It’s funny how I’ve come to like bacon and cabbage from eating it in prison!
I couldn’t stand it as a child. My dad’s family in Galway used to send us a big chunk of bacon in a brown paper parcel and it must have taken a few days by post so that when it was unwrapped the smell was overpowering. It was duly cooked with cabbage and served with potatoes and enjoyed as a special ‘taste of old Ireland’ by mum and dad, while my sister and I wouldn’t go near it.
I’ve had two bacon and cabbage meals in the last week with Travellers for whom, like my parents, it’s a special treat. The first occasion was a Traveller forum at HMP Chelmsford and besides the food, the meeting was enhanced by music. We had with us a fantastic four-piece called McCool Trad: two fiddle players and two accordionists playing gentle Irish jigs and helping to create a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere (needless to say, the atmosphere in a prison is not always peaceful and pleasant). I told them at the end how much everyone had appreciated the music. The members of McCool Trad were all clearly touched by the experience, as I had been the time I’d taken my guitar into Wormwood Scrubs and sung a few Irish songs. It had been such an appreciative audience and was one of the most enjoyable and relaxed gigs I’ve ever done.
It was in the Scrubs that I had the second pre-Christmas bacon and cabbage meal. There had been a particularly tasty bacon and cabbage stew at the Scrubs in March for our Irish Chaplaincy St Patrick’s event (some of the guys had complained that you shouldn’t make bacon and cabbage into a stew but they ate it all the same: it really had been delicious, especially soaked up by soda bread, which for me will always evoke memories of childhood holidays in Ireland and those immortal words “ah go on, have another slice”). This time it was the Irish Chaplaincy Christmas special and our amazing Breda, Ellena and Liz (with Gerard, Rebecca and myself in tow) had pulled out all the stops. We had with us a dozen members of the Irish Pensioners’ Choir; John and John from the Irish Embassy; Sally from Irish Elderly Advice Network, with her wonderful daughter Nora who was both directing the choir, playing fiddle along with Jacky on flute and whistles and Billy on keyboards, and managing to get a substantial amount of audience participation. And there were people from several prison departments, including Sarah, the new Governor who, like everybody else there, was very appreciative of the work of the Irish Chaplaincy and of all who had helped with the event. I should say as well that getting even a couple of guests into a prison is not always a straightforward matter; to get almost twenty-five in is nothing short of miraculous.
After the choir and the musicians had performed for us, the food arrived. There’s something very intimate and, I guess, profoundly human, about sharing a meal, and for me it’s always a key part of these kind of events. And this meal was a true feast. Plates of bacon, cabbage and potatoes were served to us at our tables, followed by mince pies, and there was good banter. One of the guys gave me a (very welcome) second mince pie. “Ah go on”, he said, “it’s Christmas”!
Fully fed, we returned for some final songs from the choir, and there were repeated calls for “one more song”! For the grand finale Nora invited the guys to come and join the choir. They were a bit shy at first but after one or two went up, lots more followed, and the sight of the Irish Pensioners’ Choir in their emerald green tops surrounded by a sizeable group of (mainly young and mainly wearing grey) Travellers, all belting out ‘Dirty old Town’ was, as one of the prison staff remarked to me “magical”.
As the guys were getting ready to be brought back to the wings, one said to me “that was the highlight of the year”. It has to be one of the highlights for me too. And I never thought I’d say it, but I’ll be looking forward to that next bacon and cabbage meal!