There didn’t seem to be much mystery shrouding proceedings at the Freemason’s lodge in Ballinfoile, with its door wide open and events playing out for all to see.
Perceived as an exclusive and secretive group, Galway Freemason’s Lodge on Bóthar an Choiste seemed the furthest thing from elitist as the group gathered to celebrate the success of their ‘Teddies for Loving Care’ initiative.
TLC has been running now for a number of years and involves Freemasons providing teddies for paediatric units in hospitals up and down the country.
Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest organisations for men and, having had a presence in Galway since 1722, the group certainly has staying power.
Almoner of Galway City Freemasons (Lodge 14), Basil Fenton, says that perceptions of the organisation are sometimes distorted.
He believes that ultimately, the group aims to have a positive impact on society and to the benefit of more than just their members.
“There are altruistic reasons for wanting to try and do a bit of good and that’s where the main focus is in terms of the charities,” says Basil.
TLC is a national initiative but one that has had a significant local impact – with anything up to 70 teddies being delivered into University Hospital Galway every week.
“This is where 36 hospitals within the country have A&E departments with specific facilities for paediatrics and we supply teddies free of charge to those hospitals.
“We provide the teddies and then it is at the discretion of nurses on duty – if a small child comes in distressed, they get a little teddy,” explains Basil.
“They are bought in from abroad and stored in Dublin – then by some means of distribution, they are brought down to Galway or Limerick or up to Belfast or Ballymena or wherever.
“A local member will keep in touch with nurses in paediatrics and they bring them in as they require them – the teddies are sterile and approved for hospital use,” he continued.
It is believed that the Freemasons emerged in the fifteenth century – as Basil says, “when they were really stonemasons”.
It was from here, according to him, that the symbolism and rituals originated.
“In one sense, it would have originally been almost like a trade union and you hear people talking about the secret signs and symbols – at that time you didn’t have certificates or diplomas to say what level of qualification you were.
“It was using these signs and symbols that you could prove you were really an advanced carpenter or mason and therefore eligible to earn more money,” says Basil.
To maintain tradition, the Freemasons continue to wear regalia that includes sashes and aprons – representative of the apron that stone masons would have worn to protect their trousers.
The rituals as members progress from apprentice to fellowcraft before becoming a Master Mason still continue – something that Basil concedes that his wife refers to as “play-acting”.
He feels that misconceptions of the organisation both attracts and deters – and leads to people seeking to join for differing reasons.
As a result, it is quite a laborious task to join, involving a period of scrutiny to ensure that potential members want to give back rather than just take from the organisation.
“Some people come in with expectations of rituals or sudden introduction into somewhere and that is why there is the scrutiny or screening process – to try and let the person know that your perception of what to expect is not what it really is.
“There are three basic qualifications – first of all, he has to be a man, he has got to believe in some supreme being of some sort and he must live in good repute amongst his friends and neighbours,” explains Basil.
And it isn’t some covert or secretive applications process – it is simply a matter of making an online application to be contacted.
“It isn’t for everybody but a lot of people get great enjoyment out of it – there are about 25,000 members around the country.
“People join a rugby club because they enjoy rugby – people join us because they find it enjoyable and they have similar aims in terms of trying to improve things for charities or whatever along the line,” says Basil.
As for why he joined, it was a combination of curiosity and security – with the Freemasons offering support to any families left behind if a member passes away.
“There are the Masonic charities for people who have fallen on hard times within the order – I saw security in terms of children getting support through education – children of members, if the member dies, will get support.
“The function of the Almoner is to look after the brethren so if somebody is sick, you visit them or you organise for them to be visited and you keep an eye on any widows you may have – if somebody has a problem or anything, you might help them with it,” he says.
As the Freemason’s lodge in Ballinfoile flooded with people and the table was filled with foil platters of party food and teddies, the so-called secret society seemed anything but.
“The fact is that there is a booklet that anyone can go in and collect in the Grand Lodge in Dublin that has all the names and addresses of every lodge in the country and the contact details for them.
“There’s nothing clandestine or hidden – it’s in the public sphere, identifiable and available,” says Basil.
Delay in setting up addiction treatment services ‘will cost lives’
Any further delay in setting up an alcohol addiction treatment service in Galway City will result in more deaths, including suicides, of problem drinkers – and cause ‘total devastation’ to local families, addiction experts have warned.
Addiction Counsellors of Ireland (ACI) has demanded that the Health Service Executive (HSE) immediately establishes an alcohol treatment service in the city.
