Learning the hard way

An Irishman’s Diary about prison education

‘The assembly hall could fit less than half the prison population, so inmates had to be invited, mostly from the music or other classes.’ Above, inmates at Wheatfield prison watch the Abbey Theatre’s performance of The Risen People by James Plunkett adapted by Jimmy Fay.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘The assembly hall could fit less than half the prison population, so inmates had to be invited, mostly from the music or other classes.’ Above, inmates at Wheatfield prison watch the Abbey Theatre’s performance of The Risen People by James Plunkett adapted by Jimmy Fay. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 23:08

I did some time in jail earlier this week, albeit only as a visitor. The occasion was a staging of the Abbey Theatre’s current production in Wheatfield Prison, a first for all concerned, including me.

Never having been in Wheatfield before, I took a wrong turn on the way in and caused a moment of consternation for a security man to whom I claimed to be here “to see the play”. “The what?!” he asked, no doubt while trying to assess whether I was dangerous.

Then he realised it was Wheatfield I was looking for, whereas this was Cloverhill, the remand prison that shares the same complex. Redirected, I made the five-minute walk between the two, past a long, very blank wall, where I was struck by the contrast between the prisons’ pastoral place-names and the concrete reality.

But the place-names were not entirely inapt, maybe, because one of the purposes of the visit was to interview a group of prisoners using their time inside for self-cultivation. They were members of Wheatfield’s music and drama class, and had volunteered to respond to the Abbey’s play (a musical about the 1913 Lockout) with a song written for the occasion.

Journalists were asked to avoid identifying them, by name or crime. This was not to protect the prisoners, but rather their victims, who might resent reading about the opportunities for improvement they were enjoying.

Which would be perfectly understandable, especially with the more serious crimes. And indeed, I sensed that at least one of the group was doing a life sentence, although in keeping with the guidelines, we didn’t ask why. In any case, the interviewees made a very impressive case for the benefits of the prison’s education unit.

Yes I’m sure they were putting their best sides out. Besides which, they – and all the prisoners attending – were a select group, literally. The assembly hall could fit less than half the prison population, so inmates had to be invited, mostly from the music or other classes. Maybe, had the play been open to all prisoners, the Abbey would have risked adding to its list of riots. As it was, the production provoked only a thoughtful, and somewhat satirical, response from the musicians, who linked the events of 1913 with the state of Ireland today and concluded that not much has changed.

Few people would choose prison as a way of focusing the mind. Yet depending on the inmate, it can sometimes be a very productive thing. Among the positive role-models, Nelson Mandela and the Birdman of Alcatraz are probably the two most famous, although there must be many, less celebrated examples nearer to home.

I recall a departing British ambassador, for example, about a decade ago, regretting the difference in attitude between republican and loyalist prisoners during the Troubles here. He was quoting someone else whose name now escapes me. But the gist of his lament was that, whereas jailed republicans tended to study for “PhDs”, loyalists merely “pumped iron”. Perhaps it was just that the republican/ nationalist had more precedents to follow, being able to draw on the prison memoirs of John Mitchell, Michael Davitt, and others.

In general, of all the arts, jail-time seems to be especially productive of literature. The spectrum runs from Cervantes, who spent years as a galley slave before writing Don Quixote, to Jeffrey Archer.

But it also includes Walter Raleigh, who wrote the first volume of his History of the World in the Tower of London, before some very unsympathetic editing (ie the removal of his head) prevented a sequel. Dostoevsky, by contrast, suffered only a mock execution in jail, and survived to write all his greatest works thereafter.

On the debit side, Mein Kampf was a product of prison. Maybe if Hitler had been sentenced to community work, it would have been better for all concerned. And then there was the Marquis de Sade, who produced most of his infamous oeuvre while in the Bastille and other institutions.

The great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, was never himself a prisoner. But he was a prison visitor, famously, and not for just an evening. He spent several months touring the penal colonies of Sakhalin Island and wrote a non-fiction book about it, which qualifies as prison lit in its own way. The experience must also have influenced the later dramas, including his last and arguably greatest play. Which, by the way, shares its title with yet another west Dublin suburb with a paradoxically-pleasant name, just down the road from Wheatfield and Cloverhill. I refer of course to Cherry Orchard.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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