Meet Joe Donnelly: Champion of Hope (longer version)

This is a transcript of an interview recorded via Skype with Dubliner Joe Donnelly, a former student of mine who is one of my heroes. Joe was brought up very religiously in the docklands and by the age of twenty he was an atheist and a member of a rock band that shared gigs with U2. He is now leading a truly amazing and ground-breaking ‘hope-shaped’ community project in that same docklands area. 

ME: Joe, you are a Dubliner born and bred and you grew up in Ringsend. What was Ringsend like in those days and what were you like?

JOE: Ringsend was a docklands community, fiercely religious and a tight-knit community. Everybody knew everybody for generations back. I would have been a bit on the quiet side. We were a very religious family. I had to spend a lot of time living with my grandmother because we were a family of ten living in a two-bedroom council flat. My granny took me under her wing and she was deeply religious and I imbibed a lot of that.

ME: She lived in Ringsend too?

JOE: Yes. Ringsend being a dockland community, I suppose the best way to give you a picture of it is that as a child I would be walking down the street and a green banana would hit you on the side of the head. That meant that the banana boats were docked on the quayside because they would land green bananas and then they would go to a warehouse to ripen. We were like dockland rats on the quays picking up everything. There was a lovely expression called ‘spillage’ or ‘seepage’ and that meant that a certain amount of the goods would ‘spill’ into the community. In other words, they would be pilfered.

ME: But the ships came in on the other side of the river, didn’t they? Were you not on the south side?

JOE: They came in on the south side on what they called the Johnny Roger Quay or the Sir John Rogerson Quay to give it its official title. But, John, we could tell by the cranes that were moving which boats were working. Boats would dock at a certain space and then one of the big boys with long trousers with a cigarette hanging off his bottom lip would say, “It’s coal boats today, lads”. So that meant you would get a sack and a little pram and you would be over picking up bits of coal and then you would try to sell them from door to door. There was a film called ‘My Left Foot’, I don’t know if you ever saw it but that encapsulated dockland community very well.

ME: There was a mission hall by the river and that was a place with which you were acquainted when you were young. You didn’t attend meetings there, did you?

JOE: Let’s say, the people would have said, “That’s a mission hall. God bless the mark” meaning that it is like a diseased item on the landscape. No, we didn’t go to meetings. We were warned not to go to any of the meetings there.

ME: They were Protestants?

JOE: Yes, they were Protestants. I remember in school we were taught about Protestants and we thought that the story about the Prodigal Son originated with these Protestants or Prodigals and we felt very sorry for them. We used to throw stones at the bus that used to bring the Protestant children to the meetings. I remember as a young child that a fella said to me and my friends, “Have any of youse ever seen a Protestant before? Well, follow me and I’ll show you what they look like. But you’ve got to get stones and throw them at the bus.”

ME: Different times! Some time after that, Joe, you found yourself in Amsterdam in your early twenties. What happened there?

JOE: Yes. I’ll just say as well that at the old mission hall, we used to have cider parties at the back. It had decayed into dereliction. Although I was brought up fiercely religious and there was talk about me becoming a priest at one stage, I ended up an atheist punk rocker. I suppose it was a typical Irish family story – a candidate for the priesthood in your early teens and an atheist punk rocker in your late teens. We started playing on the same circuit as a band called U2.

ME: U2?! I wonder what became of them.

JOE: I think they have notions about themselves now – the best band in the world.

ME: Did you know any of them?

JOE: We were their favourite Dublin band. Monday night was the quietest night in the week in Dublin so on Monday night we were given a residency in the Baggot Inn in Baggot Street and one week U2 would headline and we would support them and the next week we would headline and they would support us. We have the distinction that our fans booed U2 off the stage in the Baggot Inn. Not many bands can say that!

ME: Not many! Wow, you’re an ageing rocker then? So an atheist, you went to the Netherlands and you found yourself in Amsterdam.

