The Mendicity Institute – Dublin’s oldest working charity

The Mendicity Institute is not a name you may be extremely familiar with. However, the colourful building is home to Dublin’s oldest working charity, set up in 1818, and has survived through the Famine and both World Wars. It played a significant role in the 1916 Rising and witnessed the Civil War close by. Safe to say, it’s seen its fair share.  

Initially set up on Ushers Island, the aim of the institute at birth was to provide food, shelter, clothing, and education to the poverty-stricken Dublin natives. Through work, both voluntary and paid, the goal was to provide a bounce back to get homeless and poor people back on their feet.

Mendicity Institution CEO Louisa Santoro explains that these days it runs two social enterprises.

“The workshop is a great way for people who donate to know where their money is going,” she says. “In the cost-of-living crisis we’re in, it’s good to know the breakdown of where your money is going.” As well as a woodworking enterprise, the Mendicity Institution also has a coffee truck, called “The Hard Ground”.

A book of the institute’s history Dublin Outsiders details the grueling years of the Famine, with so many people in need it could feed only those “who applied before 9:30am”, with special exemption for “those who were starving”. It was also ordered to refuse service for anyone perceived to be entitled to help from the Poor Law Union, although this was not always put into practice.

Similarly, the recent 2020 Covid pandemic put strain and rules on who and when the institution could accommodate. This didn’t halt services, as the institute continued to provide meals and showers even in those challenging times.

“Covid was difficult you know, a 2-meter gap per person, when we cater for 60-80 people is tricky to navigate – and with the idea that you have to ‘stay at home’,” Santoro says. “Some people don’t have a home, so where do they go? Washing hands as well, not everybody has a tap or sink to actually wash their hands. It’s something we implemented over that period of lockdown.” 

It’s an organisation keenly aware of honouring its history. For a time in the 1800s, the institute continued to provide aid for those in need and even operated as an orphanage, with five orphans present. On-site records date entries as far back as 1882, detailing both donors and people seeking aid from many different places – Derry, Plymouth, Liverpool and Glasgow to name a few. 

Notably, Daniel O’Connell, ‘The Liberator’, was president of the Mendicity Institute in 1842, during his spell as Lord Mayor of Dublin, and remained a member of the management committee until his death in 1847. The chair he sat in is still there to this day, with a plaque detailing his role. 

Its building, with a strategic location on Dublin’s quays, was captured and held by Captain Sean Heuston as part of the 1916 Rising. Initially, it was planned for Heuston and his small band to hold off the patrolling British forces for a few hours; this however turned into a near 50-hour standoff, only stopping when Heuston surrendered for the good of his troops. The institute “was severely injured and meals were not served for over 3 weeks”, its history reveals.

More disruption would occur just six years later, as the institution shut “owing to the disturbed state of the city due to the bombardment of the Four Courts”.  

These days, the aim is still to provide work, food, and shelter to those in need, and was awarded the Social Enterprise Award by Dublin City Council in 2017. On top of this, healthcare is available thanks to SafetyNet Primary care.  

“It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen,” Santoro says. “If you asked me that in February of 2020, there’s no way I could’ve told you what would’ve happened. I would say that migration would be a huge issue for the next five years, for Ireland not Mendicity, we often see things more acutely before they rise to the top.

“Lack of housing is going to definitely affect the people we traditionally would accommodate. Something that is not surprising to us, but can surprise others, is that people we accommodate have jobs. You know, ‘how can someone both be working and homeless’. But have they seen the prices of housing?”

As we speak, there is a sense of family and care present throughout all the staff and patrons, with Santoro knowing many by name and making time for conversation.  

In Mendicity’s 2022 “census”, it was discovered that 92% of people who use their services are male and 97% are homeless. Of those that answered their survey, 58% had applied for housing support and 67% of those are still pending.  

Mendicity has a relatively low public profile. “We’re not an advocacy organisation, our function is solely practical, and advocacy comes as a result of that. With profile comes both good and bad but what we’re looking for is just more donors. If profile is a result of that, then so be it.” 

The Mendicity Institute celebrated its 200 year anniversary in 2018, and has remained as the oldest working charity in Dublin.. The Mendicity Institute is open six days a week, for anybody to avail themselves of its many services.