One real-life ‘good nun’ deserves to be remembered

The ‘cruel nun’ stereotype has become a stock figure in contemporary narratives and a real stinker appears in Marie Hargreaves’ recently published memoir The Convent.

This is one Sister Isobel O’Brien, who beat young children with wooden coat hangers, pulled their hair, pinched them viciously and, in a special humiliation, abolished their Christian names, telling them “you have no family”.

Marie Hargreaves was born in Oldham, Lancashire, to an Irish mother who went on to have 10 children. Her mother, though loving, was mentally unstable, and Marie and her brother were committed to an orphanage at Our Lady’s Convent at Billinge, in Merseyside. Marie was only six, and was subjected to a reign of terror by Sister Isobel.

Irish Times article – Coverage of the fire damage to the Matt Talbot Community Trust centre in Ballyfermot

A day after the Matt Talbot Community Trust’s IT system and website crashed, director Gráinne Jennings is getting the place back up and running.

Upstairs in the Ballyfermot centre’s makeshift office, she is surrounded by a jumble of hard drives, folders and mounds of paper that have yet to find a permanent home. The technology glitch is the latest in a series of setbacks for the trust, which runs training and support programmes for people who have found themselves outside of the education system.

Late last year, the centre’s back building was set ablaze – the origin of the fire is unknown – gutting the kitchen, workshop and computer space.

“We are really restricted in what we can offer at the moment,” says Jennings, who must now hotdesk around the building. “The fire was devastating, as we have just the one building to work in now.”

The charred remains of the building have been untouched since the incident, but the trust is pinning its hopes on an upcoming fundraiser, featuring singer and star of the movie Wild Rose and the acclaimed TV drama Chernobyl, Jessie Buckley. Buckley has been a “silent supporter” of the trust for many years, says Jennings.

“When she heard about the fire she decided she would step up to do all she could to help. We can’t thank her enough,” Jennings says.

Despite the chaotic circumstances, the centre exudes the warmth of a friendly relative’s home. Programme participants, some of whom are former drug addicts or ex-offenders, pause what they are doing to smile and say hello, while cups of tea are offered with the persistence of a doting grandmother.

Food has a therapeutic purpose at the centre, says Jennings. Before it was burned out, the kitchen used to welcome former participants and community members who would wander in unannounced to eat with those currently on the programme.

The bunker-like building in the west Dublin suburb was “never fit for purpose anyway”, says Jennings. The fire, while financially devastating, allows them to “reimagine what’s on offer here”, she adds.

“All of a sudden we can start to dream in a different way in terms of how the centre can work. It really is a great opportunity for us to reorganise the space to deliver the programme in a complimentary way.”

Positivity and persistence against all odds are key principles the centre teaches its participants, says Jennings. A reimagining of the space could bring about Jennings’s dream of an “edible community”, which would allow participants and community members to bond over the food they grow together.

“It will give the people coming to us a wider purpose and it will also give the community a better understanding of the people we work with.”

Cooking is one of the “soft skills” participants learn as part of the centre’s Future Options programme.

“We would have guys coming to us who have been in prison for 18 years. This is their first time out of the prison system, so these skills are fundamental.”

The programme aims to build confidence in participants, allowing them to explore different interests and routes into mainstream life. As well as cooking, those enrolled take workplace tours and placements, while also identifying personal barriers to employment or further education.

Addicted to drugs since he was a teenager, former programme participant John Farrell believes the Matt Talbot centre is far superior to any of the other community programmes he went through.

“At any other project, they care about you while you’re there but you’re a number. The more numbers they have the larger piece of pie they get for funding,” he says. “Here they let me do me and slowly their actions broke it down for me. They actually cared about me, and that made a massive difference,” he adds.

Farrell now gives talks about addiction recovery at homeless hostels and in drug programmes. After completing a start your own business course, he has also set up a small enterprise, carving family crests and Celtic scenes into copper in a small office at the centre. He sells his engravings on Facebook and through word of mouth. He also teaches copperwork to the programme’s participants.

“Here they gave me the opportunities to do work I was passionate about. If I told Gráinne I wanted to be an astronaut or a six-foot-tall model, she would never refuse me. If she sees you are willing to work for it she will bend over backwards for you,” he says.

“That is what I love about here. The belief they have in people no matter how broken they are. And with the right support and help, they can be fixed and go on to help others,” Farrell adds.

The trust is asking the public to help them rebuild the centre by buying tickets to see Jessie Buckley and others perform at Vicar Street, Dublin on Wednesday, September 25th. Tickets €35 through Ticketmaster.