JOE: I hitchhiked around Europe, John. Me and a couple of friends of mine got disillusioned with the music because U2 went off to London and they were doing a residency at the Hope & Anchor Pub in London, a famous music venue in London. They contacted us to say, “Come over and we’ll do the same thing that we did at the Baggot Inn”. We couldn’t get our act together, we didn’t have a good-enough manager. So I suppose in a fit of how it is when something falls through, a couple of friends and I caught a flight to Madrid because it was the cheapest flight that was going. I think it was about a tenner one way so we all hopped on the plane, not having a clue where we were going. We were just scattering ourselves to the four winds. We hitchhiked all over Europe. I was hoping to get to Moscow or Istanbul to do something epic but I ended up in Amsterdam. Most of my time there was a bit of a drunken haze. One night I got mugged and that night I suppose I fell into a pit of despair. I just felt that all of my hopes and dreams … I knew I had hopes and dreams in my heart but they were all slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t control it. It is hard to articulate exactly what despair is in words, what profound despair is. I seriously and intentionally considered suicide that night.

ME: But something stopped you?

JOE: Yes, John. Again it is hard to articulate. At the age of six in Dublin’s docklands I came very close to drowning. I can still remember it to this moment. I can remember it vividly and as I was preparing to throw myself into a canal in Amsterdam, I got a complete flashback to that event at six years of age. It may sound crazy to some people but it was as if a voice was saying to me, “What you’re doing is wrong”. It shook me to the core of my being. There’s a lovely line in that poem ‘Missing God’ …

ME: Oh I know that poem! It’s in one of my blogs!.

JOE: And the guy says something about missing the tug of a runaway kite or something like that. Missing God like a runaway kite would miss the tug of someone who was controlling it. And I felt as if I’d got a tug that night as if something was pulling me back from the jaws of suicide saying, “This is wrong”. I came back to Dublin then and I was totally in despair because I’d gone off hitchhiking around Europe wondering if I would end up in Istanbul or Moscow and get arrested or something like that at least. But here I was and I was forced to admit that my life was falling apart and I was sinking into quiet despair.

ME: But somehow you went from there to faith in the Lord?

JOE: Yes, it’s a very long story but I was given a copy of the New Testament. This guy – I was an atheist punk rocker and he was bananas about Jesus. I was terrified that I would get whatever he had. He gave me a New Testament and I threw it beside my bedside locker. Inexplicably I started to read it. Now I know that the ‘inexplicably’ was because this guy who was bananas about Jesus was telling people in his prayer meeting to pray for this fella who was an atheist punk rocker who took a New Testament from him. But I didn’t know that until afterwards. So I began reading it. I was always interested in history and famous people and I thought to myself, I’m reading about Jesus Christ. He’s somebody famous and I can quote him at parties and pretend to be very intelligent. So I read Matthew’s Gospel and by the time I had finished Matthew’s Gospel, a revolution had taken place in my heart and mind and soul. I can only say that the closest way of articulating it is in John Newton’s hymn where he says, “It was grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / the hour I first believed”. Now I can only say that here I am reading Matthew’s Gospel as an atheist punk rocker and I began to fear that I wasn’t right with God. What if all of this is real?! I could go on at length.

ME: So you became bananas about Jesus?

JOE: Well, I don’t think I could nail down a particular fruit but let’s say that the fruit of the Spirit began to develop in my life!

ME: Joe, it was quite a few years after that that you and I first met.

JOE: Can I stop you there, John? Sorry about that. There’s a further question further down on your list where you say that the old mission hall came back into my life again. If you won’t mind my suggesting it, it would be better to introduce that point at this stage.

ME: Go ahead. Tell us about the mission hall. It came into your life again?

JOE: That all happens before we met at the Irish Bible Institute. Within a year of me surrendering my life to Jesus, John, I felt that the Lord was leading me into Christian work in Ireland and to give up my job which was quite a cataclysmic event for me. I had a good job in the maintenance department of a hospital in Dublin. I was promoted up the ranks and all that kind of stuff. I give up my job and I begin working and part of my work then is to develop work in the inner city. And after a while we’re seeing a lot of stuff happening in Sherriff Street and Sean MacDermott Street in inner-city Dublin. Children, youth and community work. It got to the stage where that was taking up more and more of my time. We knew we had to pray and ask the Lord for some sort of place where we could locate in the inner-city area and I was praying about an office and a little desk and a window and a phone. The Lord led us to this place – the old mission hall that we had vandalised as kids and had a third of an acre of a site in the inner city.

ME: Wow!

JOE: And I was appalled at the thought that the Lord would want me to take on the old mission hall.

