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Remembering Paul O'Mahony, father of Irish criminology

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Some distinguished colleagues will now pay their respects to Paul and CrimeTalk is honoured to relay them to a wider audience. As a relative newcomer to Irish criminology, I see Paul O'Mahony as the father, grandfather, or maybe even godfather, of Irish criminology. Certainly, Paul's lifetime work had considerable significance for the development of criminology in Ireland. He passed away on 11 November 2015.                       

Valerie Bresnihan, a co-founder with Paul O’Mahony of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), spoke about him at his funeral in Glasnevin, on 14 November 2015:


Today, is a celebration of Paul’s remarkable life. I thank Sheila for the invitation to speak of Paul as a friend.


Dr Paul O'MahonyI first literally bumped into Paul while I was working for  Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee, in the early 90s and  I had just agreed to become the chair of IPRT.  In my great ignorance of what was to be chair of a less than popular little voluntary body, it quickly became clear to me that I was in dire need of some straight-talking advice.  Boy, had I bumped into the right person! Paul was immediately honest and blunt. His advice was direct and wise in equal measure, and we quickly became firm friends.


Throughout my time working with Paul for the IPRT, 6 years in total, Paul maintained an exceptional perspective on the Trust’s right for a space in the public arena, particularly from a normative as well as an evidence-based perspective. He was at all times undeterred and unwavering in his beliefs.  Consistency was his middle name. As IPRT was then in its infancy our work was difficult, if not on occasions almost impossible. Yet at all times Paul remained strong, supportive and undeterred by obstacles. It was frequently an inspiration, to watch him.


He was always more than clear in his mind where IPRT should go – and as you know he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Sparks often flew, but much more fundamentally, he always succeeded in filling in the essential developmental gaps of a fledging institution that we had both come to love right well.  And so, for 6 years, with Paul, Brian Harvey, Celesta McCann James, and of course, Helen Haughton, IPRT survived, and survived very well.


Paul and I left IPRT at the same time.  Our work was done. By now we had become trusted friends.  Happily, we then we had discovered we had something else in common – the love of a decent dinner party with our spouses and of course, with plenty of conversation and, yes,  the proverbial glass of wine. Many a first course involved Paul and I catching up with current events related to penal reform.  Our spouses, always our team-mates, were ever-patient.  After that, it was every man for himself: the  2nd course tended to solve a variety of world crises.   The dessert usually recounted jokes and funny stories. Paul was a master story-teller and his sense of humour often had us there till the wee hours. There were later 6 around the table – Bernadette & Paddy O Sullivan, common friends to both Sheila and myself.  Alas, although those times were truly splendid and indeed the richest of times, they were far too short.  Barry left in 2010 and today, it is Paul’s turn.  

I thank you Sheila for your kindness to me since 2010 especially.  It is my turn now and I am privileged to share a special friendship with you. 

I always feel that Paul never quite got the recognition he deserved and my words I know are perhaps less than adequate today.  I will immediately improve things by quoting, with his permission, the words of President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins. On the 18th of September this year there was a celebration in the Aras to mark 21 years of IPRT’s anniversary. Paul was unable to attend. 

Here is what our President said and I quote:


“Throughout my academic career, the areas of criminology and penology have been very important to me.  I began teaching criminology and the study of deviant behaviour in the 1970s – and it was around that time that I first met Dr. Paul O’Mahony as we were both involved in the first, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to establish an Institute of Criminology in Ireland.  I know that Paul played as central role in the early years of IPRT and his academic work in describing the sociological context of imprisonment in Ireland, as well of course as his work in the areas of addiction and marginalisation, are of seminal importance."


High praise indeed, I think you might all agree,  and well-deserved words from someone now holding the highest office in the land. In conclusion, I like to imagine that our President had Paul especially in his mind when he ended his remarks to us all that night by saying:


‘May I say that as patron of IPRT I am proud to be associated with this important organisation in Irish civic society, and as President of Ireland I want to express my gratitude for all that you have done, and for all that you continue to do for our most marginalised citizens.’ As Ml D has said Paul’s work was seminal, it will continue, but my goodness he will be missed.

Thank you.



Niall Walsh, who works at the Pathways Post-release Project in Dublin, writes:

Here is one of my memories: I asked Paul if he would be interested in coming in to the Pathways Project to deliver a lecture on a topic of his choosing. Even though he was retired he did not hesitate. On the day in question he came in a gave a talk on "The War on Drugs". I had advertised the class beforehand and there was standing room only. For those familiar with the Pathways Project, the main classroom is quite small. I stopped counting when I reached 50 in attendance. You could have heard a penny drop and Paul took over an hour after the class answering the many questions that were posed. 

Afterwards, as Paul was smoking outside, it transpired that some of the lads have taken part in his research on Mountjoy. He really enjoyed chatting away with the lads. Some were in awe of his knowledge, as was he with the level of engagement with the topic. It was rare to get the level of engagement that was got that afternoon and it will go down as one of the highlights of events in the centre. He gave a lot to benefit those in society who are less fortunate and he will be sorely missed, as will his contributions.

Paul was a gentleman and I feel privileged to have known him.

Remembering Paul O’Mahony - Jane Carrigan, Chairperson of the Irish Prison Education Association (IPEA):


My first and only meeting with Paul O’Mahony took place in the summer of the 2005 in his office. I had started a work placement with the Health Research Board as part of a master’s programme and while I envisaged myself conducting research in hospitals in Dublin, I found myself unexpectedly involved in a project about drug use in prison. It was the start of an incredible journey for me, one that is still continuing, and it was a journey very much shaped by Paul’s work and by his kind words of encouragement and advice on the day I met him.

