The Irish Chaplaincy’s Eddie Gilmore on a particularly packed St Patrick’s week
First, a trip to Her Majesty’s Prison in Bronzefield, a women’s jail in Surrey, to meet a group of Irish inmates and a chance to chat, and to hear their stories. Some of the women there are utterly broken by what life has thrown at them. Some have children outside; one has a pimp waiting for her when she gets out; some, probably most, have been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse, usually at the hands of men.
I was struck by how appreciative they all were that people had come to visit them, to share a drink and a cake and a bit of time together, and to be given rosary beads and Traveller magazines. Many of those women will receive no other outside visitors apart from the Irish Chaplaincy.
A couple of days later I was at a prison in south east London to discuss the possibility of the Irish Chaplaincy helping Travellers in prison to access pre-release training and post-release employment. From there it was over to West London to Wormwood Scrubs for another meeting with some prison staff, before joining our St Patrick’s celebration. We hold our events there in the Scrubs’ magnificent chapel. Like all of the prison chapels I’ve been into, it has a particular quality of peace and prayerfulness.
There was a good turnout: over thirty men from the wings, various prison staff, those of us from the Irish Chaplaincy and guests we had invited including somebody from the Irish Embassy and other people involved in prison work.
We were treated to Irish music from Neil, Zoe and Whiskey Mick, Irish dancing from Grainne, one of our wonderful volunteers, and a shared meal of bacon, cabbage and potatoes. Some of the guys moaned that they’d turned it into a stew but it was really tasty and with the soda bread brought along by Breda and Liz it was a real feast. Elena gave out St Patrick’s prayers and puzzles.
Not only Irish prisoners were present. A man with a strong Polish accent beat his chest and solemnly announced “I feel Irish in my heart.”
During the meal I chatted with two Albanians who told me they felt very close to the Irish. They were the friendliest, most courteous people you could meet. I don’t know what they’ve done to end up in prison, I never ask, I don’t need to know: for those couple of hours we are just fellow human beings enjoying some music, dancing and bacon and cabbage ‘stew’.
We don’t discriminate at the Irish Chaplaincy. If a prisoner registers as Irish, or Irish Traveller, we will offer a visit and assistance (also to their family in many cases), whatever crime they have committed. We may be their only visitor. From the prison it was off to the Irish Embassy for the St Patrick’s reception.
The next day I was visited by nine members of the L’Arche Kent Book Club, from Canterbury, for lunch. I was part of L’Arche for 28 years and one of those who came, Henri, I first met in 1988. Such relationships run deep. Liz and Ellena had prepared a sumptuous lunch up at the Chaplaincy and it was for me a special coming together of different worlds.
Gifts were exchanged, L’Arche beer, candles and scented pin cushions for the Chaplaincy in exchange for Irish Chaplaincy mugs and bookmarks and a visit to John Dunne’s ‘Irish Theatre’ production, ‘Her Ladyship’, in the Kennedy Hall,. The finale of St Patrick’s Week was Sunday mass in the McNamara Hall at the Irish Centre celebrated by our own Gerry.
We were joined by Ireland’s Ambassador Adrian O’Neill, Ireland’s Minister of Agriculture Michael Creed and the Mayor of Camden Richard Cotton. In his sermon Gerry explained the Irish Chaplaincy supports some Irish people in Britain who are some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded who, in many cases, live lives of quiet desperation. We always treat those people as individuals and never as mere statistics.
Mass was followed by a full Irish breakfast, laid on by the Counties’ Association which prepared us for the St Patrick’s Day parade in sub-zero temperatures due to the ‘mini Beast from the East’.
Shared food and fellowship with a variety of interesting people, there is no better way to celebrate St Patrick’s Week.