Full line-up for The Matt Talbot Community Trust at Vicar St announced

Previously, it was announced that Jessie Buckley and special guests will perform at a special night for The Matt Talbot Community Trust. Now, these special guests have finally been revealed. Today, Other Voices and Aiken Promotions unveiled the complete line-up for the event at Vicar St.

Jessie Buckley and band will be joined by Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, folk rock band Scullion, spoken word artist Natalya O’Flaherty as well as actors John Connors (Love/Hate), Emmet Kirwan (Dublin Oldschool, Heartbreak) and Alex Murphy (The Young Offenders).

The special night for The Matt Talbot Community Trust will take place on September 25 at Vicar St. Tickets (priced €35 inclusive of booking fee) are available now from Ticketmaster.

The Matt Talbot Trust is a “Community within a community” whose home has been in Ballyfermot since 1986. It was founded by Sr Caoimhin Ni Uallachain from her home in Chapelizod.

The centre runs education and support programmes for people who for many reasons have found themselves outside the education system. They promote stability and structure to those in the community who have become marginalised. After a recent fire on the premises every effort is being made to rebuild and restore all services.

Tributes to Sr. Caoimhin, the late founder of the Matt Talbot Community Trust

TRIBUTES have poured in for a Dominican Sister who was instrumental in mediating during the Mountjoy Prison riot of 1997.

Sr Caoimhín Ní Uallacháin, who passed away on Saturday, March 3, founded Ballyfermot support centre Candle Community Trust in 1976, and Matt Talbot Trust in 1989

Working in Ballyfermot and Chapelizod from 1971 to 2014, she fought for government funds to support those most at risk, and visited local prisoners to provide them with spiritual and practical assistance.

At one stage, Sr Caoimhín was visiting over 80 prisoners on a regular basis, in Mountjoy Prison.

Speaking to the Dominican Sisters for a parish newsletter in 2014, she recalled a “community from Ballyfermot in Mountjoy” at the time, when she received a phone call from the then prison governor John Lonergan, to intervene in a serious incident.

Prison officers had been taken captive by a group of inmates, armed with a knife and a syringe.

Sr Caoimhín was the only person the inmates wanted to speak to, and she ended up staying for three days until the dispute was resolved.

“It was a huge problem at the time, with gangs on the roof of the prison,” said Sr Bríd Roe, Dominican Sisters.

“She always said violence wouldn’t be used against ‘her boys’ and managed to get them off the roof – succeeding where others couldn’t.

“They admired her. She wasn’t against them and was able to stand between big bodies and her boys, whom she always talked about.

“When some got out of prison, she would provide them assistance with social welfare, accommodation, and other needs. This was her life’s work. Nothing would change that. She never gave up on them.”


Sr Caoimhín’s started to support boys with “behavioural problems nobody else felt they could teach” when she was a teacher in the Dominican Secondary School.

This led to her creating the Candle Community Trust in 1976 – a refuge for boys from troubled backgrounds.

St Dominic’s College, Ballyfermot, posted a statement offering “sincere sympathy on the death of our former staff member Sr Caoimhín Ní Uallacháin OP.

“Sr Caoimhín founded the Candle Community Trust originally for young lads who had nowhere to go, and which today, is an established centre, providing a space for both girls and boys to grow and develop physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“She later went on to establish the Matt Talbot Community Trust, and targeted government departments for vital funds to support her initiatives including raising money for a bus which would transport children and their families to Ballinascorney, in the hills above Tallaght.”

Matt Talbot Trust said: “Her work was pioneering in its time, establishing the first FAS Community Employment scheme which was educational and support driven. Her work in the prisons and community transformed many lives in the Ballyfermot area and beyond.

“Her legacy lives on each day in Matt Talbot and remains the basis on which our programme continue to run.”

Hundreds of past pupils, families and ex-prisoners that she helped over the years, posted tributes online, praising a “selfless woman” who “gave her life to Ballyfermot.”

“A number of people from Candle and Matt Talbot were at a reposing on Monday, and some of the boys, now old men, spoke very highly of her,” said Sr Roe.

A message on RIP read: “Sr Caoimhín Ní Uallacháin OP, Dominican Convent, St Mary’s, Cabra, peacefully in the care of the staff at Santa Sabina House. Deeply regretted by her loving brother, Fr Maelisa Ó Huallacháin, her niece Anna, nephews Gearóid and Seamus. Deeply regretted also by her Dominican Sisters, relatives, friends and members of Matt Talbot Trust and Candle Community Trust. Rest in Peace.”