Life

Anne Hailes: Efforts to keep RNLI afloat all at sea says veteran fundraiser Pauline

Pauline Carson takes the helm as chief cake-maker and fundraiser for the RNLI in Holywood, Co Down

IT'S fascinating to begin to tell a story of a woman who has raised thousands of pounds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and end listening to her talk about watching one of Ireland's most celebrated artists at work in his studio.

Pauline Carson has some history behind her 90 glorious years, always giving, no more so that as fundraising secretary for the RNLI in Holywood.

Since 1980 she has been baking cakes, cajoling businessmen for raffle prizes and organising some of the best nights to be had in Co Down.

But it's not so easy these days, not because this enthusiastic woman if running out of steam – that's not the case; rather, the disruption of Covid has put a temporary stop to her tending the oven, organising, phoning and persuading.

“I am so frustrated. In recent years, as more and more charities look for support the work of fundraising has become more demanding – and now the pandemic.”

It always required cleaver thinking and Pauline's imagination ran riot – a Flower Power extravaganza on HMS Caroline, a Buccaneer's Ball with buried treasure to be found, a Mississippi Ball on the Lagan and the annual luncheon which last year featured a raffle of beautiful silk scarves donated by the great and the good.

But the bread and butter of fundraising is the street collection and the coffee mornings. Good thing Pauline likes baking – once, among cakes big and small, she produced 14 dozen Devonshire scones which altogether brought in a massive £800.

Three years ago Pauline was awarded the British Empire Medal to mark her achievements. She also holds the RNLI's Silver and Gold Badges, and a bar to the Gold Badge. It's reckoned that over the years she has been responsible for raising more than £500,000 and although the awards underline the passion she has for the RNLI she is quick to point out that she has always had a good team around her, people willing to get involved in supporting this dangerous and vital charity.

:: Saving lives

“When I think of those the wonderful people who go out in all weathers... They go whether it is Christmas or their birthday; they just drop everything, out they go and I think they are just brilliant.”

And courageous: racing to ships caught in a storm, swimmers swept out of their depth, people caught on rocks with a rising tide, their own rescue craft buffeted by huge waves tossing them around, almost submerging them – but still they persist until they reach those in peril on the sea.

When she was asked to become involved with fundraising Pauline was told it involved just one day a year going on to the streets of Holywood to sell flags. That wasn't enough for her – her heart was in this job and she was determined to do more than rattle a box.

“My father was in the Royal Naval Reserve in the First World War so I had a natural interest. Then when I came to live by the sea the yacht club was nearby so there was plenty of interest in boats and boating and safety when out in Belfast Lough and beyond.”

One adventure gave her an idea of what it's like to man a life boat.

“The day I was invited on board the Broughty Ferry in Dundee, Scotland. I was allowed to steer – almost took the Tay Bridge with me! I can only imagine what it must be like on the high seas in bitter weather trying to locate ships in distress and rescue people from the freezing water. ”

Pauline celebrates her 40th year supporting the RNLI on April 9 this year. She had great plans. Before Christmas she started gathering material for a special cookbook. She asked for and she received recipes no problem but when it came to sponsorship it was a different story. Sadly it won't be published on that special date; recipes and poems will have to wait until she gathers enough money to produce something which would result in much needed funds for the lifeboats.

As we chat I think there is no doubt how disappointed she is with promises not materialising but, as she says, times are tough for everyone at the moment.

:: A twist in the story

She talks of her father and his war service and throws in a little surprise package.

“My father was cousin of poet WB Yeats, he of the bee-loud glade [from The Lake Isle of Inishfree], his brother Jack and his sisters Susan and Elizabeth.

"I remember Jack very well, I used to sit in his studio and watch him at work. He always had a fresh rose stuck in his easel and when I asked him why he pushed my nose into the flower – ‘That perfume gives me inspiration.'

"I never met WB the writer and poet but I was taken from boarding school on afternoons to visit his sister Susan, known as Lily, in her home in Dundrum, Co Dublin, an elegant elderly lady who was bedridden and so interesting. I was only 12 years old so I can't remember much of what we talked about but I knew she and her sister, known as Lolly, were well known craftworkers and printers. Lily was an exquisite embroiderer. I loved being with her.”

It's typical that she should wish to have one of Jack Yates's paintings not for herself but to auction for RNLI funds vital to keep the volunteer crews well trained and kitted out for their 24-hour sea rescue service in Ireland and Britain, looking after people on busy beaches and in flood situations.

Running costs in 2018 amounted to £163.5 million. A life jacket costs £458, boots £54, waterproof trousers £249 and jacket £349 and one all weather lifeboat costs £2.1 million. There are 349 in the fleet.

And this shopping list is funded by the public and supported by passionate people like Pauline Carson.

:: Visit rnli.org for information and to donate.

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