On Friday, 10 inmates from the In-House Voices Choir and 15 women from the Solas Workplace Wellbeing Choir paid tribute to Johnny Cash in the chapel of the Advancement Unit at Mountjoy. The event is called Mountjoy Prison Blues.
This is to help with attention, which coincides with Cash’s 90th birthday. The prisoners wore white shirts and red scarves. Women are dressed in black. Light flows through the large windows. In the audience were family, friends and Claire D. Cronin, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland (the event was organized in conjunction with the embassy).
Mountjoy Governor Eddie Mullins launched the lawsuit by talking about Cash’s generosity to “marginalities.” He then suggested he might take the lads on a tour. Everyone laughed. “I mean to another prison, lads! ” He says.
Ambassador Cronin began her speech with a Boston accent worried that people would understand her, then talked about how Cash made the recording live from Folsom Prison and her own commitment to “the power of healing.”
Caroline Jones from Solas, a national agency that promotes continuing education, got the biggest cheers ahead of her brief presentation. She is the agency’s people engagement manager and choir member. She talks about how everyone in the room has the power to influence the interests of others. “In the choir we never talked about words like ‘equality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, but we’ve gotten past it.”
A prisoner named Mick introduced the first song, The Auld Triangle, and talked about how it was written about the prisoners in that prison. He added excitedly, “I just hugged my daughters for the first time in 2.5 years.”
Each verse was recorded by a different prisoner before being joined by a harmony choir in the chorus. When a prisoner finishes reading a verse, the person next to him always squeezes his shoulder in a supportive way. When the harmony sounded, everyone was beaming.
Then they sang 40 Greens Written in Cash, which they turned into a kind of lullaby, ending with the uplifting Folsom Prison Blues. Afterwards, Mullins let the audience vote for the song they wanted to hear as an encore, before ignoring everyone and asking The Auld Triangle again. “I improved the rankings,” he admitted afterwards. I don’t blame him. It is very moving to hear the Alder triangle in this context.
After the show, the prisoners mingled with guests who were eating pastries, drinking coffee and tea. Mick with his daughters. Another man sat with a little girl on his lap. Charlie sang the first stanza of “Auld Triangle” in a full baritone voice as he sat chatting with his childhood friends Becca and Tom. They have not been able to see each other for two years due to Covid restrictions. They were all surprised that he could sing. Did he know he could sing before he joined the choir? He didn’t. “But I have a music background, so I know how to correct myself. I do electronic music. But Ruidri [Ó Dálaigh, the In-House Voices choir director] Can use your voice to take you where you thought you couldn’t go. “
He likes to sing now. “When you play the chords, the whole place vibrates, your face starts to melt, and it’s addictive. . . It’s a release. It’s the best day of the week.”
Tom and Becca both have collages Charlie made for them. One day, when he received two copies of National Geographic instead of one, he started making collages and decided to turn one of them into a work of art. “I started cutting it out in my cell.” He smiled. “I got a P19, a ticket, because I had a razor . . . and after that, I had to do it in the art room.”
He showed an image of another piece of collage art he’s been working on, which is actually 5 feet long. It’s complicated and intricate, and he explains how each flows into the other. “I try to portray infinity and magic . . . for me, I’m so motivated that when I’m involved in crime, it’s just another thing to be good at. In prison, I can put this Motivation translates into something constructive . . . I’ll spend the rest of my life singing.”
I met Andy and his girlfriend Shauna. Shauna also never heard Andy sing. “Maybe I sing in the shower,” he said.
Why did he join the choir? “One of the lads on the landing asked me to go with him and I said I would try to challenge myself.”
What is it like to do this? “We were all a little skeptical that we could put it together. But the energy in the room helped us.”
What does he generally get out of it? “I think I feel like I’m very close to the lads through this. It’s like brotherhood anyway because we all live together, but it brings us closer.”
This is the first time Andy and Shauna have been together for six months. “It’s great that they brought the family in,” Shauna said.
“It’s a good vibe,” agrees Andy.
A man named Andrzej told me he had been in the choir for four years. Did he sing before? He was very emphatic. “No no no no.”
Why did he join? “Honestly? For an event like this. Being in a choir is part of real life, not prison life.”
He said he did his best to keep his mind out of prison. He is studying to become a mathematics teacher at the Open University. “It’s not like my cell is open, but Ruadri and the others come in and we can chat normally, not prison life.” He smiled. “I mean, I don’t watch movies that have prisons in them. I don’t see the fun in them. .
He asked me what to write. The last time a newspaper reported on such a performance, he said, the headline was: “The Most Dangerous Choir.” . . they focus on the negatives. “
Caroline Jones asked me if I thought they did justice to Johnny Cash. They really did. “We’re excited,” she said.
She talks about when the two choirs first started working together in 2019. “It was a bit of a romantic ballroom at first – men on one side and women on the other, but now it’s a choir . . . that’s normal. We talk about everything.”
Stephen, who introduced the second song of the night, was talking to his mother. He only hugged her for the first time two weeks ago due to Covid restrictions. What does she think of the show? “It’s cute,” she said. She had never heard him sing before.
“I have social anxiety disorder,” Stephen said. “I don’t sing in front of people or speak in front of people. I play the piano at home.” He turned to his mother. “But how many times have you heard me play the piano?”
“He’s not going to perform in front of people,” she said.
Why did he join the choir? “Charlie and Andy made me,” he said, pointing to the other two prisoners. “Through the choir, I opened it up. You talk to the woman who comes in. It gives a perspective on things. . . the stress goes off your shoulders even in practice, all the stress of everyday life and What’s missing outside. Take a break. You can have fun.”
Is it good for him to let his mom see this? “Any parent, if you have a kid in jail, you’re worried that something bad is going to happen, but you’re going to see your kid singing in a choir and doing well.”
“It was fantastic,” his mother said. “It just makes you realize that it’s not all bad. They’re trying to help them and make them feel more confident in themselves.”
Visitors walk down metal steps to leave. The Solas Choir embraces the members of the In-House Choir. Prisoners hug their families. Caroline told a mother her son was “a beautiful person”.
I walked out of jail with Katherine and her grandson Rose. Catherine’s son, Rose’s uncle, was in the prison choir, and they saw him today for the first time in a long time. Did they enjoy it?
“I have a cold,” Catherine said. “I thought the roof would go up. It was awesome. And my heart — oh my god — went out to them. Not just my son. All of them.”
Does she like Johnny Cash? “My other son passed away and he loved Johnny Cash.”
“I heard the train coming,” Ross sang to himself. “I’m going to play that song when I get home, babysitter.”
The Mountjoy Prison Blues fundraiser to follow can be found here: https://fundraise.concern.net/mountjoyprisonblues