The professional body – which accredits counsellors – claims that GPs in Galway are ‘flooded’ with drink-related patients, and the Emergency Department “can’t cope” with the level of alcohol admissions. It said the long-awaited alcohol addiction treatment service planned for the city would save lives and save tens of thousands of euro on alcohol-related emergency admissions at University Hospital Galway.
Some €470,000 a year funding for the service was announced by the previous Government last December; and a commitment for the service was contained in the Programme for Government agreed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party.
This week, Galway West TD Hildegarde Naughton, a Minister of State in the new administration, confirmed that some €225,000 for the service from now until Christmas is available in the 2020 HSE budget to get the service up and running.
Local addiction counsellors have now demanded that the HSE urgently hire the staff, and source a building, to roll out the alcohol addiction service, which has been absent for the past seven years.
Chairperson of ACI, Seán Harty, said there was a high price to pay for more delays in setting up an alcohol treatment service.
Mr Harty said “death, families left devastated, breakdown in families, increases in suicide and total devastation” will result if the service is not rolled-out quickly.
“Each and every day that we have this funding and the service is not open we are letting the people of Galway down,” he said.
Another leading accredited addiction counsellor based in Galway, Joe Treacy, who is also a spokesperson for ACI, warned that getting the service established was “a matter of urgency, lives are at risk”.
“We need the HSE to stop pussyfooting around, and pretending that we have a service. Without it, this city has a huge void in relation to the ongoing treatment of alcohol addiction. The impact is enormous without this service. There are families in dire circumstances. There were families in difficulties prior to Covid-19 and now more and more the void is there,” said Mr Treacy.
An addiction treatment centre at Merlin Park was gutted by fire following an arson attack in 2013.
The HSE told a County Galway Joint Policing Committee meeting in May that ‘higher priority’ than reopening the addiction treatment centre at Merlin Park, was ‘a network of community-based addiction services’.
ACI said that the statistics proved the need for the service to be replaced. They said that the Merlin Park centre was dealing with up to 900 referrals a year before it was burnt down; the new treatment centre will cater for around 70 referrals per month.
“A study of the Emergency Department in Galway found that 30% of episodes of alcohol associated with attendees were for repeat attendees. That meant they had one or more episode of care at ED within the year, and some up to 40 times per year,” said Mr Harty.
He pointed out that alcohol associated attendances to Galway ED cost approximately €700,000 per annum, which does not include costs for patients admitted to hospitals.
Ambulance call-outs for alcohol-related incidents in Galway also cost about €1m million every year.
The plan is to line the new treatment service to the ED, which will reduce costs, and provide more effective and efficient services to the people who need it, Mr Harty said.
He added that savings would not be limited to health, but right across society, and would take pressure off the Court Services, Probation Services, An Garda Síochána and more.
“This service is going to pay for itself without a shadow of a doubt. It is extremely good value for money to the Exchequer and will absolutely serve the people of Galway, hopefully with a roll-out to County Galway, Mayo and Roscommon in the coming years,” he said.
However, it was imperative the HSE act as soon as possible, he said.
“The urgency is that GPs are flooded with people presenting with alcohol related issues; ED can’t cope. It can’t cope with the numbers of repeat presentations for alcohol. It’s a huge problem. There are 2,000 beds per night in Ireland taken up with alcohol. Two thirds of suicides, there is alcohol in the system,” added Mr Harty.
Statistics show that there is very little service provided for people with a primary alcohol problem who require outpatient services in Galway – the city has one counsellor per 50,353 people, while Waterford has one per 9,346 people and Tralee has one per 3,948.
Mr Treacy said Galway is playing catch-up since the services were removed in 2013.
“What we need in Galway is a comprehensive alcohol-addiction treatment centre for a city of this size, and without that we have a huge void in services. It’s a basic commodity that we don’t have in Galway at the moment.
The impact is enormous without this service. We have an emerging problem in the city and it’s catching up faster than we can keep up,” added Mr Treacy.
The €470,000 annual funding committed by Government provides for three addiction counsellors, one family support counsellor, one project worker, one liaison nurse and one administrator. The HSE has been urged to hire the staff with the money available, and source a building, which is also budgeted for.
(Main photo: The addiction treatment centre in Merlin Park which was destroyed by fire in 2013).
Galway Fire Service seeks retention of ‘temporary’ offices
The Fire Service has sought permission to retain unauthorised ‘temporary’ offices and parking spaces at Galway Fire Station.
