A couple of weeks ago I had just returned home to Kilkenny after a long working week in the Capital. I settled comfortably into my nan’s sitting room, ready for the Late Late Show, our customary Friday tradition. The tea was brewed and our feet were up. First up Ryan informed us was a former Mount Joy prisoner, Gary Cunningham. I don’t know why, but almost immediately something piqued my interest. I just had an instant feeling that this man was going to have an incredible story, and boy god did he!
I was so drawn to Gary’s infectious positivity that night, that I couldn’t stop thinking about his story for a long time afterwards. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his book! It took me a while to track down a copy mind you (it was flying off the shelves), but I was thrilled when I finally managed to get one, ( a signed one at that!).
I flew through the book over two days, I was so moved by Gary’s story, I felt it only natural to blog my response!
Let’s be honest, every one of us has a preconceived attitude when it comes to criminals and prisoners. More often than not our immediate reaction is one of disdain and disgust. Sure they are all only vile scumbags who deserve everything they get right? No. Not always. What I love most about Gary’s story is that he reminds us that we are all only human. We all makes mistakes. Every single one of us. Granted, some make bigger mistakes than others, but none of us are absolved. Now I am not condoning or making excuses for any sort of criminal activity, nor is Gary. On the contrary, it’s about highlighting all of the good that can come when you own up to those mistakes.
A few years ago Gary was sentenced to 3 and a half years in prison. He was caught by the guards with a supply of cannabis he was collecting for a ‘friend’. Gary was on a dark path and by his own admission, spiraling out of control due to alcohol and substance abuse. His time in prison was to become the life changing experience he so desperately needed. Instead of facing his time with intense negativity, Gary embraced his sentence and owned up to his mistakes. Many times throughout his book Gary talks about how his struggles with drink and drugs had rendered him an extremely selfish and destructive person. He was destroying his relationships with those closest to him, and caring for no body but himself. Little did he know that prison would become his saviour.
It was so refreshing to read a tale so brutally honest, yet so immensely uplifting. The story doesn’t glorify prison life at all. It doesn’t detail the horrors we have come to expect from TV Shows and pop culture, rather it gives a heart warming account of change and so much achievement.
While inside Gary coined the phrase ‘it’s not the time you do, it’s what you do with your time’, and did he do a lot with his time indeed! It was in prison where he discovered a love of writing, penning romantic poems for the girlfriends of fellow inmates, winning two Prison writing competitions and compiling the pages of the very book on our shelves today. Not only that, but Gary went on to set up a successful rock band, The Off#enders, recording many songs and putting on performances in other prisons.
The camaraderie that is brought to life in the pages of Joys of Joy is nothing short of incredible. Particularly the special bond formed between Gary and his best friend ‘Fitzer’, who we come to learn has an absolutely incredible voice! I’ve since heard one of the band’s covers on Youtube and I can testify to this. It really shows that there are decent men in the prison system who are willing to work hard to reform themselves and their past mistakes. Rest assured, Gary didn’t stop there, he went on to set up Ireland’s first ever Prison Committee, which became a vehicle for change and a way for prisoners and staff alike to voice their concerns.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Gary was a big inspiration to many of his fellow inmates, whether he realised it at the time or not. The friendships depicted in this book will honestly make you laugh and cry! It’s written in a very casual and conversational tone, which I love. You can almost hear the lads and all their ‘Dublingo’ in your head as you read, and this only adds to the honesty.
Aside from the other inmates, Gary met many more remarkable people in the form of the Prison officers and Teaching staff. Prior to reading this book, I was always under the impression that the staff in prisons just didn’t give a shit about the inmates. (I suppose that’s down to the copious amounts of ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Orange is the New Black’ I’ve binged watched over the years!). Now while there were some of that nature, I was surprised to find the majority of staff Gary encountered were in fact, the very opposite.
It was really comforting to know that there are some great staff in the IPS who genuinely want to help men and women like Gary, in their quest to better themselves. The bonds Gary forms with his teachers is amazing. We should applaud this people, because they are doing wonderful things and making such a profound difference. It’s not something we hear an awful lot about, and we should.
I don’t think we should condemn our prisoners. The truth is not all of them deserve to rot in a cell. I am sure there are many who disagree with me, but I urge you to have a little empathy. You only have to read Joys of Joy to see that so many Irish Prisoners are working so hard to be better people. As I said before, we are all only human. Joys of Joy is raw, it’s real, and every single one of us should read it before we are so quick to judge.
** You can purchase Joys of Joy from all good bookstores nationwide, or alternatively you can order it from the Liffey Press here **