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Larry de Cleir from Parteen, who has retired as Project Leader with the Bedford Row Family Project for ex-prisoners and families, pictured at the Curragour Boat Club in Limerick, where he is looking forward to spending more time on the water. Photograph by John Kelly

Larry’s empowerment legacy

PARTEEN native, Larry De Cleir is a man of many parts. A psychotherapist, who spent two decades in the Irish army, he is also a talented singer-songwriter, whose work ranges from personal reflections to commentary on politics and society. With a CV like that, his retirement is probably set to be a fairly active one. The role of retiree is one that Larry is still getting used to having signed off, just last week, after a 13-and-a-half year stint as Project Leader with Bedford Row, an initiative that supports prisoners and families in Clare and Limerick.

“I was involved with the project for a long time before that,” he explains. “I was counselling and getting clients from the project. Before that, again, I was involved, in very early days meeting workers with the Hospitality Centre in Limerick Prison, where the project started up. I was aworking with South Hill Outreach and we had a step-down [service] going on, so I got to know Bedford Row very early on.”

The project was founded the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of Mercy in 1999 and the Hospitality Centre to support families visiting Limerick Prison was one of its first services. With the support of The Courts Discretionary Fund, set up in Clare by District Court Judge Patrick Durcan, the project opened an outreach service in Ennis three years ago. That is now located at the Centre Point Business Park on Orchard Lane.

“We started off in Ennis with a few very good people: [former Garda Superintendent] Frank Gunter, and [solicitor] Tara Godfrey and Judge Patrick Durcan,” Larry explains. “Clare is a very important part of our work because a lot of the families, down the years, would have had Clare addresses. I have had a staff member on a part-time basis from 2017 and Pat Talty has been in that role, in Ennis, in the last 12 months. We have four or five volunteers too, and they take a great interest in supporting the project.”

“At any time, we have could have between ten and 15 on the books in Clare. They may not be receiving intensive support at the same time. That situation would be impossible, you know, but we wouldn’t have the resources. We do need funding to have a full-time staff member [in Clare] and maybe as an assistant to Pat as well, because there’s definitely the work is the area. The families that we support, could have a bit of extra support as well. We do need some extra stuff in the Clare area.”

Across the whole project, which also includes special provision for the Travelling community, Bedford Row supported 450 families in 2019.

“They would need different levels of support,” Larry noted. “Of those, for around 100, we’d be working very intensively and supporting them with their children and everything. Others would have a lesser requirement, and some of them would might just engage for a short time, looking for general advice or information.

“In the beginning, the majority of those who came for support to Bedford Row would be family members. They’re on the outside, and they’re anxious about the person on the inside, and their loved one is in prison.In the last five or six years, though, we’ve increased our profile in Limerick Prison enormously. We’ve had great support from them. The prison have allowed us to do that and we’ve been working in partnership with the officers in there to affect better outcomes for people. We have a particular presence in the women’s prison, which we think is very important, because some of the young women obviously are mothers, and they’re going to come out at some stage.”

Larry’s role as Project Leader has been a diverse and varied one, involving day-to-day management, building up the staff team, and staff morale, as well as accessing funding for initiatives including a children’s groups and drop-in centre. “We have a very busy drop in centre, where people can come in with just about any problem that they have, and they’re free to drop in.”

The impact of Covid-19 on prison visits is a concern too and Larry is hopeful that a degree of normality will return in the not-too-distant future. An art and story-telling initiative for family members has been restarted under Level 3 restrictions, albeit with smaller numbers.

Significantly, the Bedford Row project has worked hard to have its operations evaluated and to ensure external oversight of its activities. In 2012, it commissioned Gauge Ireland to undertake an external evaluation showing that for every €1 invested in Bedford Row, a return of €5.56 is generated for the State. The annual Social Return on Investment equates to more than €1.5million.

“It is considerable,” Larry admits. “I wondered at first about it, but actually when I went through the details, they did the evaluation very logically and very, very thoroughly and rigorously. Gauge proved that this saving is real and it began to make sense to me. If you stopped someone going, not to mention to prison, but, if you intervened before someone came before the court, can you imagine the saving?”

Resources for the project are always at a premium, but the Bedford Row philosophy is about empowering people to help themselves. “The need always outstrips the resource in our area of work,” Larry notes. “There will always be more children to protect than there are social workers to protect them. There will always be more people suffering domestic violence than there are to safe havens for them to go. That’s the reality. And this is where the idea of empowerment comes in. Because if you give people the skills to do things for themselves, then there will less need. In other words, I think, the helping industry depends too much on professionals. There’s an idea that only professionals can solve problems, but people can solve an awful lot of problems by themselves. Helping people to do this is a lot more effective – and cost effective – than throwing money at something.

“I think listening is a huge thing in that respect. Listening to people that might never have been listened to before. We put a lot of store on listening. When people hear themselves articulate their own difficulties, they sometimes feel empowered. I think we can also offer people a safe place to explore issues. Very often, it’s not that easy to go looking for help. When we do, we need to be in a safe place and get time and space.”

A counselling background was clearly an advantage in Larry’s role at Bedford Row, but his career path didn’t follow a direct route.

“I was in the army for more than 20 years and enjoyed it,” he outlines. “I learned a lot there. I was based for most of my career with the Air Corps in Baldonnell and worked in radio and radar. That was a different world, but the similarity, I suppose, is that there’s communication involved.

“The education I received in the army, and I’m talking about 1970, was decades ahead of its time.

I got experiential learning, before I ever understood what experiential learning was, because we were learning by experience. I enjoyed that because I’m not a very academic kind of person, and I also made great friendships.”

Later, Larry worked with South Hill Outreach helping young people on the street. In the early 2000s, he retrained as a psychotherapist and his diverse skill set made him an ideal leader for Bedford Row.

“I enjoyed it and I’ll miss it,” he admits. “I’ve learned so much from the people that I’m working with. It’s just brilliant and I’m really inspired by their courage in difficult circumstances.”

Larry feels that he is leaving the project with a bright future ahead of it. “The person taking over, Alison Curtin, has been with the project for a long time. Having Pat in Ennis is great too. He’s a rock of sense. I see a good future for the project. Part of our mission, at the moment, is to try and engender some interest in the project from the corporate area, to appeal to those who believe in stronger communities and stronger towns and stronger regions. I think people understand the rationale of the project when it’s explained to them. They understand the fact that it actually benefits society when the support is there so that people don’t go to prison.”

Bedford Row in Clare can be contacted on 087-6809347. The phone number for the main office in Limerick 061-315332. The project can also be contacted by email toinfo@bedfordrow.ie.

About Fiona McGarry

Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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