The existing planning permission for the offices to the rear of the building on Fairhill Road and seven parking spaces at the side expired in May 2019.
However, planning officials warned six years ago that a proposal to seek a further duration of retention of the offices may not be favourably considered. If permission is refused, the offices – which include a breathing apparatus training area – will have to be demolished.
Galway Fire Service has been struggling for more than a decade to find a suitable location for a new headquarters to serve the city.
Now, Galway County Council – which operates the Fire Service – has come back to the City Council for permission to retain temporary office accommodation at the rear and seven parking spaces at the front of the station.
The offices were given a five-year grant of permission in 2000 by the City Council. Subsequent grants of permission to retain them were given in 2005, 2007 and 2014.
A Warning Letter was served by the Council on the County Council in 2014 that because retention permission had expired, the buildings were unauthorised.
A further planning application for retention was subsequently lodged and approved, and the City Council’s Senior Planner Liam Blake said: “It is noted that on the expiration of this permission in 2019 that temporary permissions have been granted in 2000, 2005 and 2007 for this site (i.e. nearly 19 years) and in view of this, it is considered that the application should be advised that consideration of a further application for an extended period may not be considered favourable as the cumulative number of years for which temporary permissions have been granted far exceeds what would normally be considered temporary and the nature and impact of the works are such that a permanent grant of planning would not normally be considered.”
In the latest application, Chief Fire Officer Gerard O’Malley said: “When permission was previously granted for the temporary accommodation, it was envisaged that Galway Fire Service would be building a new fire station in a different location within the city.
“However, this has not yet materialised and subsequently, Galway Fire Service are not in an immediate position to vacate the existing site.
“A number of sites are undergoing feasibility studies and we would hope to expedite the relocating process in the coming years.
“We wish to apply for retention planning permission until we are in a position to construct a new HQ in the near future. The temporary offices are essential to the operation of Galway Fire Service,” said Mr O’Malley.
The building includes offices for the Chief Fire Officer (CFO); four Senior Assistant CFOs; five Assistant CFOs; administration rooms and a meeting room.
The Council previously said that while the offices had been in place for many years, they are not suitable in the long term because they are adjacent to and visible from the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, a Protected Structure.
A decision is due on the latest planning application at the beginning of September.
Work to start on Merlin Park ambulance base
Two of the contractors who were unsuccessful in tendering for the contract to build a new ambulance base at Merlin Park Hospital have queried the process with the Health Service Executive (HSE) – just as the successful bidder is due to move onsite in August.
Joe Hoare, HSE West Assistant National Director of Estates, told last week’s HSE West Regional Health Forum that the project has been tendered for, and a contractor has been selected.
“We have a contractor ready to start,” he said, adding that two of the unsuccessful contractors “did have questions” they wanted answered.
These questions, insisted Mr Hoare, would be responded to within days, and the contract will be awarded “within the next two weeks”.
He confirmed in response to queries from City Councillor John Connolly (FF) that the new ambulance base will be on the grounds of Merlin Park, and “construction will start at the end of August on site”.
Cllr Connolly welcomed the clarity in the verbal response from Mr Hoare at the Forum meeting on Zoom, but he was disappointed with the level of detail that was contained in the written response to his queries.
Cllr Connolly said it was good news that “finally there is movement on a new ambulance base”.
“The temporary facilities they’re using currently at UHG are Third World nearly. You would have to wonder how it’s two years since they got planning permission and it hasn’t started. It is good that a contractor has been selected and it will start soon,” said Cllr Connolly.
The need for a new ambulance base has been highlighted in recent years in Galway City Tribune.
In March of this year, ambulance staff lashed the conditions of the existing base which is housed at the old Fever Hospital at UHG. It was not fit-for-purpose, according to staff.
Asked by this newspaper for an update last week on the planned new ambulance base, a spokesperson said: “The National Ambulance Service have engaged with staff regarding concerns about the current accommodation. The National Ambulance Service have been working with colleagues in HSE Estates division as well as colleagues in the hospital group to address these concerns. Issues have been progressed and resolved while others are still being worked upon.
“Management within the National Ambulance Service area continue to work on the issues raised by staff and will continue to engage with staff on this matter. The plan is for a new ambulance base for staff, however this must go through the normal planning and funding channels.”
(Main photo: Inside the current ambulance base in the old Fever Hospital at UHG).