Thirty years have passed since the death of Willie Bermingham, and yet his message remains as important and inspirational as ever.
A Dublin firefighter upset by the conditions in which he found the elderly and vulnerable of the capital, he began the charity ALONE from the sitting room of his family home. It started with a plastic bag of 200 posters, all of them with a simple message: Old people die alone.
Born in the Rotunda and raised in The Puc area of Inchicore, Willie Bermingham became one of Ireland’s best-known activists in his own lifetime and has been introduced to subsequent generations through school textbooks.
For some, he is a face recalled from school days, for others, he is the person who provided them with shelter. His name adorns the beautiful cottages at Willie Bermingham Place in Kilmainham, homes funded by ALONE and opened in the later stages of Willie’s life.
Willie could have ended up being just about anything. As his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography notes, he worked as “bellman on a fuel cart, gravedigger, builder’s helper, bouncer, a trader in horses and cattle, antique dealer – before joining the Dublin Fire Brigade in 1964.”
In the particularly harsh winter of 1977, conditions encountered while working the ambulance service with the Dublin Fire Brigade inspired Willie to begin ALONE. He recounted a night that they had gone to Charlemont Street and discovered the body of an elderly man:
Like many old men and women he had been cast away on the scrap heap. He was left to face loneliness, cold, hunger and depression behind the closed doors of a capital city. He had been sentenced to death, alone and in misery. It shocked me so much that I set up a society called ALONE.
By the late 1970s, the flight to the suburbs had very much taken place in Dublin. The city was spreading out, not only north and south but to the west, in new sprawling concrete jungles. Streets that were once synonymous with tenement living fell largely silent – the final tenement residents left Henrietta Street for example in the 1970s.
Despite this, there were still people left behind. Living in the basements, attics and surviving tenement homes were vulnerable people. Willie took his own social spending money, the few quid normally spent on cigarettes and drink, and instead printed 200 posters which he hoped would have a deep impact.
The posters were a call to arms, telling readers that “Old people die alone from cold, hunger, accidents, loneliness, depression, illness and related factors. Some are found in days, others found in weeks. Yes! In Dublin!”
The response was immediate. Willie recounted that there were few voices of opposition; on more than one occasion, he encountered opposition from clergy who informed him there were no such conditions within their parish. Yet others from the churches rallied behind his efforts.
An inspiring friendship blossomed between Bermingham and Dean Victor Griffin of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Griffin, much like the earlier Dean Swift, had a distaste for injustice and a strong belief in social duty. In a remarkable life, Griffin protested to save Viking Dublin from demolition, demonstrated against Apartheid and was denounced as a ‘Fenian’ during his time serving the Church of Ireland in Derry.
Griffin and Bermingham came from different religious traditions – Willie came from a Catholic family – yet Griffin opened Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to provide services, complete with choirs, to the homeless and elderly of the city. It was a beautiful act not forgotten, and Bermingham’s own funeral took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
Willie’s work with ALONE included the publication of several important publications, documenting the reality of life for the elderly in Dublin. With the help of photo-journalist Liam Ó Cuanaigh he got to work. The stories were harrowing, such as the 1916 veteran who lived out her final years in total poverty, her residence described as a hovel. In praising the book, one reviewer wrote that “it’s a slap in the face to every Irishman, particularly to everyone living in Dublin. I recommend it as Christmas fare in case you’re sulking because the turkey tastes tough.”
ALONE was never established to be a housing charity, but as conditions worsened it went in that direction. In 1986 there was ALONE Walk in Artane, a small community of ten houses. Each house was dedicated to the memory of an elderly person who had died in dire circumstances in the city in the years before. A second village of homes followed at Kilmainham.
While Willie turned the sod on the site in 1989, he was in poor health and commented that while he would not be around for much longer, the work would need to continue.
ALONE’s assistance to the elderly continued even after their passing, with The Millenium Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, opened in Dublin’s (contested!) Millenium year of 1988 designed to replace the indignity of the pauper’s grave.
Beyond ALONE, Willie was a committed trade unionist, a former colleague in the Dublin Fire Brigade remembering his work and activism as being guided both by the “message of Jesus Christ and that of James Connolly”.
Colleagues remember him as a man with a great sense of humour, who detested bureaucracy, “red tape merchants”, and anything else which blocked the path to human progress.
At the time of his passing in April 1990, thirty years ago today, Willie’s funeral brought the streets around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to a standstill. He was survived by an adoring wife, Marie, and five children. Through them are still connections to many of the things he held dear in life, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Dublin Fire Brigade. The work, as Willie predicted, has indeed gone on. Never has it been as important.