It is lunchtime on Ash Wednesday at the headquarters of Abbeyleix Social Services, a traditional thick walled cottage on the Mountrath Road.
Volunteers and a few clients are awaiting the boxes of freshly cooked hot dinners, collected from the Abbeyleix CNU by volunteers.
The cottage is neat as a pin, with every stick of funiture donated locally, from the kitchen units to an heirloom double gas cooker that came from the hospital kitchen.
A sign on the wall lists the meeting times of the many organisations who use it; Vincent de Paul, ICA, Community Alert, Anglers and Macra.
“We got a new fridge and dishwasher donated, it is very comfortable here, we have our central heating, we are very well treated, and it is great to see it so well used by the community,” says Mary Hearns, president and a founding member, along with vice chairperson Helen Bergin.
“I would hate to give it up. It is part of my life now after 40 years. Especially for people in the countryside, or living on their own, they are always waiting for you, dying for the chat,”she says.
The 14 strong committee and volunteer drivers deliver hot dinners to the elderly and housebound every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, for a no minal charge, with costs met by HSE grants and local fundraising.
They have never missed a day since starting in 1974, and reckon they have delivered 125,000 dinners to date.
Just as vital is the social link they provide, a friendly call to the door that may be the only visitor for some.
Driver Joe Clooney says the social contact is vital.
“They like making contact with someone. We are checking in on them too, making sure they are ok,” he said, adding that they need more drivers to help out.
They are concerned for the future, with the hospital earmarked for possible closure.
“We are deeply indebted to the hospital, we don’t know what would happen if it closed. It would be a big loss to the entire town, there is nothing wrong with it, it is a good sound building,” said Helen.
The boots are loaded up and it is time to deliver the foil wrapped dinners.
Assistant secretary Lil Clooney and her husband Joe take some of the dinners, stopping first at the home of Abbeyleix native John Kenna.
John lives alone and has availed of the dinners since he retired as a Laois County Council worker four years ago.
“The Meals on Wheels have been a great help to me. I cook very little since I had a stroke and broke my hip. It is nice to see people calling in. Not too many people call,” he said.
The dinner is good value, I eat it in one go,” John added.
Next up is a lady who moved back to Laois after working fifty years in London.
She is about to celebrate her 89th birthday, and has only recently begun using the Abbeyleix Meals on Wheels service.
“It’s a godsend. I find it hard to get down to the oven, and to walk down to the shops, because I am stiff. The food is lovely, it is a great service, I hope they keep it going. My neighbours are very good to me here too,” she said.
With all dinners delivered in a half hour, it’s back to the centre, where two customers are sitting enjoying the tea, biscuits and chat with volunteer Tony Kavanagh,
Biddy Nolan prefers to eat her dinner that evening, but loves to call in at lunchtime.
“It passes a few hours. If there is no one here I wash up,“ she says.
“She knows the run of the place, if someone doesn’t turn up she can tell us,” says Tony, who is volunteering for more than 30 years.
He is busy planning the tunes he and his band will play at their 40th annual dinner dance on March 23 in the Manor Hotel.
“There’ll be lots of foxtrots and waltzes,” he promises.