ME: Memories of cider in the back garden?

JOE: Not so much that, John. I just felt that this was the last place on the planet I would go to! You’re warned in school and you’re warned in the chapel and you’re warned at home not to go near this place. And the words “Prods out” were sprayed on the front door. They had faded with the weather but the implication was still pretty clear, you know. So we decided that we would take it on. We called it ‘Mission Impossible’ at the beginning because it was an old mission hall. I learned the wisdom of that verse where it says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom”.

ME: Yes.

JOE: A great verse in First Corinthians chapter one. It reminds you that sometimes God takes you to the craziest place to do something that will glorify his name.

ME: Wow, Joe, and sometime after that you signed on to become a student at the Irish Bible Institute. You left school at fourteen or fifteen, hadn’t you?

JOE: Yes, that was another crazy decision. I’d left school at fifteen because my Dad died when I was thirteen. I say to my children that the bereavement counselling that me and my brother got at my father’s grave-side was my uncles standing over us like giants and saying to us, “You fellas get out and work and hand up to your mother or else you’ll have us to answer to”.

ME: So you had to leave school and get a job.

JOE: Yes, you had to leave fairly quickly and hand up to our mother our wage packet and make sure that our uncles knew that the deal was a sealed type of thing.

ME: But you signed on for a Master’s degree?!

JOE: Pretty crazy so it was. I think in fairness to IBI they were saying that if you had ministry experience of more than twenty years (which I had working in Dublin’s inner-city) or you had a BA qualification, your ministry experience would allow you to submit an initial essay which would be assessed and then you would do two years which would take you up to BA standard and then you could do a final year which would give you your MA. I needed a one-year extension to my final year because the school in which I wanted to do a lot of interviews was giving me a lot of run-around.

ME: You were focussing on the transition year in school and on making it worthwhile for fifteen-sixteen-year-olds.

JOE: The whole concept of transitioning in heart and mind and soul of which the academic transitioning was part.

ME: You joined IBI. Some of your friends were calling you ‘Joe Hope’ by this time?

JOE: Or just ‘Jope’ to shorten it to one syllable.

ME: So hope was an important theme or passion.

JOE: We took on the old mission hall and we obviously felt that the ‘mission hall’ wasn’t going to be the millstone that we were going to tie around our neck. We renamed it ‘The Anchorage Project’ because the great biblical metaphor of the anchor – “hope like an anchor of the soul” as it says in Hebrews chapter six. And the metaphor of the anchor … you get the sense that it even preceded biblical thinking … that the writers of the Hebrews was reminding them of something that they already knew. Which is a lovely rich thought to think about.

ME: And there you were beside the River Liffey where the boats used to drop anchor!

JOE: The fishing fleet used to tie up just the other side of the wall in what was called the trawler pond. All due credit to my wonderful wife Sharon who came up with the title of the Anchorage! It is something that has served us very well and even using the word ‘project’, John, as oppose to ‘mission’ gave us a trajectory to carve out a space in the community which was useful.

ME: Yes, that idea of the space. There’s an American writer named Andy Crouch whom I often quote who has written a book entitled ‘Culture Making’. He always makes me think of you, Joe, and what you’ve been doing. For too long, he says, Christians have been happy to condemn, critique, copy and consume culture. The only way to really impact culture is to create culture. In a very short video about the book, he talks about a coffee shop near where he lives. It was opened by a young Christian fresh out of college who saw this building and created “a beautiful space which is now a whole cultural world of its own … where friends meet, teenagers come after school, Moms get together during the day. … A wonderful hospitable welcoming environment.” Now I’ve been to the mission hall, to the project, to the Fair Play Café and those words describe what you’re doing there so thoroughly. Life has changed for us all under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. What has this meant for the Fair Play Café?

JOE: I suppose that when I did my dissertation under your tutorship, John, and I can’t speak highly enough about your impact on my thinking – especially with the use of metaphors. And using metaphors then in Christian work and people getting the right hug from the Holy Spirit when they engage and realise that the metaphor is turned back on them. There’s a whole evening’s conversation around that but what came out of my Master’s dissertation was four key concepts – beauty, children, community and justice. These are four key components through which hope seems to run like a river with four tributaries. And people connect with a real profound sense of hope and hope becomes tangible. I researched this through ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine and all the big thinkers.

