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Joys of Joy – A True Joy to Read

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!).

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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 **

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Asking for it a Review: Social Media, Slut Shaming and The Issue of Consent

*Contains Spoilers*

I don’t normally do book reviews, but after recently finishing Louise O’Neill’s asking for it, I almost feel compelled. In fact I think it’s something I’ll start doing a lot more of. Since finishing college It’s great to finally have the freedom to read what I want to read again! So lets get down to it.

I picked up this wonderful gem whilst browsing Waterstones on a lazy afternoon last Saturday.
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The story follows Emma O’Donovan an 18 year old girl from a small town in Ireland.

It was one of those books I found myself wincing the entire way through. It invoked every single emotion in me, and some I didn’t even realise I had.

On the surface Emma seems to have it all, she’s popular, is surrounded by a group of friends and is incredibly beautiful. If I’m honest at first I found her character a little annoying. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, and obsessed with material things. She’s not a good friend and to be quite blunt about it, she’s a bitch.

However, I soon came to realise how important these elements of Emma’s character were for the development of O’Neill’s plot. She doesn’t create the stereotypical ‘good girl fall from grace’. Emma is desperate to prove herself. She does things she knows are reckless to test people’s perceptions of her. She constantly repeats the mantra ‘I am Emma Donovan I am Emma Donovan’, in an attempt to reassure herself that she knows who she is, she is confident and in control, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Deep down Emma is struggling with her sense of identity, placing all of her self worth on her physical attributes. It’s almost as if she views sex as a form of acceptance. She ends up being raped at a party by 4 boys she thought were here friends. The narrative that ensues as a result can only be described as heart breaking.

On the night in question Emma flirts with boys, wears a revealing dress, and even takes drugs. All actions which are used against her afterwards in an attempt to claim she deserved what happened to her, that ‘she was asking for it’. Pictures of Emma passed out on a bed with the boys taking advantage of her are uploaded to a Facebook page called ‘Easy Emma’. In one picture one of the boys is seen vomiting over her, while another urinates on her head, evoking a vile comment on the page saying ‘she deserves to be pissed on’. Emma is completely unresponsive in the pictures, but don’t worry ‘she was asking for it’.

The rest of the novel deals with Emma’s struggle to come to terms with what happened. The saddest part of it all is that like many victims of rape, she blames herself. She didn’t want to report the boys. She wanted to protect them. She even tries to apologise to them after  a school teacher contacts the guards. She lies and tries to pass it off by saying she was pretending to be asleep. It’s her fault her mother has taken to drinking and her father can’t look her in the eye or socialise with his friends. It’s her fault her brother has lost his girlfriend. It’s her fault her friends aren’t really her friends any more. It’s her fault the lives of the ‘Good Boys’ are ruined.

Only it’s not. It’s not her fault at all. And that’s the point O’Neill is cleverly hammering home. Emma gains national notoriety as ‘Ballinatoom Girl’, and it’s an all too familiar narrative. We’ve seen it with Ireland’s own ‘Slane Girl’, where photos of a young girl performing oral sex  at an Eminem concert surfaced on the internet. Of course she was the slut. She was the whore. She was the irresponsible one. No mention of the boys on the receiving end. Or the person who photographed it and circulated for the world to see.

‘Ballinatoom girl’ is not just a work of fiction. She is a representation of every woman who has fallen victim to harassment, assault, slut-shaming, and rape. She is someone’s daughter, sister and friend. She should not be dismissed. We need to talk more about consent and rape culture.

O’neill’s novel is forcing society to take a long hard look at itself. Why are we vilifying young girls for virtually everything they do? So what if they wear short skirts, drink vodka and post selfies. Does that mean they deserve to get raped? I just don’t understand why we are so quick to pardon the guilty and punish the innocent.

The shocking reality is this novel is everywhere. It’s real. It’s happening here in Ireland, and it’s happening all over the world. Take the recent Brock Turner case in the US. It honestly makes me sick to my stomach. A rapist serves 3 months of a pitiful 6 month sentence for the rape of a girl at a college party. But it’s okay. It wasn’t his fault. His life was ruined. Dreams of becoming a professional swimmer slashed as a result of what was it his dad put it? ’20 minutes of action’.

It was all her fault of course. The girl who’s name we don’t even know. The girl who was attacked. The girl who’s body was laid bare behind a dumpster for all to see. The girl who cried rape. The girl who can’t remember. The girl who was drunk.

It’s just not good enough. I am so grateful to Louise O’Neill and the many other talented and brave authors who are writing about this subject. Lets not give in to this ‘keep it quiet’ attitude that Ireland has long grown accustomed to. Let’s give our ‘Ballinatoom girls’ and our ‘Slane girls’ a voice. It’s the least they deserve.