Time to support our community centres

I got a phone call a few weeks ago to tell me that detailed planning was underway to bring dozens of beds and bags of linen into community centres here in County Roscommon so that the latest group of refugees to arrive from Ukraine would have some place dry and warm to sleep for the night – away from the brutal ravages of the Russian assault on them.

The plan was apparently just being hatched at the time, a direct response to the very latest reports of tens of thousands of men, women and children crossing the border into Poland that very week and heading onwards throughout Europe to seek safe refuge in Germany, France, the UK and Ireland. Clearly, it was a case of all hands on deck.

To be fair, the people of this country have been absolutely fantastic to date in their support for the Ukrainian people. We have written before in this column about the tremendous response here in Roscommon, and acknowledged the thousands of euro gathered in street collections and donations and through the many colourful fundraising events staged up and down the country. So, when I got the call, I knew the response from the local committees would again be a positive one.


Refugee centre

Nobody here would really argue that a rural community centre or a big parish hall with a small kitchen and maybe five or six toilet cubicles was anything like a fitting place in which to raise your family in the depths of an Irish winter. But, at the same time, we all know that huge efforts are already underway to find permanent homes for these unfortunate people in empty hospitals and public buildings and the likes around the country. So any accommodation at all in community centres would most likely be temporary in nature as the Government and the Red Cross struggle to cope with the volume of people coming through our ports and airports.

After the initial phone call, the emergency nature of the request for community centre space seemed to dissipate for a few weeks. It was during this lull that I met one of the community volunteers. The attitude to the initial request had not changed. The hand of friendship was still extended, but as we chatted I began to realise for perhaps the first time in a long time how valuable a commodity the same community centre space had become – with news of over 70 different and separate bookings being put in place for one such centre over the course of the previous two weeks.

The list of uses of the building seemed endless…from karate and tennis classes, to ballet, bingo and badminton. It seemed to me that up to about 2000 people were actually using the same hall in the course of just ten or 12 days.


Major grants

The day after I had this conversation, an email dropped into my inbox from the Department of Rural & Community Affairs. It certainly brought a smile to the face. The opening line of the news release read as follows: “The Department of Rural & Community Affairs recognise the vital role that Community Centres play at the heart of each community in bringing people together, engaging with those who may be marginalised or disadvantaged, and building stronger, more coherent communities”.

My response to this statement and the information that followed was one of immediate delight. I thought to myself that, perhaps for the first time, the real value of every community centre in Ireland was about to be realised and properly rewarded. Coming from a rural parish background, I have to say I am more aware than anyone of the part played by the parish hall and the local community centre. Like others, I have spent thousands of hours in such buildings since I was a very small child and I didn’t need the Department or any politician to tell me just how important a role those centres actually play.

In my youth, the ‘pillar ballroom’ beside the River Shannon bridge in Lanesborough was the mecca of all our activities in Kilgefin, Ballyleague, Cloontuskert and Rathcline. I remember very well the first time being invited in there for refreshments and the school class party after church ceremonies on our Holy Communion day. I also clearly recall other days in the so-called ‘supper room’ at the back, when we were rewarded with a mini-feast after winning a match – and I don’t have to get too much reminding of our popular Thursday night discos which ran from one end of the summer to the other and made us a handy profit in the ‘mineral bar’ – where the chomp bars were the best-seller!



Putting it simply, the parish hall or the ‘posh’ new community centre (as it became known in the ‘80s and ‘90s) was at the heart of everything we did in community life every day of the week. So much so that when I wandered into a show by ‘D‘Unbelievables’ in the Tivoli Theatre a few years later, I wasn’t a bit surprised that the ritual and routine of opening and closing the hall, getting the keys, and renting it out was itself at the centre of a Pat Shortt special.

“Nobody has any permission to be in here” Shortt repeatedly warned the audience as he marched around the theatre in a blue coat, “it’s all very well until somebody falls and hurts themselves and Fr B won’t be happy then!” I certainly have heard that type of line a few times too down all the years!

There was a time when getting a seat on a hall committee was a bit of a scourge for life, but I am pleased to say that in recent times the diversification in the use of these buildings has certainly changed that. For some time now, the community enhancement programme has provided small grants for improvements and new kitchens have popped up everywhere. But, with the expansion of the role, it now seems that the Department has realised that additional funding is required for larger-scale investments in community centres in every county in order that these vital services remain usable, accessible and safe, while continuing to meet the needs of the community into the future.

The finance is certainly going to be there to take on major refurbishment work too. Funding will be available under three categories. There will be grants of between €10,000 and €300,000, starting with small-scale projects/improvements – to facilities which can avail of €10,000 to €25,000 – ramping up to larger-scale projects worth €25,000 to €100,000, and the BIG league of major projects that could get grants of between €100,000 and €300,000. As usual, there will be an onus on the local committee to raise some matching funds if they are to take on a very big job.

To avail of the grant-aid there will be a fairly detailed two-stage application process with applicants asked to register their organisation in advance of the formal application process going live on a portal. The deadline for completing the registration is fast approaching so all community centre and hall committees need to register as ‘users’ on the portal which can be found at this address on the World Wide Web: https://myportal.pobal.ie/SignIn and do so in advance of the application process proper opening on Tuesday 7 June. You will all have a little while after that to get all the paperwork together and the closing date for final applications is Thursday, 14 July 2022. Good luck with it!