ME: Yes, I remember. Yes, you did.

JOE: Right up to the likes of Jurgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf and Tom Wright or N T Wright as well … to try and get a sweep through theological and secular thinking around the subject of hope. Hope is such a slippery concept and so difficult to articulate. And so it was this quadrilateral (to use a theological or academic word) of beauty, children, community and justice that I articulated in my dissertation and then pulled back into the old mission hall, the witness here at the old mission hall, so that the place here has a garden and the garden is dripping with flowers. We’re busy right at this moment. Seeds are sprouting in the midst of a Covid epidemic or pandemic. Flowers are still budding. We’re working furiously in the greenhouse because we know that we’re going to see better days than what we’re in right now. The beauty, the place is going to be dripping with flowers. Several dozen children come here every day to a childcare project. There’s a community café and a garden space. And we work very keenly with justice as well locally and overseas. We try to put a palette here whereby people can connect with expressions of hope and be drawn under the umbrella of God’s outreach in the community.

ME: That’s wonderful, Joe! Now you mentioned the pandemic. That must have some impact on what you can do with the café and the children’s work.

JOE: It has indeed, John. We have a tips jar in the café which we call it the ‘Share Your Lunch Jar’ or the ‘Share Your Lunch Fund’. When Jesus was presented with the need of five thousand plus people, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”. It’s very profound that this happened at this moment because Jesus obviously was ready to feed everybody but he halted a miracle because he wanted some human interaction and the disciples really struggled. So we had been thinking and reflecting and praying and agonising over the needs of this community, this city. And we felt the Lord saying to us, “You give them something to eat” so we put a tips jar there and we said that’s going to be the five loaves and the two fishes. Whatever goes into that, we’re going to build up this fund. Now this pandemic hits and over the years we’ve been giving free food to several people, lots of people in the community, people in difficult circumstances and so on. And now when this epidemic hits, John, it has just exploded. And we have the police, we have district nurses, we have worried residents and family members contacting us and saying, “Can you deliver food to this person or to that person?”.  We have scores of people every day that we’re feeding. And we’ve developed a lunch pack with the help of a volunteer master chef. The lunch pack is designed with a beautiful soup to meet all the vegetable requirements, with a lovely sandwich to meet the protein and the carbohydrate requirements, and we bake a lovely cake every day with a topping on it and that’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. We deliver this free of charge to scores of people around the area. At the moment we are limiting it to senior citizens who are being told to cocoon and to those who find themselves house-bound due to the virus. And we’re delighted. God loves a cheerful giver so we’re telling everybody that we’re delighted to give them a free lunch pack which will go significantly towards meeting all of their dietary requirements. We’re using the model of you-give-them-something-to-eat, the little boy with the loaves and the fishes, for such a time as this.

ME: And your daughter has launched an online appeal to raise more funds for this?

JOE: Yes, she set up a GoFundMe page and would you believe, John, that last November, before anybody ever heard of Covid or whatever, she ran a half-marathon and she was hoping to raise a thousand euro for our Share Your Lunch Fund? But she was only able to raise about half of that and she was very down about it. I said, “Honey, that’s just a seed that has been sown. Let’s leave it in the Lord’s hands and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what’s going to happen her.” And so the five hundred is now about two thousand even though she was hoping to raise only one thousand!

ME: And you’re still open to receiving more if I put a link into this blog?

JOE: Yes, if you twist my arm. You can be sure that it’ll receive more because it’s just whatever the Lord wants to do. It’s a bit like the disciples. I wonder, and I’m sure you would wonder, at what stage did the disciples start doing the Maths of the five loaves and the two fishes.

ME: Well, I was a Maths teacher – I would have done that early on and I would have been stumped.

JOE: I honestly feel that they didn’t actually do it. That’s why Jesus made them collect the left-overs!

ME: Joe, it has been wonderful to talk with you like this. May God richly bless all that you and Sharon and your team continue to do in Ringsend and its impact to the ends of the earth. Bless you, brother.

JOE: Bless you too, John.

You can read more about Joe’s project in Vox magazine, the Irish Times, NewsFour, the Irish Independent, and Faith in Ireland. See also TripAdvisor.