FEATURE: Gary Cunningham describes the unspeakable fear of his first day in Mountjoy
Gary Cunningham is a singer, guitarist, painter, decorator, boyfriend, son, proud Dublin GAA supporter and a former prisoner of Mountjoy in Dublin and Loughan House in Cavan.
Gary first got in touch with JOE last year in the hope of getting some publicity for the band he had started in prison, The Off#enders, with their brilliant cover of Paolo Nutini's 'Iron Sky'.
He also revealed that he had written a memoir of his time behind bars for the possession of cannabis with the intent to supply, and that he was hoping to get the book published.
Gary was keen to point out that life inside a prison's walls, while incredibly dark and difficult and lonely, was not without its joyful moments and that was the inspiration behind 'Joys of Joy: Finding Myself in an Irish Prison', which found a publisher in Liffey Press just weeks after Gary's story had appeared on JOE.
On Friday night, Gary told his story to Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show.
— The Late Late Show (@RTELateLateShow) April 7, 2017
This is an excerpt from his memoir, which was launched this week in his native Dublin.
Excerpt from 'Joys of Joy: Finding Myself in an Irish Prison' by Gary Cunningham (published by Liffey Press and available to buy here).
I was left on my own for what seemed like an eternity, the fear now truly choking my subconscious into submission. My mind was in the middle of another horrible scenario, played out like that of a true Hitchcock classic, when I was jolted back to reality by the sound of keys rattling in the blood red cell door.
‘You right Gary?’ came the words from a friendly, grey-haired officer, who looked like he has been in this job since he could walk. (‘Not really,’ I thought, ‘for you see there has been a heinous mistake, one which this Court should feel really embarrassed over, for you see, I’m feckin’ innocent!’)
‘Yes guard’, I reply noting a slight quiver in my voice.
‘I’m not a guard son, and don’t go calling the officers in The Joy guard neither. We’re officers son.’
‘Sorry ... thanks’, I reply.
‘Ah you’re grand. Now, put the hands together Gary, I have to put the auld bracelets on in case ya try to do a runner!’
I raise both my hands, and realise for the first time that I’m trembling, a small bead of sweat beginning its descent from my hair-line.
‘First time locked up son?’ asks the officer in a real aul Dubs’ voice.
‘Yeah,’ I reply.
‘You’ll be grand son, don’t worry. Keep the head down and just get on with things’, he says in a calming tone. There is something about this officer ... a warmth. I wouldn’t insult him by guessing his age, but his grey hair and worn face tell the tale of a man who has seen a lot of comings and goings in this place, so I find some comfort in his words. He clamps both of my wrists with the cuffs, taking care not to make them too uncomfortable, and then leads me down a brilliant white corridor, which after several twists and turns, brings us into a large open area where the prison vans await ... wait to bring the cattle to the slaughterhouse... Jaysus, my head is racing with crazy, and most probably ridiculous, thoughts.
I’m led on to a bus. Now I must point out that this is not the 19a bringing you into town (although the stench of urine is somewhat similar), no, no, it’s a feckin’ mobile prison, a cell on wheels. It is depressingly grey inside, with very little light. Small doors line its corridors, both left and right, each a holding compartment for its unwilling passengers. ‘You’re holdin’ us up there mate’, jokes an officer behind me. ‘Wanker,’ I think to myself.
I’m put into the second last ‘cell’ on the left. It’s smaller than a toilet cubical, but again the smell is the same! As soon as the officer slams and locks the door (which I don’t quite get, as I’m still feckin’ cuffed. Not even Paul feckin’ Daniels could escape this one) the uncontrollable shaking starts. A chill has entered my body and is having its fun with me. I look to my left to see if I can spot anyone else, but all I see is the torso of the officer, as he turns and heads back up the bus. Then, silence. An eerie, deathly silence. I look out the window to my right, but see nothing but black. The silence seems to linger forever before it’s broken by a low murmur as the officers chat among themselves. Then ... bang! A door slams shut, shuffling of feet, a key rattled into the ignition, the engine turns over and...
