Providing care in comfort

Anne Keeling visits Brú Columbanus

When families are stricken with worry for a loved one who is seriously ill, Brú Columbanus in Cork city offers them a haven where they can spend time while being close to the hospital or hospice.

‘Brú’ is the Irish for hostel and the centre was built under the auspices of the Knights of Columbanus. The purpose-built, bright, modern building is situated in Wilton just a short walk from Cork University Hospital. It encompasses 26 en-suite bedrooms with supporting kitchens and lounges where families can meet with others in a similar situation and benefit from mutual support and understanding.

While meals are not provided – guests prepare their own food – there is no charge to stay in Brú Columbanus. It is not grant-aided or subsidised and the annual running cost of €300,000 is met by fund-raising and donations. The house, which officially opened in September 2005, is manned by a team of over 40 volunteers and just three paid staff. One of the latter is events manager Anne-Maria Lyons and she explains how and why Brú Columbanus came into existence.

“There were three main initiators of the project – Jim Leahy, Tom Walsh and Charlie Barry.  Charlie was a community garda and had stayed in a similar place in Bristol when his nephew was very sick. His nephew, Aaron Kiely, was 11 months old when he was diagnosed with cancer. His sister was living in Britain at the time and the family used to travel over from Ireland to support her. They stayed in a place called Click House that was accommodation for relatives of patients in the hospital in Bristol. Charlie always had this idea in the back of his head that it was very badly needed in Cork. You had a situation where you would have people sleeping in cars over in the hospital or sleeping on mattresses on the floor to be near their loved one,” she says.


Meanwhile the Knights of St Columbanus had formed a sub-committee, chaired by Jim Leahy, to brainstorm new ways in which they could be of help in the community. Charlie was approached for ideas by Tom Walsh and he suggested replicating the services provided in Click House. Initially meetings took place with the various hospital managers and social workers to determine the need for such a service. They were met with open arms as this had been a problem for many years.

Work on Brú Columbanus began in 2002 and finished in three years. The site for the building, which many years previously had been an orchard, was donated by the SMA priests of St Joseph’s Parish, Wilton. The Knights sold a property on Cork’s South Terrace, raising £2.1 million for the project, and combined with once-off funding from the HSE, the Department of Health, Cork City Council and voluntary contributions the building was designed and built for a total of €5.5 million.

“The Knights are still very involved,” says Anne-Maria, “they help out on a voluntary basis with church gate collections and with the running of the house, helping to cover reception in the evenings and with any maintenance issues we have, anything at all they can do to help they do.”

All the hospitals in Cork as well as the hospice refer family members in need of accommodation to Brú Columbanus. Each day the clinical nurse manager, staff nurse or social worker contacts the hostel and so it is not possible to just pick up the phone to book a room. Brú works very closely with the various hospitals.

The volunteers play a vital role in the running of the project. At 10am each morning the team arrives to clean the rooms after guests leave. They also cover reception in the afternoons and evenings, chat with guests and work weekends to liaise with hospitals and check in families.

“We’re very lucky with our volunteers,” Anne-Maria says, “and we wouldn’t be able to operate without them. We’ve had volunteers from different parts of the world. A French volunteer once said that a facility like this wouldn’t operate in France because they wouldn’t get the level of volunteer commitment that we give in Ireland.”


Guests at Brú Columbanus must be living over 30 miles from Cork. The facility gets a lot of families from West and North Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford and has also kept families from abroad. When they are leaving guests often give a donation and some go on to organise fund-raising events for Brú in their own locality.

“We’re very lucky that the people appreciate the service that is provided for them and they give it back as well,” Anne-Maria says. “In Tralee a few years back three families – the O’Sullivan’s, Goggin’s and O’Shea’s – got together and organised a benefit night in the Kingdom Greyhound Track and raised €42,000 for us. And recently the O’Mahony family from Ballyheigue organised Ballyheigue Beardfest. It was great. Thirty three men grew beards and got sponsorship, and that raised over €15,000 for us.”

Anne-Maria is also looking forward to a cookery demonstration by celebrity chef Neven Maguire in Killarney in March. “Neven did a demo for us in Cork last year. He’s an absolute gentleman. His recipes are fantastic, they’re easy to follow. He has so much time for people at a demo and is very entertaining to watch.” Tickets will be €20.

As an additional source of revenue Brú Columbanus has six meeting rooms, including one conference room, which it hires out to a variety of groups. Activities such as playing bridge and Irish language classes go on and this helps to keep the place vital also. There is also a play-room for children, a utility room where guests can do laundry, and a prayer room. 

Johann Ashe from Killarney was faced with difficult circumstances over the Christmas period that led him to come and spend time at Brú Columbanus. His girlfriend gave birth to a baby girl in Tralee and she was transferred to the neo-natal unit in Cork University Hospital. This meant that Johann and his girlfriend were staying in Brú “for the foreseeable future”.  Johann’s daughter was just a week old and he was kept busy helping to monitor his baby’s strict feeding schedule. His girlfriend had returned home for one night to spend time with their other little boy on his birthday.

Asked what the availability of Brú Columbanus meant to him Johann says,“ If we didn’t have Brú we’d probably be up and down the roads, an hour up and an hour down every day, trying to organise lifts and stuff, so it makes a huge difference. I’d just like to thank the members, the staff of Brú, for making our stay as comfortable as possible.”

Despite the challenges that the staff and volunteers of Brú Columbanus face – it is getting busier all the time – they are looking to the future with determination and optimism as they plan to open another hostel across the road. This proposed project, involving the conversion of an old building donated by the SMA priests, will accommodate sick patients who have to travel to receive treatment in Cork’s hospitals. All that is needed is to raise money. The work goes on.