Exhibition shows prison art loosens shackles on creativity

National Prisoner Art Exhibition has 100 works by recent and not so recent inmates

Prisoners of recent

and not so recent vintage, and at least one fictional inmate, gathered in the rotunda of Dublin's City Hall last evening to talk bird.

"This is society, see?" said artist Eric Boylan, pointing to his carefully painted row of blackbirds sitting on a wire.

All eight birds bar one are sitting upright; the lone figure upside down just hangs in there as two others look at him.


Below, waiting to catch the about-to-fall one, is a palisade of spiky upturned heads, arms raised up to catch the faller . . . and keep him inside.

“That’s the fence around the prison,” said Boylan.

He’d know, having fallen off his perch. “Hit a guard,” he said. Got a year, saw time in Mountjoy, Wheatfield and the Training Unit.

It was there that Boylan's brilliance as an artist flourished to such a degree that he has three paintings in the National Prisoner Art Exhibition of 100 works. His painting, Fallen Bird take 2, is the exhibition poster and will adorn the cover of a book on criminal law.


Boylan (27), who comes from Blanchardstown, is understandably chuffed at his success. Will you ever go back inside?

“Dunno,” he said. “Shit happens, you never can tell. I loved art at school. Sketching. But I got thrown out for doing too much of it.”

Star of the opening, apart from the paintings, striking ceramic bowls and plates, and some stained glass, was Fran. On the outside, Fran has been known to play an actor, Peter Coonan, in real life.

“It’s amazing,” he said trying to take it all in as photographers wanted him here, there, and over there, with this person, and that person and not a few of the ex-prisoner artists who fancied their own snap with their erstwhile ex-con.

"Art was my favourite subject at school. I loved clay," Coonan told The Irish Times.

And now? What’s he up to?

“Just chilling. Just chilling,” he said as he was led off.

The host for the opening, Dublin Lord Mayor Christy Burke, was pleased as punch chatting to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald.

“I was in Mountjoy in 1973 when a helicopter landed and took out three prisoners,” he recalled. The next day, the daring escape was painted by a prisoner and captioned: “Some Birds Can’t be Caged.”

Blown away

The Lord Mayor said he was “blown away” by the quality of the oils, watercolours, portraits, landscapes and still lifes, all showing a wide range of subjects – seascapes, homes (rural and urban), people and places.

One particularly striking work was a large charcoal drawing, Look Out, of a pair of hands, clasped behind their owner's laid-back head.

The art showed, said Mr Burke, that everyone had the capacity in them to express and create.

“There’s skill in every individual,” he said. “Some of this stuff could end up in New York. I hope it does.” The National Prisoner Art Exhibition continues today 10am-5pm, and tomorrow 10am-3pm.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times