'I had a spiritual awakening' – Fair City star Tommy O'Neill on how he turned his life around after prison

Fair City star Tommy O’Neill has drawn on his own experience of life in Mountjoy prison to perform in a new art project telling the stories of ex-prisoners.

The 66-year-old actor has been playing Detective Deegan in the hit RTE soap for almost two decades, but he lived life on the other side of the law before he embarked on an acting career.

Following a difficult time at primary school, Tommy left education at 13 and began working in the hotel industry.

By 17 he was an “acute and chronic alcoholic” and ended up homeless and addicted to heroin in London before returning to Ireland and embarking on a life of crime.

“I had a great family, great parents. I didn’t come from a criminal background.  I broke their hearts for quite a while,” he tells Independent.ie. 

A pivotal moment in his life came one day when he handed himself in to the gardai in Clifden and admitted to his crimes.

“I had a spiritual awakening,” he says.  “I never looked back.

“I have had a blessed journey since that day in Clifden.  It all goes back to then – that’s when I turned my life over.”

Tommy was convicted of armed robbery in 1980 and sentenced to nine years in prison, reduced to three, which he spent in Mountjoy.

Once he emerged from prison he began writing, ultimately becoming a playwright and actor.

Now he’s performing in an art installation, The Trial, which explores the theme of healthcare and human rights within the Irish criminal justice system.

Visual artist Sinead McCann helmed the project in collaboration with UCD historians Catherine Cox and Fiachra Byrne.

Ex-prisoners from The Bridge Project in Francis Street, Dublin shared their stories with writer Sarah Meaney and Tommy and those stories are brought to vivid life by the actor.

“Some of these men were more than 30 years in prison.  To be honest with you I had no idea what they did.  I never asked them.  They were just a group of men,” he says.

“[Their stories] were so poignant, and I found it very moving, and very frightening.”

Some had endured horrific abuse in industrial schools.

“[These children] were taken off their mothers and fathers, some were as young as 7 or 8, and they were brutalised in the most horrendous ways, sexually and physically,” says Tommy.

“This wasn’t Dickensian London, this was right up until the 60s, early 70s…  What did society expect of these children?” he says.

Tommy has his own memories of local children being taken from their parents when he was a child.

“The women were screaming on the street.  I’ll never forget that,” he says.  “The police were just pushing them away and taking the kids.  It was horrendous.”

The actor has since returned to speak to former prisoners again and was moved by a conversation he had with a young offender.

“I met a kid and I was talking to him over a cup of coffee and he was caught with a large enough amount of weed, €7000 or €8,000 worth.  He’d never been in trouble before.

“I try to talk kids out of gangs.  There’s no future in gangs. It’s Mountjoy or death.  And they know that.”

He adds, “I think young men especially have this thing about prison, when they’ve never been there, that it’s a nice jolly place, a hard place, and they’re with their mates. 

“Everyone is with their mates until the door is slammed shut at night.  Then you’ve got time to think about all the crap that you’ve done or what you didn’t do, the pain you’ve caused your family.

“Prison leaves a mark on you.  It doesn’t matter if you’re there three months or ten years.  It leaves a mark and and when you don’t know what it is you can’t fix it.

“That young man, my heart went out to him.  He was giving me this, ‘Ah, it’ll be good man’, but he was terrified.  I know it.  I could see it.” 

Tommy, who is now a grandfather, feels he is one of the lucky ones having managed to battle his own demons and emerge on the other side.

“My life has done a complete 180 degree flip.  I sit here sometimes in my house and I think, ‘Holy jaysus man I own this house! How did this happen?’  I really do,” he says.

“I was homeless.  I used to sleep in parks in London and even when I got home I was so bad with booze and drugs and so I’m so appreciative over everything I have, and of life.”

He thanks God every morning and night for his life and he is also particularly grateful to RTE and his Fair City ‘family’ for their support over the years.

“People knock RTE and maybe it’s justified in some ways, I don’t know.  But I know one thing; I’m nearly 20 years on that show and I know how good they have been to me. 

“I’m very happy to be part of that family.”

The Trial opens to the public on Spike Island, Cork from July 26 to Aug 26 before moving to Lifford Court House, Donegal from Aug 29-Sept 12 and Dublin Castle from Sept 26 to Nov 3.

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