Christmas 2020 was different for everyone, not least those without shelter and in compromised accommodation. The Order of Knights of St Columbanus responded to the challenge of COVID-19 restrictions with a significant effort to provide our annual Christmas Day dinners to those in need.

With the help of over 60 volunteers across two locations – Mansion House and RDS, we managed to provide some 200 hot Christmas dinners to homeless guests on Dawson Street, and distribute some 3,300 Christmas dinners to poor and needy homes across greater Dublin.

At the Mansion House forecourt, with the kind permission, presence, and assistance of the Lord Mayor Hazel Chu, we were able to host hot dinners from a mobile kitchen for walk-up guests, who were facilitated in safe conditions to enjoy their Christmas meal in the company of our volunteers, members of the Garda Band, and members of the Order. From our base at the RDS and with the help of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Simon, Alone, Age Action, and other volunteer drivers who provided meal distribution transport, some 3,300 takeaway meals and food gift bags were delivered to those in need in their homes and accommodation around the greater Dublin area.

This is the 96th consecutive year the Order of Knights of St. Columbanus have hosted Christmas Day dinners for the poor and homeless of Dublin. A dedicated organising committee of volunteer members of the Order, recognising the seasonal challenge faced by organisations working with the homeless and poor respond by organising this annual event. This year with the support of the Lord Mayor Hazel Chu and the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) assisted by financial support from private donors and charitable contributions we were able to continue this annual charitable effort, although in an alternative format due to the serious restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a result of the pandemic restrictions our Committee recognised early in the year that our usual seated Christmas Day dinner held at the RDS for up to 400 guests would not be possible or safe for guests or volunteers. The Committee also realised that the need to support the homeless and rough sleepers around our city remained, and therefore we resolved to do what we could within the constraints of Government restrictions and HSE guidelines. Following consultations with Bro. Kevin Crowley at the Capuchin Day Centre, the Lord Mayor’s office, the HSE, An Garda Siochana, and our volunteer base, we decided on a two-pronged approach. With the permission of the Lord Mayor, we arranged to reach city centre homeless and rough sleepers by hosting a hot Christmas dinner service from a mobile kitchen unit located on the forecourt of the Mansion House Dawson Street. At the same time, we assembled and distributed pre-packed prepared Christmas dinners with accompanying food gift bags from our usual base at the RDS Anglesea Road. We wish to thank the Lord Mayor Hazel Chu and the RDS President Prof. J. Owen Lewis and Deputy CEO Mr David Faherty for their valuable support in providing these facilities. Special thanks also to Mr Paddy McPoland a professional production and events manager for volunteering his expert oversight and assistance. We also wish to thank Sergeant Neill Crowley (Pearse St. Garda Station), and Dr Margaret Fitzgerald (HSE) for their expert advice and support.

We were delighted to have the volunteer assistance of the Lord Mayor Hazel Chu, and Deputy Lord Mayor Mary Callaghan at the Mansion House on Christmas Day, also members of the Garda Band who added significantly to the warm and festive atmosphere at the Mansion House. A most welcome visit of the Archbishop of Dublin Dr. Diarmuid Martin who is a longtime supporter of the Christmas Day Dinner lifted the spirits of all present.

Planning for the 96th Christmas Day dinners began in early September, and the Committee met regularly in September, October, and November (online), with final preparations made during December. Each Committee member managed specific aspects of the annual event, and this was coordinated by the Chairman and Secretary.

Among the principal preparation management tasks undertaken were:

Ensuring awareness of the dinner service among the poor and homeless: posters were displayed in all shelters and appropriate locations, cards were distributed to the poor and homeless through soup kitchens, charity shops and by social workers, a media press release was issued, radio interviews were broadcast, and newspapers were used to advertise the service and ensure those in need were aware of an open welcome.

Focused advertising of the Online Ordering System for takeaway dinners: information on the dedicated website and email address was provided to all charitable groups, Health Service Executive, case managers and homeless charities, to ensure those in need were reached and dinners would be ready and available.

Sourcing of appropriate food and hygiene products for the Gift Bags and Backpacks: over 7,000 individual items were sourced, packed, and provided for distribution to the poor, needy and homeless. The committee are grateful to Leydens Wholesalers, Coca Cola Irl., and Decathlon for their help in procurement.

Registration and online induction of volunteers and the allocation of tasks in advance of Christmas Day: registration of volunteers was through the dedicated web site; training in general health and safety awareness was provided along with specific COVID-19 measures and delivered to all volunteers. Our volunteers were also required to complete a COVID-19 clearance declaration before attendance. Under the expert supervision of Paddy McPoland the environs of the Mansion House were set out and monitored for safe movement of traffic, personnel, volunteers, and guests.