Joy can be found in unexpected places, such as in a prison where hours earlier somebody had taken their own life.
Ellena and I had arrived at HMP Chelmsford for the regular Traveller forum and were informed straight away by the lovely RC chaplains, Merryl and Philomena (affectionately known as Sister P.) about the tragic events of the morning (and suicide is now an all too common occurrence in the prison estate). Philomena was especially shaken, as she had been over to the cell to bless it and to comfort the prison officers who had been on the scene. It was touch and go whether the Traveller forum would go ahead. Any group activity means ‘free flow’ of prisoners from their cells, and that requires a sufficient number of officers (and some had either gone to the hospital or gone home in distress). In the end it was the only afternoon activity which was allowed to take place in the prison and a large and enthusiastic group of Travellers (some of whom looked so young!) duly came through the door and greeted us and their mates and took their seats. Merryl and Philomena marked the death of their fellow prisoner with some special prayers and our regular band, McCool Trad, played a mournful ballad before launching, as agreed beforehand, into a couple of lively jigs. It was just what was needed to lift the spirits. The guys began to clap and Philomena got up to dance and she wanted a partner. The young guys were all too shy so I seized my chance and took to the floor with a very lively Sr. P.
Finn who usually sings with the band hadn’t been able to come so the other members, Nicky, Elaine and Joe had enlisted me to do a few Irish songs and I gladly took the mic. It was an appreciative audience, as it always is in prison, although the guys resisted my entreaties to come and sing themselves until one of them got up and took the mic to do a good rendition of a Country and Western number. The warm ambience was further enhanced by the arrival of the food, which (unlike the usual prison fayre) was both plentiful and delicious. It was bacon and cabbage and potatoes, with steamed pudding and custard for dessert. A true feast. There was soda bread too with the meal, and I was touched when one of the guys having seen that the bread had run out before I’d got there, gave me his slice.
There was time after the food for more music from the wonderful band and there was a request for ‘The Fields of Athenry’. I was halfway into the first verse when the Country and Western man strode forward, put his arm around me and sang with me into the mic. And when we got to the chorus the rest of the guys were roaring out the words and punching the air. With all that had happened in the prison earlier in the day it was an unforgettable moment of pure joy.
It was time for the guys to be escorted back to their cells. As they left, Ellena handed each person a bag of treats and they all said, as they always do, how grateful they were. And there was one further unexpected gift: Sr P. had for the band members and for Ellena and I a box of chocolates and a card.
I went home that evening feeling completely uplifted.