Thursday 20 September 2018

'Prisoners are still wanted and needed' - Finbar Furey on why he visits Irish jails

Finbar Furey plays in Wheatfield prison
Finbar Furey plays the Uilleann pipes on his new 'Buddy Bench'
The 'Buddy Bench' made by prisoners for Finbar Furey
Wheatfield Governor Martin O'Neill with Finbar Furey
Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

Folk singer Finbar Furey has revealed he visits Irish prisons because he wants to show inmates they are still "wanted and needed" by society.

Furey is best known for his songs and performances and has performed across the globe with The Fureys.

Prison governor Martin O'Neill sitting with Finbar Furey. Johnny Mullins, who runs the prison workshop, stands behind the bench.
Prison governor Martin O'Neill sitting with Finbar Furey. Johnny Mullins, who runs the prison workshop, stands behind the bench.

However, in a revealing interview with, the 71-year-old songwriter explained that he is drawn to some of the poorest members of Irish society behind bars.

Last Christmas Furey played a concert for inmates at Wheatfield Prison in West Dublin. Prisoners were so impressed with his performance and humility that they made him a  ‘Buddy Bench’ which now sits in his back garden in South Dublin.

“I think it is nice to go in and say hello. It gives them a little hope that they are still wanted and needed,” he explained.

“If I had my way I wouldn’t have prisons. I think we should talk to each other and sit with each other. Once you get in talking to these lads, you can’t see them as anything else but human beings. We are all guilty of stepping over the line sometime but I think in Ireland we have great forgiveness.”

Asked when he first visited a prison, Furey explained that he and blues musician Don Baker were asked to put on a performance in Mountjoy “years and years ago”.

I was just blown away by it. They were absolutely great kids.

Finbar Furey playing music in Wheatfield Prison
Finbar Furey playing music in Wheatfield Prison

Since then he has played small concerts in Limerick, Portlaoise and Wheatfield prisons.

“We were asked to go down to do the men's and the women's prison in Limerick. We were lucky to escape out of the women's,” he says before bursting into laughter.

In Portlaoise Furey had the opportunity to meet and speak with Republican inmates and he said he was blown away by their knowledge of folk songs and Irish culture.

“The lads got their instruments and I asked ‘could they sing’ and they completely blew me away.

“They were singing songs by the Fureys or the Dubliners or Liam Clancy. They’re just kids but they knew all this music.”

Last December he visited Wheatfield prison in West Dublin for the first time and he is still buzzing from the experience.

Furey sang acapella for over an hour and was joined for a stirring version of the Eric Bogle classic ‘The Green Fields of France’ by one prisoner.

Following the performance Furey sat with the inmates for some time and signed autographs for all who asked.

Asked if he was afraid or intimidated going in, Furey said: “I am never afraid, what would I be afraid of? I grew up in Ballyfermot, they are hard kids they grew up tough but once you get talking to them you can’t see them as anything but human.”

The toughest part of visiting prison, he claimed, is actually leaving the campus.

“I left the prison and I pulled my car up at the side of the road and I lit a cigarette. I am wishing I could have done much, much more. We should have more and more people going in to prison to meet these people. We should have days where kids can go in with relatives and help them out. I don’t see any harm in any of them [prisoners],” he said.

Wheatfield Prison governor Martin O’Neill said the inmates were extremely grateful to Furey for his visit.

“Most of these prisoners have fallen on hard times so a bit of normalisation, even if it is just for an afternoon, is really important. His concert made a huge difference it is still talked about today.”

Part of the appeal for the inmates, according to Mr O’Neill, is Furey’s own background.

The singer was raised in a council estate in Ballyfermot and he comes from a traveller family.

“He’s not just a pop star, he has had his own tough life,” Mr O’Neill said.

Approximately 60 prisoners attended the Wheatfield gig and among them were members of the travelling community.

The grateful prisoners made him a ‘Buddy Bench’, with the words ‘An raibh tu ag an gcarraig’ [Were you on the rock] inscribed on it.

The 'Buddy Bench' made by prisoners for Finbar Furey

The ornate piece was varnished and delivered to Furey’s South Dublin home in the last number of weeks and he said he was “blown away” by the gift.

This chair will be in my family forever and ever again.

Furey is now making plans to go back into Wheatfield in the coming months but this time his hope is to bring Aslan frontman Christy Dignam with him.

The pair are working on an album together at the moment despite Dignam’s recent battle with cancer.

“Christy is flying at the moment,” said Furey. “I think that would give the prisoners a great kick to see him.”

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