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Remembering the man I used to see on Thomas Street

Ned Delahunty, an 83 year old homeless man, pictured last year. He spent around 20 years sleeping rough in a doorway on Oliver Bond Street in Dublin's south inner city. He died on January 17th and his funeral took place yesterday, March 13th, at John's Lane Church on Thomas Street. Photograph: Eddie Mallin
Ned Delahunty, pictured last year. Photograph: Eddie Mallin

I lived in the Liberties, a working class part of Dublin, for over two years and used to see the man pictured above on a daily basis. I remember how he would walk up and down the isles of John’s Lane Church on Thomas Street while grunting something under his breath. In the middle of mass, he would sometimes walk up close to the alter and yell something explicit. He would wave his hands frantically and then just sit down. People generally ignored him and didn’t go near him.

The man pictured above was always a very curious case to me. He used to just stare at me with an inquisitive look while I entered John’s Lane to pray. He was always in the church and never said anything mean or tried to harm me. I always felt that he wanted to talk to me.

When he walked, he did so sluggishly and with a slight limp that veered down and to the right. He always wore the same rough navy blue jacket, which reached down to his ankles. His bright white messy hair was always flailing and his beard looked like something straight out of the Old Testament. He also always carried a Dunnes shopping bag in one hand and a stack of newspapers in the other.

I just stumbled across a beautiful article about his life on the Irish Times. I want to share with you parts of it in a tribute to this unforgettable man.

I learned in the article that Ned Delahunty used to sleep in a sheltered alcove on Oliver Bond Street. This surprised me as I never thought Ned was without home. He never begged or asked for anything. While his clothes weren’t great, they also weren’t all that bad either. The fact that Ned was homeless for over twenty years only adds to his legend.

The children of the Liberties called him “Moses” or “Santy,” after Santa Clause because nobody knew his real name. He was intensely private and refused support from others, as noted by the Times: “He kept people at a distance. Anyone who offered help or approached him out of the blue – care workers, priests or locals – could either get a gruff ‘thank you’, or else get drowned in a hail of expletives.”

Ned’s character becomes even more mysterious when we consider the days following his recent passing at the age of 83. His funeral was delayed for nearly two months in order to allow time for family members to come forward, though the gardai were unable to find anyone.

Just yesterday, however, 150 people showed up to John’s Lane to say their goodbyes.

Jane Forde, a local nun who stayed with Ned during his last days at St. James hospital, felt that his life showed a different and perhaps surprising side to many of Irish society: “You know, people say the country is banjaxed and that we’re a less caring society,” she noted, “but the care and offers of support he got from people shows another side to society. He taught us about the need for compassion and the importance of reaching out to people in need.” The Times adds that “[p]eople who helped him tended to offer support in subtle ways: outreach workers from various charities often left food or blankets outside his doorway; at the charity shop where he bought clothes, they would put aside items they felt he might want or need; others might leave money under his blanket if he was asleep.”

For Teresa Hogan, another local of the Liberties, Ned always seemed “well-educated or well brought up. He was so clean and so independent. He would dress neatly and tidy up after himself. I don’t know, there was just something about him. And his skin – his skin was beautiful.”

During his last days at St. James hospital, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ned Delahunty finally spoke with Jane Forde. He said to her: “you’re the woman who gave me the walking stick.”

In his final moments, as noted in the Times, Ned took a turn for the worse. “I held his hand – and he didn’t push me away,” said Forde. “At one point, I think he asked me, ‘Do you think I’m going to die’ . . .”

Forde told the Times that she felt “privileged to be able to sit and hold his hand each night, even though he had kept many of us at a distance for so long.”

Another local of the Liberties, Julie Howley, puts Ned’s life and passing into perspective: “I feel that his one story throws up the real challenge of our time,” she says. “As a society we share a responsibility to challenge the systemic issues that stack the odds against certain people and lead to them living, and sometimes dying, in appalling conditions.” Howley concludes that “it is also our job to enable the individual’s story to be heard so that they won’t be just a statistic but a real and full human being.

I felt some strong emotions when reading about Ned’s life. I felt a great deal of sadness, but also a large amount of happiness and relief. In one way, Ned’s life shows how low society can be in the sense that an old man can be left alone to the streets. Yet perhaps Ned lived the life he wanted to live. Maybe he was just ferociously independent and wanted to be left alone. If that’s the case, more power to the man for showing extreme courage and strength.

Ned’s story isn’t necessarily a sad one. The fact that people cared for him in his twenty years on the streets is a clear sign that compassion and generosity still exists in our increasingly dehumanizing society.

Rest in Peace to Ned Delahunty, the unforgettable man I used to see on Thomas Street.

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