Singing Gospel behind bars
Anne Hallahan of the Gardiner Street Gospel Choir remembers the choir’s experience of singing two Masses in Wheatfield Prison. They went down well with the inmates, though they thought it wise to leave “If you love someone, set them free” off the playlist.
Wheatfield prison to sing at the prisoners’ Mass. We, the choir, had been asked many times to sing for them, but something had always happened to prevent it from going ahead. The prison is set in Clondalkin, across from its sister prison, Clover Hill, and its architectural style is firmly of the ‘brutalist’ school; purpose-built, as far as I could see, to be as spirit-crushing as possible. On walking in the door, one immediately noticed the low ceilings, lack of natural light, yellowy-beige walls and stuffy atmosphere.
The browning plants on the window ledges stood as mute witnesses to the insalubrious atmosphere. In fact, the pallor of the leaves was only surpassed by that of the prisoners’ complexions, which were noticeably greyer than our own. I was glad I had worn a little colour with my usual all-black clothes, and was not the only one. (As a choir, we normally dress in black, but we wear red accessories for special occasions). If ever a group of people needed some colour in their lives, this was it.
We’d been asked by the chaplain, Sr. Imelda, to sing two Masses in their hall, which also serves as a chapel. I wondered why there were two Masses, as the first was very sparsely attended, until it was pointed out to me that there was a strict hierarchy in prison, and the ‘ordinary decent criminals’ would not sit with those in for sexual offences. A more depressing room I had never seen, not because it was badly furnished, although the bolted-down wooden chairs did not exactly look comfortable, but because it was so depressingly decorated. The walls were painted the colour of putty on the top half, and on the bottom half, a purple the exact shade of a healing bruise. The wall hanging, the room’s only decoration, was crooked. Lifting anyone’s spirits in such a place was going to be a real challenge.
Our choir director, Louise Foxe, had picked an uplifting programme for the occasion. She was careful in her choices, as ‘If you love someone, set them free’ or ‘Something inside so strong’ would be tactless in such surroundings. Instead, we sang ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Heaven Help Us All’ and ‘O Happy Day’. As I sang the ‘Lord have Mercy’ and the Psalm, and I tried to make eye contact with anyone who looked in need of help. There was one young man in a red tracksuit who seemed on the verge of tears. He looked like a first-time offender, unused to prison.
At the Sign of Peace, Louise shook some of the prisoners’ hands, so I decided to do the same. The boy in the tracksuit was in the second row and had turned around to shake someone else’s hand, so the moment was lost. He could see that I’d been about to shake hands with him, and looked sad to have missed out on some human contact.
Singing the exuberant hymn ‘Faith’ at the end of the second Mass was a wonderful experience, because it really made the prisoners smile. In fact, one man commented afterwards to Sister Imelda that he’d forgotten he was in prison while we were singing.
Both the men and staff really enjoyed the vibrancy of the Mass, and some prison officers took their families to Gardiner Street the following week. According to Sister Imelda, the choir’s visit was the talk of the prison, and the uplifting atmosphere lasted for the next few days. She has been inundated with requests to invite us back, and says that those who didn’t go really regretted it, and that the men have promised to fill the place the next time. I just hope someone paints the church.