By Ann Marie Foley - 07 May, 2020
The Irish Chaplaincy in London has offered to contact vulnerable Irish people in isolation because of COVID-19 on behalf of their concerned families.
The contact service is particularly “for anyone in Ireland with concerns about vulnerable older family or friends isolated in London,” the chaplaincy has stated. However, the chaplaincy will also contact people in Ireland on behalf of relatives in England, especially prisoners in English prisons.
“At this challenging time caused by COVID-19 social restrictions, the chaplaincy is offering support,” stated the organisation, which has been helping the Irish in London for more than half a century. The chaplaincy has knowledge of, and links to services and community groups on the ground local to where people are living in London.
Fr Gerry McFlynn, who is chaplain for prisoners, told CatholicIreland.net that Irish prisoners are particularly vulnerable at the moment.
“There are no visits of any kind to prisons in England and Wales at the moment, so whenever prisoners do get in contact, by phone or voicemail or text, and ask us to get in touch with their family in Ireland, we will be happy to do it,” he told CatholicIreland.net. Likewise, if families want to know how their son or daughter in prison is coping they can get in touch with the Irish Chaplaincy.
“The vital link between families and prisoners is under pressure at the moment,” said Fr Mc Flynn. “The worry is we do not know how long this is going to last for. It could be months.”
There are 950 to 1000 Irish people in 131 prisons in England and Wales – one of the largest ethnic groupings in the prison population – according to Fr McFlynn.
Contact between prisoners and chaplains is also limited by social distancing and staying safe. However, chaplains are in a position to find out how people are getting on in prison and keep an eye on prisoners with particular problems.
COVID-19 affects more than the chaplains’ work in prisons, as the chaplaincy also works with older people.
“It is not as easy now, given that our work is person-to-person work, and dealing with people and being close to them, being able to visit them and seeing if they are coping or not coping, and helping in any way that we can. It is even more difficult with prisoners because we cannot visit the prisons,” he told CatholicIreland.net.
There were plans to release prisoners who are near the end of their sentence early, but this process has stalled. At Easter he and the chaplains in prisons contacted the prisoners via a newsletter to help them through the difficult period of COVID-19.
Even before COVID-19, the chaplains’ work was challenging and frustrating at times, but not without rewards.
“It is not always easy. But it can be rewarding in the sense that you are able to keep in touch with prisoners’ families and let them know that there is an organisation here looking after them and trying to provide a service,” said Fr McFlynn.
He added that when he phones families back in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway or elsewhere in Ireland and lets them know that he can get in touch with their son or daughter and keep an eye on them in prison, he can feel a sense of relief at the other end of the phone that someone is looking after them.
“Particularly now when families cannot visit, and even [at] normal times [when] the family are too elderly or not able to travel or whatever, the fact that there is an organisation looking out for them … is greatly appreciated,” he said.
Chaplains can also liaise with solicitors and probation services, said Fr McFlynn, who is a priest from the Diocese of Down and Connor.
The Council for Emigrants of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference includes the Irish Chaplaincy in London. It was established by the Bishops’ Conference in 1957 as the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy and its chair is Bishop Denis Brennan.
Today the Irish Chaplaincy includes a Seniors Project and support for prisoners, as well as the Travellers Equality Project.
For those wishing to avail of the new free contact service during COVID-19, it can be accessed from Ireland by post: PO BOX 75693 London NW1W 7ZT; by email: [email protected]; and by phone: 0044 (0) 20 7482 3274 by leaving a message.
Also see: http://www.irishchaplaincy.org.uk.