Our special event at Wormwood Scrubs was my third prison visit in a very busy St Patrick’s Week. Earlier in the week I’d dashed off from our Irish Chaplaincy ‘Coffee and Cake’ morning at the London Irish Centre (delicious cake, a fantastic display of our work, plus live Irish music- me!) to get over to HMP Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Surry.
Agnes, one of our wonderful volunteers, and Karen, the (equally wonderful) RC Chaplain, had kindly invited me to join a group of Irish women for a meeting. Karen had provided tea and cake (my second dose of cake for the day, and I certainly wasn’t complaining!) and there was a lively discussion in the room which turned at one point into a full-blown shouting match. Somehow things calmed down again and there was a chance to chat one to one with the women and to hear a bit of their stories. Some of the women there are utterly broken by what life has thrown at them. Some have children outside; one has a pimp outside (waiting for her when she gets out); some (probably most) have been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse (usually at the hands of men). I was struck by how appreciative they all were that people had come to visit them, to share a drink and a cake and a bit of time together, and to be given rosary beads and Traveller magazines. And for many of those women, they will receive no other outside visitors apart from the Irish Chaplaincy.
A couple of days later I left home at the crack of dawn to arrive early at a prison in the South East of London where we had a meeting to discuss the possibility of the Irish Chaplaincy helping Travellers in prison to access pre-release training and post-release employment. And from there it was a long trek over to West London to Wormwood Scrubs for another meeting with some prison staff, before joining our St Patrick’s celebration. We run our events there in the magnificent chapel, which like all of the prison chapels I’ve been into, has a particular quality of peace and prayerfulness. There was a good turnout: over thirty men from the wings, plus various prison staff, those of us from the Irish Chaplaincy; and guests we had invited, which included somebody from the Irish Embassy and other people involved in prison work. We were treated to Irish music from Neil, Zoe and Whiskey Mick; Irish dancing from Grainne, another of our wonderful volunteers; then a shared meal (for me, a crucial part of the event). The kitchen had prepared bacon, cabbage and potatoes and even though some of the guys were moaning that they had turned it into a stew it was really tasty. Breda and Liz had brought along soda bread and other nice things and it was a real feast. And Ellena went around giving out St Patrick’s prayers and also puzzles, which a lot of the guys enjoy doing.
There were not only Irish prisoners present. When I heard the strong Polish accent of one of the men I said to him “you don’t sound very Irish but you’re very welcome”. He beat his chest and solemnly announced “I feel Irish in my heart”! During the meal I chatted with two Albanians (who assured me they also felt very close to the Irish!). They were the friendliest, most courteous people you could meet. I don’t know what they’ve done to end up in prison: I don’t ask; I don’t need to know. For those couple of hours we are fellow human beings, enjoying together some music, dancing and bacon and cabbage stew. And we don’t discriminate at the Irish Chaplaincy. If a prisoner registers as Irish or Irish Traveller we will offer a visit and assistance (also to their family in many cases), whatever crime they have committed. And, as said already, we may be their only outside visitor.
From the prison it was off to the Irish Embassy for the St Patrick’s reception. The Guinness at the Embassy is the best I have tasted outside of Ireland so my Lenten alcohol fast was broken yet again (but actually Irish people are allowed to break it for St Patrick’s Day so technically I was O.K.!). I met a lot of lovely people, both Embassy staff and people from other Irish community organisations, and it felt a real privilege to be there.
The following morning I felt completely shattered and a bit dispirited (for reasons I couldn’t exactly put my finger on), and I had a lot of office work to catch up with, plus another big event: the visit of nine members of the L’Arche Kent Book Club from Canterbury for lunch. Downstairs at the Irish Centre I bumped into Nora who, among other things, directs the Irish Pensioners’ Choir and who very kindly had organised some of the performers at a concert we put on last summer, and whose sister Molly had mobilised the musicians who had played at Wormwood Scrubs. We are planning another concert this summer and Nora agreed immediately to be part of it again, and we spoke as well about Whiskey Mick & Co. There was something about that encounter that really lifted my spirits. The group from L’Arche duly arrived and they were pleased to see me and I was pleased to see them. I was part of L’Arche for 28 years and one of those who came, Henri, I had first met in 1988. Such relationships run deep. Liz and Ellena had prepared a sumptuous lunch up at the Chaplaincy and it was for me a special coming together of different worlds. Gifts were exchanged: L’Arche beer (might have to save it till Easter!), candles and scented pin cushions for the Chaplaincy; Irish Chaplaincy mugs and bookmarks for the L’Arche contingent. Then, I took the group to John Dunne’s latest ‘Irish Theatre’ production, ‘Her Ladyship’, in the Kennedy Hall, followed by a drink in the Centre before farewells and promises to do it again soon.
The finale of St Patrick’s Week was Sunday mass in the McNamara Hall at the Irish Centre celebrated by our own Gerry, and attended by Ambassador Adrian O’Neill; the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed; and the Mayor of Camden, Richard Cotton. Gerry spoke in his sermon of the work of the Irish Chaplaincy in supporting some of those Irish people in Britain who are most vulnerable and socially-excluded, and who in many cases are living lives of quiet desperation; and of how we always treat people as individuals, and never as mere statistics. Mass was followed by a full Irish breakfast, laid on by the Counties Association, which fortified us well for a St Patrick’s Day parade in sub-zero temperatures due to the ‘mini Beast from the East’.
Shared food and fellowship with a variety of interesting people: what better way to celebrate St Patrick’s Week.