Inside knowledge influences outlook

Fair City actor Tommy O’Neill drew on his own time in prison for a video installation currently on display on Spike Island, writes Ellie O’Byrne

Inside knowledge influences outlook

Fair City actor Tommy O’Neill drew on his own time in prison for a video installation currently on display on Spike Island, writes Ellie O’Byrne

TOMMY O’Neill wants to see cannabis legalised. The Fair City actor has spent 20 years playing Detective Deegan on the RTÉ soap, so maybe it’s to be expected that he would have formed a few opinions on the law, but his unexpectedly strong stance on one of the issues du jour is expressed with characteristic outspokenness.

“You won’t find people in Mountjoy who have killed someone after smoking a joint,” the 66-year-old says.

“The government will have to find the balls to stand up and legalise it in the face of big business, because there are all these vested interests lobbying against it.”

“In some ways, I see the Irish government as the biggest drug dealers, with the alcohol. Alcoholism is a disease. I don’t know a lot of families in this country not touched by it. I think the Irish are like native Americans and are much better off smoking a joint than drinking. Drink drives us crazy; it doesn’t agree with us at all. I don’t think there’s enough education on alcohol, and it’s because everyone’s making too much money.”

Addiction is a subject O’Neill is well qualified to comment on; by 17, he had been diagnosed as an “acute and chronic” alcoholic. In his twenties, he had added heroin dependency and other drug abuse to his primary addiction.

“I got into the other drugs, the heroin and everything, because I’d be so sick from alcohol that I’d found this answer, that I could still drink and not have the shakes and the gawks and everything,” he says.

Having descended into crime to support his habits, O’Neill eventually served three years in Mountjoy for armed robbery, after a spiritual epiphany caused him to turn himself in at a police station and confess his crimes. At 29, he stopped drinking.

“I haven’t had a drink in over 35 years,” he says.

“I’m not a holy Joe, but I still live as best as I can, according to my own connection to my God. I go to a regular self-help group: I was talking to a friend of mine from the group last night and he said, ‘Tommy, when you first came in, you were off the wall, f**king mad.’ And he’s right, I was.”

O’Neill is discussing his own chequered past because a recent project has put him back in close proximity with prison inmates. The Trial is a multi-screen video installation on mental health and human rights in Irish prisons, and the actor has lent his screen presence to first-hand accounts penned by former prisoners at the Bridge Project, a probation supervision scheme that aims to re-integrate repeat offenders into their communities.

The brainchild of visual artist Sinead McCann, The Trial has already been exhibited at Kilmainham Gaol, and this year is set to travel to three other sites with an appropriate connection to Ireland’s criminal justice system: Spike Island, the Old Court House in Lifford, and Dublin Castle. Working with prisoners from the Bridge Project was profoundly moving, O’Neill says.

“I didn’t realise there were people serving 30 years. Just to see men pull themselves together is amazing. It’s very close to my heart, what these men went through.”

O’Neill acknowledges that society’s blind spot when it comes to human rights in prisons comes in part from the hurt inflicted on innocent victims.

“Some of the crimes they committed were very serious, which I’m not in any way condoning. If your mother or my mother was attacked, you’d completely understand that attitude, but if we want to change the world, we have to look at what went wrong.

“A lot of the men I talked to had started out in places like Letterfrack and Daingean. Some of these men were so broken from a really early age, and went from homes to borstals to prisons. If you get someone at that age and do that to them and they’ve no recourse, what’s going to happen to them? Sometimes it was for things like mitching or stealing a chocolate bar that they were first taken. More emphasis has to be put on rehabilitating people, rather than locking them up and throwing away the key.”

The Trial will be exhibited on Spike Island until to August 22. spikeislandcork.ie

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