Documentary on One: The Pope’s Prisoners

DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 1979 IMG_4275 Image Name: DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 1979 IMG_4275
DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 2018 DSC00005 Image Name: DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 2018 DSC00005
DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 1979 IMG_4267 Image Name: DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 1979 IMG_4267
DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 1979 IMG_4268 Image Name: DOC Rathfarnham Scout Den - 1979 IMG_4268

But then, an official in An Taoiseach’s office worried that hundreds of thousands of homes would be empty while their owners were out seeing the Pope.  Not only that, most of the Gardaí in the country would be on duty at the various Masses.  It was pointed out that this might be too tempting for prisoners on early release.  It was decided, however, to go ahead with the Papal amnesty – but only when the Papal visit was over.

The Pope’s Prisoners tells the story of the Papal visit for those on the inside waiting to get out, as well as that of a group of prisoners who did get to see him. 

In 1979, Pope John Paul II came to Ireland for three days from September 29th to October 1st.  His was a very busy schedule. On his arrival from Dublin Airport, he took a helicopter to the Phoenix Park where he celebrated Mass for 1.25 million people – the largest gathering in our country’s history. From the Phoenix Park, he flew to Drogheda for another Mass, returning to Dublin that evening and travelling through the city in a motorcade.

Along the route, thousands waited for hours to see him.

Locals in Sean McDermott Street were particularly hopeful he might stop off in their street.  There was bunting, welcome signs and music. Local priest, Fr Paul Lavelle had helped organise a clean-up of the Church and grounds.

Sean McDermott Street was, traditionally, a street of tenements – remnants of the Dublin slums.  Poverty and crime were very real aspects of life there.

But Sean McDermott Street had pride in it’s possible appeal to this new, campaigning, Polish Pope:  It was the site of the tomb of Matt Talbot – a former alcoholic turned religious ascetic.

Sean McDermott Street had another connection to the Papal Visit – prisoners.  In nearby Mountjoy Prison many inmates were from the Sean McDermott Street area.  At one point, out of 450 prisoners there,  52 were from Sean McDermott Street.

Some of them hoped to benefit for the Government’s Papal Amnesty.  Even if it was delayed until the Pope actually took off from Shannon.

That delay may have frustrated some devout prisoners but those campaigning for prisoners’ rights were glad there was an amnesty at all: they saw it as an opportunity to draw attention to the conditions in Irish prisons in 1979.

There was still slopping out and the food was of poor quality.    Prisoner frustration frequently broke out into destroying cells and riots.

But, there were opportunities within the system too. In the form of ‘work parties’.  These were groups of prisoners who went out to work on construction sites during the day.  They developed their skills and were sought after by building companies on their release.  From 1978 onwards, they built 30 community centres and scout halls for free.

At the time of the Papal Visit in 1979, the Mountjoy Prison work party was working on a new scout den in Rathfarnham, Dublin.   That weekend, the Rathfarnham scouts were stewarding at the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park.  Also, at the Mass, were some of the work party who had been working on their den earlier in the week:  they had been allowed attend on condition they be back in Mountjoy that evening.  They all returned.

In 2009, the work party system was ended abruptly much to the dismay of those prison officers who managed it.

The prison population has changed since the time of the Pope’s visit:  now the majority are in prison because of drug use or drugs offences.  Campaigners and researchers say there has been a shift in attitude to prisoners – back in 1979, they were seen as having a potential value to society.  That belief is absent now, they say.

And what about the prisoners who were released early?  Many went on to start new lives and many of their family members don’t know they were in prison.  One former prisoner however, ‘Paddy’, who was released early, does talk about that weekend in September, 1979

He explains how he only heard about his release on the morning the Pope was leaving Ireland.

“You weren’t actually told beforehand. ’Go down to reception, get your gear and get out’ – that’s it.”

‘Paddy’ had grown up in an orphanage and prison was just one more institution where he lived so, getting out early, didn’t really impress him:

“I was out in two weeks time anyway so it didn’t make any difference to me, whether I got out two weeks or four.”

And as for the reason for the early release, the Pope:

“I know it was because of the Pope but I had no interest in him anyway. Like it was no big deal to me that he was over here. It’s just you were glad to get out.” 

Produced by: Susan O’Loghlin & Ronan Kelly.

RTÉ Radio 1  Saturday 4th August 2018 @1pm

RTÉ Radio 1 Sunday 5th August 2018 @7pm

Available for podcast/online from Friday 3rd August