The times we lived in

Many young men of Mountjoy


Published: March 25th, 1988
Photograph by Matt Kavanagh

What’s this? A gathering? A music session at the Willie Week? A flat-cap reality-TV extravaganza? Actually it’s the third annual drama presentation from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, a production of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty. The inimitable playwright himself is at the centre of the action, clutching a pint and surrounded by the cast, all of whom were members of Mountjoy Drama Project in 1988.

Set in the back room of a pub this musical play, which deals with themes of unemployment and emigration, might appear to be tailor-made for a prison production. In particular, the irony of the chorus line from its title song, “many young men of twenty said goodbye”, would not be lost on the prison population.

Over the past 25 years Mountjoy prisoners have won high praise for their stagings of all sorts and conditions of theatrical pieces – including Shakespeare’s Othello and The Winter’s Tale. Here they are clearly getting on well with the Kerry playwright, who was throughout his life an outspoken advocate for the individual’s right to freedom of expression, no matter what the social circumstances.

And the range of expressions in the picture is, accordingly, rich and varied.

Most of the actors are gazing at John B, presumably as directed by the photographer. Over his left shoulder, a pair of comedians are gurning at the camera. To their left again, in the background, is a man doing barman-type things and ignoring the whole shenanigans altogether.

The guitarist, the ukelele player and the bodhran player appear to be holding, rather than playing, their instruments for the duration of the photo-shoot.

Under the playwright’s pint, however, the man with the tin whistle is lost in his music, his eyes closed in effort or ecstasy. It places him at the centre of the image, artistically as well as physically – the very incarnation of the transformative power of art.

Arminta Wallace

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