‘Here, is there any young wans on this yolk?’ roars a male voice from one of the cells.
There is a slight pause, then, ‘Yeah! There’s two of us!’ comes the reply of a female.
Then another male voice, ‘Here, anyone got a light?’
‘Yeah,’ replies yet another male, ‘I’ll get this wanker of a screw to open me up and give it to ya yeah? Officer, Offficer ... give your man a light here will ya?’
Feckin’ hell! It’s like my fellow passengers were all hot-wired to the bus’s engine, and when the officer turned the key they all sparked into life.
‘Here, young wan, what’s your name?’ asks the first voice I heard.
‘Which fuckin’ one of us?’ comes the sarcastic reply.
‘Whichever one of yas is goin’ to write me an auld filthy letter,’ answers our Don Wan.
This brings half a grin to my face.
‘Amy,’ shouts out one of the female passengers.
‘Here, Amy? I’m John yeah? Are ya goodlookin’ Amy?’ John seems to be in full swing now.
‘I’m fuckin’ massive,’ laughs Amy.
‘Ah, I’m not into fat birds Amy!’ says John. Now I’m laughing.
‘Fuck off ya sap, I meant massive gorgeous!’ counters Amy.
‘Good stuff Amy,’ says John. ‘Will ya write to me?’
‘I might’, says Amy, trying to play hard to get.
‘Have ya a fella?’ asks the ever-so-subtle John.
‘Yeah, but fuck him, poxy prick never even showed up in the Court today. Bleedin’ pox!’
‘Ahh did he not Amy? I’d never do that to ya chicken,’ replies John.
Amy’s laugh begins to ring through the dank bus. I have to say, John and Amy’s blossoming romance is a welcome distraction.
‘Where ya from Amy?’ asks John.
‘Finglas,’ says Amy proudly.
‘Yeah?’ asks John, ‘Do ya know Debbie O’Nail?’
‘Yeah I do ... fuckin’ auld bitch she is!’
The whole bus has erupted into laughter at this response from Amy.
‘That’s me ex,’ says John through stifled laughter.
There is a pause then. ‘Oh ... are you Johnner Smith?’ You can sense the anticipation in Amy’s voice.
‘The very one Amy,’ replies an extremely proud Johnner.
‘Ohhhh ... you’re a bleedin’ ride,’ gushes Amy.
Again the laughter erupts, this time accompanied by wolf whistles.
‘I’d say you’re fuckin’ gorgeous Amy are ya?’ asks Johnner, hopefully.
‘Well I’d get plastic surgery to look whatever way you wanted me to Johnner!’ she replied.
This time I even think I hear the officers joining in with our chorus of laughter, as one of them opens the cell facing me and takes a lighter for one of the other lads.
‘Here officer, will ya throw on the aul radio?’ asks the recipient of said lighter.
And before you could say ‘prison romance’ the silky smooth bass line from ‘Sexy Thing’ is flowing from the bus speakers.
‘There’s your song now Johnner,’ shouts Amy.
‘You’re mad,’ replies Johnner.
‘I’m mad about you,’ counters Amy.
This has been so distracting that when I look out the window to my right and see the Mater Hospital, I’m shocked to realise we’ve arrived.
‘78876555, that’s me prison number Johnner, yeah? Write to me now, won’t ya?’ shouts Amy.
Johnner suddenly replies with an uncharacteristic and curt, ‘Yep.’
The bus comes to a stuttering halt as an officer comes down to unlock Amy’s ‘cell’ door, and the door of another female. ‘I’ll write ya filthy replies Johnner ... so make sure ya write!’ gushes Amy.
Johnner has gone very quiet all of a sudden. Amy begins her final goodbyes, and as her voice becomes more faint, Johnner pipes up, ‘Jaysus! Very fuckin’ clingy lads, wha? Fuck that! It would be like havin’ me moth fuckin’ write to me!’
The remainder of us again join together in laughter. Noel Gallagher is telling Sally she can wait on the radio, as the bus comes to a stop for a second, final time. We have arrived at my new home for the next three and a half years ... The Joy!