5. St Vincent’s Night Shelter, Back Lane, Dublin

Winter nearly here,
the extra beds are out
in Back Lane Hostel.

There are lumps of good
beef in the stew,
the pipes give heat
like the softly burning
turnip God’s Son’s
statue has
for a heart.

The smell of drink
and thawing feet
fills the big room,
we sit around, shirts
are washed
for a new morning,
cigarettes are rolled.

One man takes a tin flute
from his pocket
and in a corner near
Misery plays old Hope
back in, whiteshirted,
smelling of soap.

Padraig Daly OSA


Written by contemporary Irish Augustinian priest Padraig Daly, this poem places the reader amongst the displaced and misplaced of any large city. While it is a poem that uses imagination to evoke a reality, it is very much a poem grounded in reality, some of it harsh indeed. Ironically, the “Back Lane” of the title is not a fanciful tag to help us imagine those relegated to “back” streets; it is in fact the name of a real place, still operating, and run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Dublin.

The poem begins with the augury of winter: signal for many chronically homeless people to find suitable shelter. I once knew a homeless alcoholic man who would try to arrange to be in jail for the winter, an effective ploy that kept him alive for a few years more than he might otherwise have managed. Australian winters can be mean, but Northern hemisphere winters can be vicious. Hence the “extra beds” waiting for the extra bodies.

At first reading this is an uncomplicated kind of poem, but it has a number of very endearing and challenging images that deserve close attention, and in terms of our intention of “reading for Mercy” it embodies some crucial lessons for us. At the centre of the poem is the image of the Sacred Heart, radiating warmth and providing both comfort and nourishment through that wonderful simile of the “turnip”. For those malnourished by life on the streets, that image of the turnip is inviting and empathetic. With the quality of the stew and the warmth of the pipes we are drawn into the welcome of this place. At the same time, there is perhaps the tacit suggestion that sometimes, as in any place reliant on donations and hand me downs, the stew might not be fortunate enough always to have “good” beef.

The Sacred Heart is described relationally as God’s Son- poignant in this milieu where so many relationships have presumably been fractured, every story different but united by loss and strife. Noteworthy is the way the second stanza unfurls. It ends with the emphasis clearly on the word “heart”, affirming the unambiguous declaration of love and care made by Jesus in his guise of the turnip-hearted Sacred Heart, such a familiar, appealing and yet mystically exalted concept.

The third stanza lands us back into sensory reality with the smell of drink and thawing feet- both odours evocative of the itinerant and chronically homeless. The poem’s milieu is masculine, but one might ask oneself how one would characterise the realities and evoke the literal and metaphorical “odour” of other types of homelessness- women subject to domestic violence, children placed into foster care, those isolated elderly who are abandoned in aged care facilities, those rendered homeless by natural disasters. What are the odours of fear, loneliness, bewilderment and neglect in your neighbourhood? The other evening I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend, and near us at a table were a child and a woman I presumed was his grandmother. She was crying, just gently crying, the tears falling down her cheeks, sitting eating with her grandchild in the restaurant. And I wondered, helplessly, what was their story?

The fourth line of the third stanza “we sit around” is crucial for a couple of reasons. The pronoun is vastly revealing. It unselfconsciously affirms the poet’s solidarity with the people in the night shelter. He does not differentiate between himself and them- he is in solidarity and companionship with them. Of course there are differences, but that little pronoun comes as close as anything to asserting a commonality, their shared humanity. Writing of his communities for disabled people, the great contemporary prophet and founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier explains: “To live with” is different from “to do for”… It means that we create relationships of gratuity, truth and interdependence, that we listen to the handicapped people, that we recognise and marvel at their gifts.” (Community and Growth)

That phrase “we sit around” is revelatory in another sense. If one spends time with homeless, vulnerable people, if one chooses to be in companionship with them as well as working on their behalf, one will surely spend a lot of time “sitting around” and perhaps not appearing to achieve a great deal, or even effect any great changes. Perhaps someone should write a thesis about the amount of time Jesus just spent “sitting around”!

