On 15 March a local businessman, musician and Leeds Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Chair, Séan Gavaghan contacted me at Leeds Irish Health and Homes (LIHH). We discussed whether a cross-community response to the Covid-19 pandemic could be put together for those members of the Irish community who would find themselves vulnerable to isolation, food and medication shortages and a deterioration of their health. Séan was also in contact with Liam Thompson, Chair of Leeds Irish Centre.
LIHH had also been contacted by Eoin Murray from Hugh O’Neill’s Gaelic Athletic Association to say that they had 20 players who were asking what they could do to help out in this unprecedented time.
We knew many of our people were proud and stoic and we also recognised that the community has a great history of reaching out to others in hard times. And this was going to be one hard time. We worried that people may get lost in the melee as many would be telling people ‘they were grand’ when they might be worried about how they’d come through, or be feeling a bit lost because they weren’t working, having friends and family visiting or not getting the help they were used to.
As a group we organised ourselves very quickly. We made a video calling for people to come forward to register as volunteers and then sent a call out a week later making people aware that a dedicated phone line had been set up to take referrals for help. Initial options for support were befriending phone calls, shopping and medication collections and doorstep visiting.
Under the banner, ‘We are many groups, but we are One community’ the initiative brought together Leeds Irish Centre, Leeds Irish Health & Homes, Hugh O’Neill’s Leeds GAA, JFK GAA, Leeds St Benedict’s Harps GAA, The Irish Arts Foundation, Leeds Irish Golf Society, Helen Rowland Academy of Irish Dancing, Watson McCleave Academy of Irish Dancing, The Leeds St Patrick’s Day Parade, The Joyce-O’Donnell School of Irish Dancing, The Leeds Mayo Association, and Leeds Irish Ladies’ Golf Society, as well as interested individuals.
Over 100 people have registered to be volunteers!
One of our ideas was to give people a ‘taste of home’ with some Irish goods (tea, biscuits etc.) to let them know the Irish community was thinking about them at this time and were ready with a friendly ear or practical help should it be needed. We’ve called these ‘craic packs’.
We have organised two drop-offs over the last month and reached in excess of 200 people. The response has been amazing from both the recipients and the volunteers. LIHH have also worked with local schools where we have started a pen pal exchange and delivered rainbow pictures made by the children to be distributed.
The legacy of Covid-19 will be felt long after, but the knowledge that the community has mobilised to support the vulnerable will also be a legacy we can all be very proud of.
Chief Executive, Leeds Irish Health & Homes