BETTY Doyle had just about reached the end of her speech when she began to lose her battle against the tears that had been welling up.
The manager of the women’s refuge in Wexford was paying tribute to two women who had been great supporters of the centre before their untimely deaths through illness in 2009, Emer Lovett (38) and Marion Gowan (49).
Betty told those at their annual barbecue last Friday that they were “two wonderful women” and the refuge was going to plant to holly trees in its new garden to honour and remember them.
“My last memory of Emer was a vision in red beside the Christmas tree in White’s (Hotel), laden down with presents for the mothers in the refuge,” recalled Betty. “This was what she did best, always caring and supportive.”
Betty said that Marion was a warm and funny person who loved coming into the refuge once a week to cook with the women staying there.
“The families loved her, but then we all did. Even in sickness she still came in to say hello,” she said.
“We talk about them all the time as if they were still with us. Both women loved Christmas and the evergreen holly will remain visually beautiful all year round, just like Emer and Marion.
“This year for our children we intend to have a Christmas tree in the garden to help fill their lives with hope and joy,” said Betty, as the tears finally got the better of her.
Hope is the lifeblood of a place like Wexford Women’s Refuge, which is always full of women and children who have come from – or more often fled – very difficult circumstances. Domestic violence is driving increasing numbers of women to seek refuge in Wexford and throughout Ireland.
When it’s packed full of women and children all struggling to come to terms with what has led them there and all trying to cope in their new environment together hope and joy must feel like very distant prospects.
That’s where the staff, led by Betty, comes in. That’s where the volunteers, whose spirit was best exemplified by Emer and Marion, come in.
Last Friday there was hope and joy in what is often a very traumatic place. This was because the spirit that moved Emer and Marion to enter the refuge and brighten up the lives of those who stay there is still strong in the community that surrounds it.
The evidence of this was in the refuge’s new garden, which, Betty noted, had always been their “wild waste area” and over the course of years had become completely overgrown and rampant with weeds.
This “wild waste area” was located on a steep slope up behind the refuge and there was very little anyone could do with it. Betty said that “futile attempts had been made to tame the jungle that prevented light from entering the rear of the building for nine years”.
However, one man looking distinctly unimpressed with vista said “I’m going to do something about that”. Liam Keating had intended going to the Wexford Races that day, but instead found himself at the barbeque in the refuge, of which he is a staunch supporter.
Betty found out that Liam was serious when she arrived in one morning and saw a mini-digger scaling the steep slope. “We closed our eyes and waited for the digger to turn over!” she recalled.
However, it didn’t and out of a slope full of weeds was cut a large space, a blank canvass on which to get to work. And get to work they did. Liam oversaw the project and also rolled up his sleeves with the same determination that has proved so successful for him in his business endeavours.
Paul Caulfield, Derek O’Hehir and a number of other local men also got stuck in and from a waste of space they created a garden. There is also a cabin, beautifully decorated, and intended as a haven for mothers who need a place for reflection or just some peace and quiet.
Local artist John Byrne, with the help of some friends, came along and lent their creative talents to ensure that the garden is appropriately decorated, with the likes of Peppa Pig and Nemo now featuring prominently, along with other bright characters and colourful creations.
I looked at the before and after photos with Liam last Friday and the difference a year on is remarkable. He was reluctant to take too much credit for the project, but he can’t really avoid it now as the refuge has named it after him!
Liam said that he sought support from several tradesmen and businesses in Wexford so that his vision could become a reality. There was no talk of recession or resources when the question was put to them – they all got gave generously of their skills, time and, in some cases, stock, to help the refuge.
Betty made an important point about the garden project – it is solely the result of the hard work and generosity of men. This is not an insignificant point at a place where the majority of women and children find themselves because of men.
The manager of the women’s refuge said that a number of great men have walked through the doors of the refuge over the past year to work on the project.
“That in itself is not an easy task for any man. Yet they accomplished what they came to do with dignity and respect,” said Betty.
She pointed out that Liam hadn’t just seen a hill full of weeds last year – he had seen a genuine need.
“He has carefully observed how the mothers paced up and down by the back door, sometimes in the pouring rain, attempting to make or take a phone call,” said Betty.
“The call couldn’t be taken in the bedroom, there are children around. In the kitchen and sitting room there are other residents and children, all going through their own trauma,” said Betty.
“There is nowhere to sit in peace, to take a call from a parent or sibling. There is no place to shed tears privately. I found Liam’s insight, empathy and holistic approach amazing,” she said.
“So Liam built a house and made a garden and from this day on it will be known as the Liam Keating Garden.”
The refuge is continuing to look forward and despite constant funding issues due to government spending cuts (without the support of local organisations, businesses and volunteers it would simply not be able to stay open), it still has ambitious plans, as the chairman of its board, Gus Smyth outlined.
Gus said the vision for the future is to transform the refuge from communal accommodation into self-contained flats.
‘We’re trying to get away from treating women as victims and trying to help them, with their children, establish a life for themselves,’ he said.
Meanwhile, up in the garden, grass continues to spring up where once weeds had completely taken hold.