On the third of July this year John Byrne got the attention of the national news media after rescuing his friend Barney from the river Liffey. The event stood out because John is one of Dublin’s homeless citizens and Barney is his pet rabbit.
I decided I would like to sit down with John and find out more about him and had his life changed since he had his 15 minutes in the spotlight.
When interviewing, it’s generally easy to arrange a date and a venue. How do you interview a homeless man who is always accompanied by a rabbit and a do?
One evening I said hello, dropped some change and then set down beside John in an alcove at the end of Arnott’s shop front. It felt surreal in a way, sitting beside a homeless man on a busy pedestrian street as hundreds of commuters and shoppers walked past; voice recorder in hand hoping that all the noise would not ruin the interview.
Hi John, I am a student journalist and I was hoping I could have a quick chat with you.
Sure no problem.
Would you like a cup of coffee and a sandwich or a cigarette?
No thanks I’m grand and I need to stay here tapping. It’s been quiet so far.
Tapping? Is that what you call begging?
Ha, ah yea, people would think I have loads of money if they see me smoking or eating.
So this is your famous rabbit?
This is Barney; I bought him seven months ago in a pet shop. Some young fella walked up and grabbed Barney and threw him over the bridge. He was meant to be up in court last week for animal cruelty but it was postponed.
So you risked your life and jumped into the liffey, why?
Because he is my child, I love him and I just wanted to save him. I didn’t think I just jumped.
How did you manage to do that?
When I jumped in it was deep, the water went over my head and I touched the bottom. Barney was ok. He was swimming, keeping his head up so I grabbed him and made it to a ledge and held on till the firemen got out to me in the boat.
Were both of you ok?
Grand, just wet.
How did you cope with all the attention?
Ah it didn’t bother me; I’m used to people looking at me. I got hundreds of letters from all over Ireland and from America saying how great and how brave I was. The animal charity gave me the award and some food for Barney and they said that they would get me and my pets a place to live.
Does that annoy you?
Yea but it was fine. I have learned not to expect good things to happen for me.
When did you end up living on the street?
I ran away from home when I was thirteen. I had to get away from my stepfather.
Do you still have contact with your mother?
I see her the odd time, she lives in Clondalkin but she is still with him so I can’t go there.
What’s the worst part of sleeping rough?
Ah you get used to the people trying not to look at you. Sleeping on Grafton Street I got pissed on. It’s not very safe. I’m living now in a tent on waste ground behind the Hill16 pub with my girlfriend and nine pets.
Nine pets and a girlfriend, it must be a big tent.
Well we have three rabbits, four hamsters and two dogs. The tent is a big ten man tent so we are grand. I met her on the streets, she’s from Lithuania. She came here three years ago looking for work but found nothing and ended up homeless.
So she is unable to get social welfare, do you?
No she doesn’t and she can’t afford to get back to Lithuania to see her kids. I get the dole.
So basically you are begging to support your animals and your girlfriend? Is it worth it?
Yea, I love them all they are my family. I go out tapping everyday from four to seven. Here or at Londis at Temple Bar. I might get forty euro a day doing it.
Do you abuse alcohol or drugs?
If your girlfriend got pregnant what would you do?
I would get a place to live straight away. I would have to.
I just would. I had a place last Christmas but after it the landlord kicked us out. He knew about my pets from the start but then he changed his mind and kicked us out.
So what does the future hold for you? What do you look forward to?
Nothing, just getting by. No point having dreams. Just maybe try to save up some money. We are fine in the tent. We are warm. Just hope winter’s not as cold as last year when we had the flat.
I had to leave John after twenty minutes and let him tap in peace. I got the sense from John that he was genuine in his answers and that as a human being he was no waster or a drain on society, just a man trying to cope in the circumstances he grew up in. He is thirty-eight years old, homeless since the age of thirteen due to an abusive home life.
I emptied my pocket, slipped him my packet of cigarettes and wished him all the best. No doubt I will see him and Barney again.