I took this photo from the Long Room at Stormont from my cell phone on the 4th December 2012 at approx mid-day whilst then referred to as Irwin C7874. How many prisoners in the history of the UK have gone to Government to speak to and with Government and return to their prison cell with their heads still intact? For that day I was accepted and two weeks ago, in my cell, in prison I spoke to one of our MLA’s and this person recalled the event and hinted that it wasn’t really what was being said but the fact that I was there at all. This had been mentioned the week before when I was interviewed by Radio Ulster in my cell. At Stormont I was surrounded by about one hundred and twenty people, not all of them friends but the applause after my speech (included at the end) blew my mind.
I am now simply Michael Irwin or ‘micsirwin’ buck eejit and all round lover of this lovely world in which we sometimes struggle to find our way. I was out and about yesterday, it was lashing down on and off all day, soaking up being a citizen again, a person instead of non-person but nothing can put a dampener on the feeling of being alive.
I’d got the dates mixed up for a ‘Healthy Breathing Class’ run by the ‘Art of Living Foundation’ in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast (it’s in July not June doh!) and decided to sit and watch the world go by in the cafe. I worked in the Crescent Arts Centre twenty five years ago so I sat there minding my own and reminiscing. The sun came out and had my back and I got chatting with a beautiful Italian dance instructor – as you do – who was involved in a weekend long dance festival. Successfully negotiated my way out of not getting up and doing the tango with her as they had spontaneously created a dancing space in the middle of the cafe. The fear of physical contact, with a women, that gripped me was serious for all the wrong reasons. Yes, of course it would be at the best of times but I’d just spent six years int nick and didn’t want to end up doing the pogo.
During our conversation I found myself uttering the words ‘I’ve been overseas for years and working in South Africa and London as a publican and more recently with prisoners in the UK.’ This is not a lie, just slightly careless with the truth and I noticed her beautiful green eyes widen. She (sorry don’t want to use names) is a PhD student at Queens but her eyes got wider when the word ‘Prison’ was mentioned but once criminology was brought up the her shoulders relaxed. Many people started to arrive and I said choi. Was minding my own again, reading the walls and soaking up the vibe when I bumped into one of our most revered and respected professors from England. We’d never met but this lovely human being knew who I was and we arranged to meet for coffee later today.
On the Train to Lisburn I received phone call from my old best mate, we hadn’t spoke for about ten years. He gave me a hard time and reminded me of how much of a twat I was when he said “How could someone so intelligent be so fekin stupid.” He was, of course, talking about my crime (drug trafficking). I was new to him to confront me about it and he did it in his way which is abuse with a smile – the Norn Irish way. We made plans for coffee.
Walked round Lisburn, went into four stores, chatted and laughed with fellow citizens and bought nothing. However, what occurred to me was – the constant watching of words of what I said of what label I decided to give myself. It will be unavoidable at times and no doubt painful but I love the psychology of it.
So, not so much a conundrum. More an inner voice negotiation. I loved all of it. Hope you enjoy my speech?
This is for the man who made that day possible and who sadly died two months ago
Mike Moloney R.I.P.
If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ you might recall the scene where two of the characters Chef and Captain Willard get off the boat to go to collect mangos’ and are spooked by a tiger. Chef freaks out and keeps screaming ‘never get off the boat, never get off the boat.’ For me, in 2007 Prison was a bit like this, it wasn’t totally apocalyptic but it wasn’t the best situation I’d found myself in.
However prison can be apocalyptic for some and indeed many.
I used to say to myself when I was writing, never get off the page, always stay in the page, and stay in the safety of the diction and imagination therein. The page was my safe space and like the boat in the movie education was the vessel that carried me along.
The writer in residence I met in England helped me get started with my writing. Then I returned to Northern Ireland and got involved with the PAF. Without the PAF I would not have met Mike, John, Carlo, Shadd and all the other wonderful people who go above and beyond the remit of an education delivery system or curriculum.
I was asked to explain to people what my experience of PAF meant to other prisoners. I know what it means to me and I used to find it hard to put it into words. Now after three years in the company of Mike Maloney and co I am delivering speeches at Stormont and lectures at Queens.
My phenomenological experience of writing has been teased, coaxed, cajoled, stroked, placated and extrapolated to such an extent that I am now able to write fully fledged academic essays, research projects and book reviews.Oh and there’s the small issue of winning the Listowel writers award for prison poetry and the £500 in cash I’ve earned this past year from various poems and short stories.
So how does my good fortune affect others? All I have to say is look what I’ve done – you can do it too. What they, these relevant others, see in me gets soaked up with them. I have taught men to read and write and this has done me the power of good, but what I see is physical and mental change in these men. We are all aware of the ripple effect of crime, what about the ripple effect of reintegration and the ripple effect of Hope? This hope spreads into the real world upon release, it makes communities safer and it reduces the likelihood of more victims. Confidence and hope, spring from the pages, sometimes from the darkest of stories and imaginations. What people like John and Carlo do is much more than teaching, it’s an art; an art in itself. It’s only when you’ve gone through the process do you realise what they have been doing all along. It was always there; it’s just that these guys know how to dig it out and use it.
Most forms of authoritative curriculum based education is the very thing that drove students away when they were youths, you can’t do that again as an adult a socially challenged adult to boot.
Mike Maloney gave me hug on my first day of home leave, when I popped into the office to pick up my check from Listowel. He then popped out to see my mum who was waiting in the car, Mum got a hug too.
This is what the PAF does it hugs you, it gives you space, it creates space in your mind to let the good times roll. It’s not all airy fairy or tree hugging; it’s an unwritten contract of humanity in an apocalyptic scenario. It is more relevant in today’s restorative justice based political climate than ever before.
The writers, artists and musicians who belong to this family are art themselves. They demonstrate the art of humanity and without them many of us would have stayed lost. I used to think it was all about me, now I see the bigger family. How can anything be Holistic if one doesn’t jump in and get one’s hands dirty? That’s what the PAF does it gets its hands dirty.
Thank you for listening.