Not ‘pinko do-gooders’ but helpers and supporters - how volunteers power the Society of St Vincent de Paul

The charity - marking its 180th anniversary this year - relies on 10,000 volunteers to help the most disadvantaged cope with the rising cost of living and soaring rents

Noel Boyce, a volunteer with the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP), doesn’t see himself as “one of those pinko do-gooders” but as someone who offers friendship and support, and encourages self-sufficiency.

The retired head of IT at transport company CIÉ is one more than 10,000 volunteers who support SVP helping the most disadvantaged in society.

From Rialto in Dublin, Boyce, now 74, was influenced into joining the charity by a man who collected for the society for years outside his local church every Sunday and by a priest who asked him to join.

Boyce says he finds it “easy” working as a SVP volunteer, “doing something you like, meeting people in their homes”.


This year, the charity celebrates its 180th anniversary – a milestone marked by a members’ day event at the Dublin Convention Centre today where the speakers will include Mary Robinson, the former president and current chair of The Elders, the group of former leaders.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) was founded in 1833 by Antoine Frederic Ozanam to help the most disadvantaged in society. He was then a 20-year-old student at Paris’s Sorbonne University. Eleven years later and 180 years ago, in 1844, it was founded in Dublin.

Today the charity relies on the work of branches or “conferences”. Boyce is an area president for the Crumlin, Dublin 12 and Dublin 8 areas, where there are 14 conferences.

‘In my area an awful lot are single parents, 99 per cent of them mothers, many with children on the autism spectrum and still waiting for a diagnosis’

—  Noel Boyce, SVP volunteer

The ideal number of members in any conference is six, he says, but membership is down lately.

“We just don’t have enough since Covid,” he says. “Visiting houses, they are just not mad about that since.”

But this, he insists, is essential to what SVP volunteers do. “People call, looking for help and we visit them,” he says.

People they distribute vouchers to for shopping “include some who are at work, because of the rise in the cost of living”, he says.

“In my area an awful lot are single parents, 99 per cent of them mothers, many with children on the autism spectrum and still waiting for a diagnosis.”

The SVP has helped such mothers financially to have their children diagnosed privately.

“Otherwise, they’d be waiting two or three years,” he says.

The charity also provides assistance towards rents which are now “astronomical”.

Madeleine Uí Mhéalóid (82) has been involved with the SVP for more than 30 years in her native Mullagh, Co Cavan.

In such a rural area, there is considerable isolation, particularly among older people, she says.

SVP volunteers offer older people “support and friendship”, she says. “Some can be reluctant, but help is confidential.”

“Some families experience a lot of disadvantage, especially those involving single parents.”

These are the people most affected by cost-of-living increases, she says.

“Food costs have been very, very difficult in the last number of years. Many of the mothers have been depriving themselves of food and heat at home while their children are at school.”

Ms Uí Mhéaóid is convinced “education is the only way to break the cycle of disadvantage.” To that end, the SVP “supports people at all levels”.

She welcomed the provision of meals in schools for children and, more locally, the announcement that Tara Mines is to reopen. The closure of the mines increased calls for help with mortgages, she says.

A more general problem is the loss of the habit of saving.

“People don’t save like they used to. There’s no rainy-day fund any more. It’s a case of `if we have it, we spend it’. It’s just the way things are,” she says.

The cost of running a car – “absolutely essential” in a predominantly rural area – is another financial burden for people, as are clothing for children and basic item such as beds, mattresses and washing machines.

Denis Carty, SVP’s president in Co Clare where there are about 130 volunteers, says the age profile of volunteers in the county is older. He is in his 50s, with many retired people among the other volunteers.

“We need younger people, definitely, right across the board,” he says.

In Clare, cost-of-living increases are “the number one factor” among those the SVP helps. In the rural county, there is the cost of keeping a car and most cars used by people seeking SVP help are older and need repairs.

“The EV is a long, long way away,” says Carty.

Accommodation has become a “massive” issue in recent years, with rent increases resulting in a move of home, which can also mean moving schools, while the housing stock “is older and not adequate” generally.

When someone asks for support, ‘two volunteers – always two – go to the house on a visitation to talk about the situation’, says Denis Carty

“Single mothers are the group most at risk of poverty and deprivation. She is unable to work outside the home and, on your own, that can be especially difficult,” he says.

For such families “schools supply great support with meals and books.”

When someone asks for support, “two volunteers – always two – go to the house on a visitation to talk about the situation”, says Carty.

“We try to work out the difficulty. Education is really emphasised.”

He instanced a case where a mother successfully encouraged her daughter to go to college but there was no support for getting her there.

“The SVP stepped in to cover her transport costs. We do that regularly,” he says.

It also supports people undertaking training courses, whether training as a barber or chef and helping with equipment for exams.

SVP volunteers, he says, “are really committed people, who always go the extra mile”.