Fianna Fail behind bars

  • 11 March 2005
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They are accused of being political hacks and has-beens, criss-crossing the country, using all their innate guile and ingenuity in clocking up mileage, meals and overnight expenses. Stung by such accusations, The Association Of Fianna Fáil Members of Prison Visiting Committees has started to assert itself.

"We were appointed by former Fianna Fáil ministers for Justice, in order to see that the prison system is being properly run," said a spokesman, who has a rapid Kerry accent.

What about the accusation that they were appointed to visiting committees at prisons located the furthest distance from their homes, so that they were able to claim more expenses? There are certain sensitivities, explained the Kerryman. One or two members actually had unfortunate relatives incarcerated in the prison nearest to them. Some embarrassment for the visiting committee to come across the ex-junior minister's nephew in the wide corridor with mop and dirty bucket!

"Sure the brother was in Limerick jail only a year back. He's a bit too handy with the fists, especially at closing time. Six months for assault and battery. I pulled all the political strings I could to get him off, but his record was against him."

Prison visiting is not always a routine event. There can be mishaps. On one occasion, the visiting committee was being shown round an empty section of Mountjoy prison that was undergoing renovations for the better comfort of prisoners. One ex-senator, who is partial to a drop, entered a cell unseen by his colleagues and fell fast asleep. When the others left the prison, they assumed that he had hurried on to nearby Hedigan's pub at Cross Guns bridge or some other hostelry. The poor fellow did not wake up until it was dark. The whole section was closed and, despite his hoarse calls, nobody heard him; he had to spend the night in that gloomy, lightless section. Only next morning was his presence discovered and he was released. However, he may derive something positive from the bad experience; he is seriously considering suing the State for unlawful imprisonment.

The annual dinner of the Association is always held in the Montague Hotel outside Portlaoise, chosen because it is roughly equidistant in road mileage for most of the far-flung members. Anyone who imagined that the members are uncultured political lackeys should have been present last year in that private room, said the Kerryman. They would have heard a former TD hold the gathering enthralled by his heart-rending recitation of Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol. This was followed by a lady member, a former Senator, sitting at the piano to play 'D'Un Prison', Reynaldo Hahn's musical setting of the lament of the great French poet, Verlaine, who spent two years behind bars for plugging his fellow-poet, Rimbaud. When she recited an English translation of the poem, she infused her performance with such pathos that she brought tears to the eyes of the hearers.

However, the gathering shook itself out of its sombre mood with a sing-along of some of the songs from the Johnny Cash CD of his concert for the hardened inmates of San Quentin jail. After the last rendition of 'I Walk the Line', the group finished the evening with a rousing chorus of the song that opens with "By a Lonely Prison Wall" Yes, of course, the 'Fields of Athenry'! Many a sleeping citizen has been woken by this song at 3am and it was no different in this case. Some guests in nearby rooms complained and the night porter had to come and tell the prison visitors to be quiet. But it was a great evening, just the same.

Being on a visiting committee can be enlightening and enjoyable as well as modestly profitable. No wonder so many of the Fianna Fáil party stalwarts would love to be appointed to one.

norman freeman