Paul’s writings on justice were always exceptionally good – not only were they thoroughly engaging (and not many academic texts can lay claim to that!) but they were well argued and thought-provoking. His survey of prisoners in Mountjoy in the '80s (repeated again 10 years later) was a jolt to my system. I can still remember the first time I read it. How could it be, I thought to myself, that such inequalities in who we imprison and what areas they come from, could happen? Like all good research, his work raised more questions. The statistics he produced made me furious and determined to do something. I’m not sure I can fully capture it in words but his work and his words had a profound effect on me, both personally and in the direction of my own PhD some years later on education in prison. 

In my job as a lecturer, I taught classes on cultural studies and I always included a section on punishment and always referenced Paul’s work. A slide on just some of the statistics that Paul produced generated huge discussions among students on the nature of punishment both here in Ireland and internationally.  I could see the impact his research was still having and I’m enormously grateful to have benefited from his ground-breaking work.

When I announced to members of the Irish Prison Education Association at our national conference in November, that Paul’s death had occurred, the reaction was one of great sadness.  We recognised him as one of our own, and for many of us in the room that day, Paul’s contribution to revealing who we imprison in Ireland, and in forcing us to ask the question ‘why?’, was simply invaluable.

Senator Ivana Bacik, a colleague at Trinity College, writes of Paul:

I have a great deal for which to thank Paul O’Mahony. He was always very good to me; as an academic colleague, as a mentor in the field of criminology, and as a research supervisor. When I started teaching criminology and penology in Trinity College back in the late 1990's, Paul was the leading Irish authority in what was then a very low-profile academic discipline. He had already published a ground-breaking text, Crime and Punishment in Ireland (1993), and his subsequent famous study on Mountjoy prisoners, published in 1997, also made a really significant contribution to the development of knowledge about prison and prison conditions in Ireland. I admired him greatly, not only for his prodigious and vitally important academic output, but also for his activism on penal reform, through his work with the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

Once I got to know him personally, I quickly realised that he was not only highly approachable and extremely generous with his time and expertise; but that he was also very politically and socially engaged, always up for a good old-fashioned argument; and great fun to socialise with. He was always questioning, and his critical but constructive intellect made him enormously good company. He and Sheila were always warm and friendly, and when I had my first daughter, they were both particularly good to me, giving great support as academic colleagues in Trinity, and offering useful advice on how to juggle teaching and research workloads with the challenges of parenting. I was delighted when Paul asked me to contribute chapters to the major criminology text he was editing, published as Criminal Justice in Ireland (2002); a text which I still use with my students. Indeed, I often think of Paul when teaching criminology and penology now; he had a profound influence on my own teaching and academic work in those fields. He is deeply missed.

Claire Hamilton of NUI Maynooth writes:

You often hear of work being described as 'seminal' in a particular field but in Paul's case these words are no mere platitude. Starting in to my research on 'moral panic' in 2000, Paul's books such as Crime and Punishment and, particularly, Criminal Chaos, together with his other writings, opened up a new whole new world to me, and, in a very real sense, provided the inspiration for my further work into the criminological field. His keen intellect, impeccable turn of phrase and penetrating eye for the realpolitik of criminal justice in the 1990's, made paraphrasing difficult, if not impossible. Often I gave up and just quoted him! Incontrovertibly, Irish criminology and criminal justice owes him a heavy debt of gratitude.

Kevin Warner, who worked with Paul in the Department of Justice, also spoke at his funeral:

I knew Paul O’Mahony from about 1980 when he came to work in the Prisons Division of the Department of Justice, and for a dozen years or so (until he went to Trinity) our offices and that of Paul Murphy were next to each other. I have a feeling the Department of Justice didn’t really want a social psychologist focused on research – but they got one anyway courtesy of the Civil Service Commission. They were fairly ok with psychologists looking inside people’s heads, but not so keen at looking at wider issues such as the lives those in prison experienced, their backgrounds and the social issues which brought them into prison.

In that period, and later at Trinity College, Paul examined really important matters such as, for example, addiction, the situation in the old Women’s Prison, the youngsters in St. Patrick’s Institution and Shanganagh Castle, suicide in prison, the peculiar nature of the Irish prison system compared to other European countries and (at the urging of John Lonergan) seminal studies of the men and women in Mountjoy.

Paul also focused on the criminal justice system as a whole and published six books and a great range of other studies. So, for example, when a judge issued a report on the Kerry Babies case which whitewashed the behaviour of the Gardai, Paul’s report on that report was forensic and scathing. Paul’s work was always academically rigorous, but for me the core quality was always a seeking out of truth, often the uncomfortable truth, and, most especially, he spoke truth to power. 

What also comes across greatly in Paul’s research is the humanity. He could do the statistics, but we always see ‘the whole person’, people in all their complexity, their qualities as well as their problems, the lives they live, their backgrounds and experience. Through it all there is a deep commitment to social justice.

At times, Paul would feel his work didn’t get the attention it deserved. However, as I’m doing a little work at UCC just now, I was able to tell him recently how the Boole Library in Cork has multiple copies of all his books, all very well thumbed and marked. That pleased him, but of course, being Paul, he also had a little grumble about places where the books were not so well represented.

Paul shouldn’t have doubted that he is the father – perhaps I should say the grandfather – of criminology and criminal justice study in Ireland, work that speaks of and for the troubled and troublesome in our society. We should be hugely grateful for that, and I have no doubt his writing will endure and continue to be of value to us all.


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