Yet “sitting around” is not all that happens with and for these people in the poem. Clothes are washed, and the ever important substitute addiction of cigarettes is attended to. There is the companionship of preparing for and facing together the “new morning”. The white shirts and the smell of soap proclaim the dignity of each person present.

The final stanza of the poem subtly works its wonder, beginning with one man- because one is all it takes- who makes a simple music on a simple and portable instrument. The brilliant lines “And in a corner near Misery plays Old Hope back in…” encapsulate all that this place and these people are about. They are near Misery, they know Misery as a close companion, but the gesture of this one man to make music will usher in Hope, a Hope that has been ushered in and exiled a thousand times in these hundred lifetimes, but always it seems, is waiting and willing to return. The music works its wonders. Hope is old, and in this environment she may have been sorely tested, but she is wise and faithful.

This last stanza invites our reflection. There is a recurring biblical concept of the stranger mediating the Divine, of God surprising us in the unknown person on the path. Perhaps the Emmaus story is the most vivid version. It is found in such stories as Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers at Mamre in Genesis 18. It is endorsed in the New Testament by Jesus himself in the great eschatological tale of Matthew 25. It is echoed, in the Letter to the Hebrews where the meaning of solidarity is also made startlingly clear: …remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Keep in mind those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those too who are being badly treated, since you too are in the one body… (Heb 13:1-3)

There is a traditional Irish poem that celebrates the Divine in the guise of the stranger. The little verse, which loses some of its mimetic lyricism but none of its meaning in English, goes like this:

I saw a stranger yestreen;
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place;
And in the sacred name of the Triune,
He blessed myself and my house,
My cattle and my dear ones.
And the lark said in her song,
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise;
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise

Apart from the strong assertion that hospitality to the stranger is hospitality to the hidden Christ amongst us, what is fascinating about this little verse is the emphasis on the importance of music in the trinity of essentials offered to the stranger. Food, yes, drink, yes, but then music. In literal terms music encourages a sense of camaraderie; it releases the rhythms of joy and life, which in the depressed and destitute of the homeless shelter might be very well hidden indeed. Most people, even the most damaged and disabled, find music ultimately irresistible. Metaphorically here it also signifies something beyond the basic physical needs of the person, it defers to the spiritual and the mysterious in each of us, to the deep primal life force. The gift of music results in blessing for all who hear it, the host and the guest, the host’s loved ones and the whole household, even the animals.

Literal music can work wonders, but what do we make of the metaphorical meaning in Daly’s contemporary words and the ancient Irish poem? What is your tin whistle and where is it needed? What is the music you bring to the table, what is the music you invest in your situation? What is it that lifts your practical and worthwhile responses into a higher realm of spirit meeting spirit? It could be as simple as a smile, a genuine smile, it could be the effort made to create an aesthetically pleasing environment, it could be myriad small thoughtful gestures that signify sincerity and solidarity. It is a quality, a nuance, that complements the utilitarian and goes beyond the normal obligations. Yet this music is not about “more” or “better” or “bigger” but surely about meeting, about creating and fostering an arena for the meeting of spirits. It makes for an interesting reflection and discussion to consider what this “music” is for you and yours. And what it is not.

Let us pray for each other:

that the Jesus of the Sacred Heart continue to show us his Turnip Heart,
that we may learn and encourage the art of playing Old Hope back in,
and that we may dare, in the hospitality that is our life, not just the Food and the Drink but the Music.

For follow-up:

  • Padraig Daly has a number of collections of poetry and many poems concerned with broadly spiritual themes. Much of his work is published by Dedalus Press of Dublin. If you Google his name you will find a couple of Podcasts- one an interview with him, the other him reading some of his poems.
  • You will find a different world view from the mainstream if you explore in person or via cyberspace the L’Arche communities of Jean Vanier.
  • The work of The Society of St Vincent de Paul in Ireland and elsewhere is readily viewable on the web.