COFFA House management committee Mary Linehan, Lillian O’Leary, Catherine Cogan, Mary Kickham, and Maureen Burns during a recent visit to the office of the Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr Deirdre Forde.

Life starts at 50

Volunteers and members both past and present will come together at the Cork Old Folks Friendly Association, COFFA, centre this weekend as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Saturday afternoon’s event at COFFA House on Church Street will reunite generations of those associated with the centre since it was first established in 1972.

The welcome back celebration will run from 3-6pm on Saturday and will be attended by the Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr Deirdre Forde. COFFA, a non-profit and non-denominational organisation, was founded by David Williamson and Tom Whelton who believed there was a need in Cork for an organisation to address and support the needs of senior citizens throughout the city.

Its first meeting was held in Moore's Hotel where the first committee was established with the help of Manus O'Callaghan, John Jermyn, Vivian Nathan, Brendan Hegarty, Patricia Edwards, Catherine Cogan and Thora McGrath who formed the first committee. The purpose and aim of COFFA was to create an organisation which would provide friendship and social support to senior citizens, in particular to those living on their own.

Speaking in the lead-up to the milestone celebration, COFFA Board of Management member Michael Baldwin recalled how difficult life was for many senior citizens in Cork city 50 years ago.

“In the early ‘70s many of our senior citizens lived in very poor conditions, many in substandard housing and bedsits which were privately rented. Many of our older gentlemen lived in what were known as ‘doss houses’ in the inner city. Apart from a basic state pension which did not include living alone, free fuel or free electricity, our senior citizens did not have access to rent allowance or supplementary welfare allowance,” he said.

Initially, COFFA set up a friendship home visitation service throughout the city, as well as a weekly friendship visitation service to St Finbarr's Hospital, a home repair service, Meals on Wheels on Sundays, advocacy and social outings, Christmas hampers, and clothing parcels. Volunteers also provided toiletries and gifts to long stay residents in St Finbarr's hospital together with Christmas, Easter and birthday parties.

In 1973, after much voluntary fundraising, 21 Church Street was purchased by the committee to create a base in which to provide a centre that senior citizens could avail of 7 evenings per week for friendship, social contact, activities and support, including Christmas Day.

When it first started out, COFFA did not receive any state funding towards its services. In 1974 Robin Power and Vincent O'Farrell came on board and paid for the renovations to transform 21 Church Street into the social centre it is today.

In 1975 COFFA House was formally opened by Rita Childers, the wife of the former president of Ireland, Erskine Childers.

Since then, the activities of COFFA have expanded into areas of assisting people with home decoration, improving their surroundings and making them more inviting and comfortable so they could take pride in their homes. Laundry facilities were also provided at the centre as few would have had access to washing machines and dryers at the time.

More recent activities at the centre focus on courses, film nights, concerts, bingo on Monday afternoon, and social outings as well as an annual service for present and deceased members.

“Despite the considerable improvement in pension payments from the early days of COFFA, along with fuel allowance, living alone allowance, and electricity allowance, there remains a considerable level of loneliness in our communities,” said Michael.

“That’s where organisations such as COFFA play a vital role offering respect, dignity and support. Here’s looking forward to another 50 years.”