Nollaig na mBan founder Maura Mulligan will host a fundraiser on Aug. 1 in New York, marking Lughnasa.
By Maura Mulligan
According to an online report from Coalition for the Homeless, 22,680 people will sleep in New York City shelters tonight. Sister Joanne, director of the Dwelling Place of New York, a privately-funded transitional residence for homeless women in Midtown Manhattan, told our Nollaig na mBan fundraising audience in May that homelessness has no face. She said that although some of the women at her shelter become homeless because of drugs and or abusive relationships, others fall victim to unscrupulous landlords. It can happen to anyone, she reminded us.
Her words took me back to five years ago when I celebrated a milestone birthday that almost left me homeless. I did a lot of planning for the big day, prided myself in “aging gracefully” and not forgetting details. I planned music and dance and made sure we had wine, smoked salmon, fresh fruit and a birthday cake. To remind myself, and everyone there of our years growing together, I created a slide show with old photos and video clips that I knew would strike a chord with guests I had shared special events with, since coming to America half a century earlier.
I remembered a lot but one thing did slip my mind that month. For the first time in my life I forgot to mail my rent check. On the day after my birthday, I found the stamped envelope still in my handbag. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there in the midst of birthday greetings filling my mailbox, was a notice from the landlord. In formal terms, the letter stated that it was now past the first of the month and that I should prepare to be evicted.
I froze wondering if this could possibly happen. Do landlords have a right to put someone out on the street for not paying rent on time? Just once? I didn’t think so, but like many another, I wasn’t sure. I phoned the managing office and explained that I forgot to mail the check. The office manager assured me that she was well aware of my good record and that “this must be some sort of mistake.”
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Before I was finished breathing a sigh of relief, a civil action summons from the Superior Court of New Jersey showed up. The first line read: “The purpose of the attached complaint is to permanently remove you and your belongings from the premises.” It gave date and time to appear in court.
Wikipedia describes the word, “fear” as “a distressing negative sensation induced by a perceived threat.” For sure, this was what I was experiencing. Unable to sleep, I got up, made tea and sent e-mails to friends asking for advice. “You need a lawyer,” they said. In spite of my distressed state, I remembered one of my Irish language students at the New York Irish Center was a lawyer. When I taught a lesson on professions, we listed the word “dlíodóir” among the others. I called and he told me to take a deep breath advising me to find a dlíodóir in New Jersey (the state in which I live), one who is familiar with landlord/tenant law. I summoned my good memory again, recalling another student in one of my former classes back in the nineties. I googled his name and there he was. Séamus, as he was known in class, was delighted to help his old múinteoir. Within minutes of my faxing the lease, the landlord’s letter and the court’s summons to him, he had written a letter to fix everything. “Forget about it,” he said. “It was a matter of paperwork.” It seems that once the paperwork started, there was no stopping it. Still, I had a dreadful feeling that the building owner would have liked to get rid of a rent-controlled tenant so as to triple the rent for a new one.
I thought about how I, someone with a master’s degree and a rent-controlled apartment could have fallen victim to panic and become homeless if I had let the panic take over and hadn’t asked for help.
Others in similar circumstances without contacts or friends to advise them are not as lucky. Last year I founded Nollaig na mBan New York, a group focused on helping at least one group of homeless – the Dwelling Place of NY. We have been fortunate in attracting great talent to help bring awareness to the scourge of homelessness in this city. Poets Connie Roberts and John Brennan joined singer Mary Deady and musicians, Linda Hickman, Bernadette Fee, Tom Dunne, Patty Furlong and Marie Reilly at our previous fundraisers. Dancers from my céilí class have also contributed their time and talent.
When I volunteered to serve dinner at the Dwelling Place on Christmas and Thanksgiving a few years ago, I saw the dedication of the staff and decided that this would be a good charity for our Nollaig na mBan New York team to adopt.
In Ireland of the past, Nollaig na mBan, which literally means Women’s Christmas, was celebrated when women of a locality joined together to celebrate “a day off.” They shared a meal and let each other know when they might need help. Women back then not only had the sole responsibility of raising the children and taking care of the house and meals, they also worked side by side with their men on the farm. On Jan. 6, they set up a meitheal – a gathering to convey community spirit in which neighbors responded to each other’s needs. These would include helping at wakes and the birth of a child when someone would be needed to go for the midwife and cook for the family in need.
Now that modern Irish men know their way around the kitchen and share equally in the raising of children, modern Irish women have a new take to this old custom. Most Nollaig na mBan groups now focus on a charity, while others use the occasion to celebrate news, independence and or successes.
As founder of the New York group, I decided to celebrate the ancient Celtic holidays of Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain – and to use those occasions to fundraise for the Dwelling Place. These celebrations of Celtic festivals connect us to our past while at the same time help make a difference in the lives of other women – those without a home of their own.
Our next celebration is Aug. 1 – Lughnasa. We’ll focus the role of women in the 1916 Rising. To dramatize this event we are fortunate to have the inspiring work of Dublin woman Honor Molloy, who has written a play entitled “and in my heart.” Her Aunt Florence Kane – the one whose account of the 1916 inspired this work, lived across the street from the General Post Office. I have seen a most memorable performance of this play by the actress, Gina Costigan at the Cell Theatre.
Other offerings for the Lughnasa fundraiser include videos, poetry and as always a delicious snack table and a short talk by Sister Joanne, the administrator of the Dwelling Place of New York.
So, we’d love to see you on Monday evening, Aug. 1, at Ripley Grier Studios, 520 Eighth Ave (16th floor) at 7 p.m.
The Dwelling Place of New York can be contacted at: http://thedwellingplaceofny.org.