Q & A with Sr. Consilio Fitzgerald, helping those caught in the web of addiction

Sr. Consilio Fitzgerald greets families and well-wishers on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Cuan Mhuire in 2016 at the residential house in Athy, County Kildare, with the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin. (Michael Sullivan)

Sr. Consilio Fitzgerald is a pioneering Irish Mercy sister who has spearheaded the provision of residential treatment for those with addictions in Ireland for 50 years.

A nurse by training, she first began to help alcoholics in 1966, and her efforts later became Cuan Mhuire, which is the Gaelic for "Harbor of Mary." She has a saying: No matter how difficult the obstacle she faces, "Our Lady will provide."

Cuan Mhuire is known colloquially among those who have undergone treatment programs as a Haven of Love. Over the past five decades, Fitzgerald's centers have treated over 75,000 people with drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. Today, it provides 600 residential beds, making it the largest provider of rehabilitation services in Ireland. Centers in the Republic of Ireland are located in Athy, Athenry, Bruree, and Ballincollig as well as Newry in Northern Ireland. There are transition houses located in Dublin, Galway and Limerick as well.

Regarded as a living saint by many in Irish society, this gentle nun from County Kerry is loved for her compassion and depth of care for the addicted and their families, as well as for her ability to mobilize others into helping those caught in the web of addiction. In 2011, Fitzgerald was awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), a much-prized honor for outstanding service to the community presented by Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. On Jan. 9, Fitzgerald marked her 80th birthday.

Sr. Consilio Fitzgerald marks her 80th birthday on Jan. 9, 2017. (Michael Sullivan)

On a program broadcast on national television in Ireland recently, Fitzgerald recalled the day she left her happy rural farming background to join the Mercy sisters:

"The morning I was joining the nuns, I thought it was the end of my whole life. I couldn't stop crying. I just thought everything had ended and that there would be no more living for me. I thought nuns were lonely people looking out the window, wondering would somebody call to see them. My brother Jonnie saw me crying and said 'Come home.' But I told him, 'No, Jonnie, I have to go, but I'll come home at Christmas, when I have my conscience satisfied.' "

She hadn't thought she would stay.

GSR: Why are you so concerned about online gambling?

Fitzgerald: Increasing numbers of people are seeking help at our centers with this particular addiction. It is a disaster which is undermining families. Thousands of euro can be spent in a flash, creating huge financial difficulties and worries for families.

Online gambling is so tempting. Those who are addicted can be gambling online without even getting out of bed in the morning, whereas in the past, they would have to find a bookie and slip away on the quiet.

It is so hard for the families. I would like to see more practical education around online gambling to make people aware of the dangers they are facing and the heartache it can create for families. It is the hardest addiction to give up. You are addicted to your own adrenaline. People need to be aware of all that before they leap into it because if they are aware of the dangers, they mightn't get in so fast.

What are your concerns around the binge-drinking culture?

Addiction is on the increase. Young people nowadays go out with the intention of getting drunk. The whole idea of a night out is to get so intoxicated that they cannot remember it. I suppose they want to blot something out in life.

There is a deeper need than just the material things. No matter how attractive [material things] might appear to be, they will never satisfy the human heart. As St. Augustine learned, wine, women and song didn't make him happy. Then he found God, and he realized: 'Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are ever restless until we find our rest in you.'

Sr. Consilio Fitzgerald in the gardens of Cuan Mhuire's residential house in Athy, County Kildare, with the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin. (Michael Sullivan)

There are an awful lot of people whose hearts are restless. They are looking for something to blot the emptiness out. St. Augustine realized the emptiness that was there, but it took all his mother's prayers to bring him to that realization. An awful lot of damage can be done before one realizes that.

Imagine if you got up in the morning, and you had no purpose whatever in your life, despite all the material stuff you had. Wouldn't it be a very empty existence, especially if you come to my age? Wouldn't it make it very sad to grow old if you didn't have something to look forward to, to know that death is not the end, but only really the beginning?

Having a few drinks or being merry is not a problem. People who can enjoy a drink and can take it or leave it — that's not a problem. I am sure it would be a dull world for a lot of people if they couldn't have a drink here and there. But you are in trouble when you are looking to get blotted out of your mind or when you have to have alcohol the next morning.

When it takes you over, that is when there is a problem. It doesn't have to be alcohol; we all have our own addictions. It is anything that takes us over and takes away our freedom and limits us in what we can do and doesn't help us to be happy.

How do you respond to the calls for the legalization of soft drugs and the adoption of the Portuguese model, which allows people to legally use a drug such as cannabis?

I have seen too many young people's minds affected by cannabis. I think it is just too serious to play around with. I think it has a worse effect on people's minds than anything else I know. Young people today have so much to cope with, so many temptations. I would hate to be growing up now; I don't think I'd make a very good job of it if I were growing up now. I have great compassion on young people who have to deal with so much.

Do you think loneliness plays a role in addiction?

I think loneliness is a terrible affliction. I feel sorry for people who find themselves in that situation, where they are desperately lonely and lost.

Sr. Consilio Fitzgerald in the gardens of Cuan Mhuire's residential house in Athy, County Kildare, with the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin. (Michael Sullivan)

Some people in nursing homes are lonely. They feel set aside. They might have lived a long and hard life and done an awful lot for various people, and then they find themselves abandoned.

What was it that spurred you to reach out to the 'men of the road,' the homeless alcoholics you met first in the 1960s?

I thought Cuan Mhuire could be home for people where they would feel loved. It was about the power of people reaching out and helping each other. We heal each other. That is what happened in the early years. It wouldn't have been a program because I hadn't any program, but I just knew how my mother took care of visitors when they called. I had a love of people — that is what makes a difference for all of us, to love and to be loved.

You have just set up a new network called Friends of Cuan Mhuire. What are your plans for 2017?

When people finish a program, they often feel out of place for a time, and so for that period, they need support, a place to call into and meet each other. If you had a support group, with a number of people who are already out there and doing well who could provide camaraderie, friendship and fellowship — that would be important also for the families because they worry that their family member will go back to the addiction again. But if they have help and support in their town, families can get support and help from people who are well and get them to talk to the person they are worrying about.

What was the highlight of last year, when Cuan Mhuire celebrated its 50th anniversary?

One of the highlights occurred when we were preparing for the celebrations in Athy. We were adding to our garden of remembrance by building a wall there. A very good stonemason brought with him a number of lads who had been on drugs and alcohol. It was seeing them find a purpose and become stonemasons over the course of weeks and actually build the last part of the wall themselves — you could see the change in them when they had really found a purpose.

It would be wonderful if people leaving Cuan Mhuire had a real purpose in life and a value in themselves. We must provide workshops that give people an opportunity of finding their calling and continue it after the program. It was a highlight for me to see how that stonemason helped those young people and how it brought them away from their heads because they got busy with their hands.

Well-wishers, supporters and former residents gather at the special commemorative wall in the grounds of Cuan Mhuire in Athy, County Kildare, built to mark the 50th anniversary of the Harbor of Mary. (Michael Sullivan)

Speaking to one of the lads, I told him I couldn't get over the change in him — he had had no interest in anything. 'I got away from my head and I went down to my soul,' he told me.

[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance journalist based in Dublin.]