VSI Memories 1960's - Phelim Boyle
I moved to Dublin in the early 1960’s. To many people Dublin must have seemed a grim place at that time. The leaders of Church and State set a rigid, puritanical tone. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and President Eamon de Valera were austere serious individuals. However I found Dublin an exhilarating and even liberating place to live, and my fondest memories of that time are bound up with joining VSI. It has had a deep impact on my life.
All of us early volunteers were inspired by Dorothea and Conrad Leser. The Lesers were a refreshingly cosmopolitan couple who founded the Irish branch of SCI. They described the history of the organization and explained its goals, and they led by example. The Leser station wagon, with all four children on board, was usually the first to arrive at our various jobs. They showed the importance of reaching out to the disadvantaged and the downtrodden in society.
I remember clearly one of our early projects at Stewart’s Institution in Palmerston. This was a long term facility for people with mental disabilities. It was founded in 1869 as Stewart’s Institution for Idiotic and Imbecile Children and Middle Class Lunatics. Although the name had been updated, the approach in the 1960’s was still to keep the patients locked up as much as possible and away from society. VSI managed to get an initial engagement to do gardening work on their grounds and this provided a toehold to reach the patients themselves. Dorothea worked tenaciously to persuade the senior administrator, a former military man, to allow some of the patients work alongside the VSI volunteers. I think the Colonel was terrified at the thought of the patients having access to dangerous gardening tools, and I suspect he also had concerns about them hobnobbing with the volunteers.
During this period I met some wonderful people. One of the volunteers, Gerry Brady, worked at the Land Commission. Gerry felt strongly that political change was required to achieve social justice. I recall canvassing for Gerry in the Liberties in 1969 when he ran as an independent in Dublin Central. Other notable volunteers at that time included Janet Barcroft, Mary Cannon, Elizabeth Neuman, Anna Talbot and Geraldine O’Brien.
Working with VSI was a highlight of my stay in Dublin. It helped make me more open minded. My work camp experiences in West Cork and in Deal in the UK taught me about working in groups and reconciling differences. These experiences have helped shape my values.
Service has continued to play an important role in my family. My first wife Clare was a member of VSI, and our two sons Feidhlim and Lochlann have volunteered in charitable foundations around the world. Lochlann’s middle name is Conrad in honour of Conrad Leser. My brother Pearse spent a significant part of his life working with NGO’s in Africa. My wife Mary and I continue to work for social justice causes at home and abroad.
I am thankful to VSI for enriching my life, and providing some great memories. I hope it flourishes during the next 50 years.
Phelim Boyle -Ontario, Canada