunity was created to allow us to express our common humanity and to reinforce that important solidarity between people who have very different positions in society.  Just another everyday event in Penny Dinners!


I am going to finish now.   And perhaps I have not said enough about Caitriona, and have instead talked too much about Penny Dinners.  But it seems to me that Caitriona is Penny Dinners and Penny Dinners is Caitriona.  The place and the person are both quite remarkable.  I can’t speak more highly of Caitriona, a person who shows unending compassion and generosity to people in Cork.  Penny Dinners clearly deserves our support and Caitriona is a very worthy recipient of this honorary degree.



Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in utroque Jure, tam Civili quam Canonico, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.









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