Brian O’Rourke talks about his journey from being a career criminal to becoming a recognised artist
MANY people can go their whole life without experiencing a clear cut moment of clarity in which they realise the errors of their ways and make the decision to turn their life around.
For Abbeyfeale's Brian O’Rourke this moment came while looking at the cream walls of a 10ft by 15ft jail cell in Limerick Prison where he was serving four years for possession with intent to supply.
“The biggest challenge is overcoming your own thinking. Your own way of doing things. That learning to make change. Because you have time to yourself, you have time to reflect on yourself and who you are,” Brian explains.
“I wouldn’t even say I got a second chance. It’s more a moment of seeing the bigger picture and understanding the implication that your choices have had on those around you, your immediate family, your friends and community,” he adds.
Brian's life began in the shadow of Shannon Airport, where he spent his childhood. Then, in 1986, at the tender age of 18, he made the journey so many young men made, and travelled to London. It was here he found himself incorporated in the punk scene.
“As a punk, I got involved with The Anti-Nazi League and Class War. Class War was almost a precursor to Black Flag and other anti-facist groups you see today,” he says.
Brian spent 10 years in London before travelling back to Ireland. Ireland was booming at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but rural unemployment was still high and the painting and decorating work Brian had picked up was doing little to help him get a foot ahead in life.
Brian soon took to selling cannabis to supplement his income. It was this decision that would ultimately lead to his arrest and eventual incarceration.
“I realised that the cannabis laws are draconian. If people could have a pint, why couldn’t they have a smoke?” Brian says.
The father-of-two is quick to dispel any notion that the life of crime is an easy life.
“There is a few quid to be made. From the outside, it gives the impression of a good lifestyle. But what comes with it is a lot of stress and worry. There is an understanding that it is finite, it will come to an end, and when it comes to an end it will be dramatic,” he asserts.
“There is a saying that a lot of criminals use. It goes that we have to be lucky all the time, the guards, they only have to be lucky once. It is illegal and eventually you will get caught.”
It was in 2008 when Brian’s luck finally ran out, and a large raid was carried out by the Gardai.
A year later, he was sentenced to four years behind bars. Brian describes his first impression of life inside as being similar to a teenager's first day at secondary school.
“It was busy, but in a very orderly kind of way. It’s just like life outside, but just amplified. Tensions are heightened, your senses are heightened, and it is a stressful place for everyone. For the prisoners, their liberty has been taken. The officers and staff obviously realise this, so their life is stressful as well,” he points out.
During his time in jail, Brian witnessed some unique moments that are unique to life in prison.
There is a real sense of comradery, especially when it came to the Heineken Cup or soccer matches.
“When Ireland were playing and if they scored a goal, the noise of the jail is insane. Everybody would start kicking their doors, it has to be noisiest place in Munster. The same noise erupts on New Year's Eve at midnight, everyone starts kicking their doors. That has to be the most bizarre, uplifting, surreal experience inside the prison walls. You are not going to get that everywhere.
“Another really very unique thing is at lockup time, at 7.30, to hear the theme tune to Coronation Street come out of 100 cells. That's a unique sound in the Irish jail system,” he added.
To escape the routine of prison life, many inmates turn to activities such as exercise or education.
For Brian, this escape came in the shape of art, where he was encouraged by his teachers, Paula Rafferty and JJ Hegarty.
“Anyone doing a long sentence will be enticed into the school system in prison. It breaks up the monotony of prison life. That feeling of achievement and doing something is really mentally rewarding,” says Brian.
“Some people won’t go for the school straight away. They are still punishing themselves and don’t see the upside. But you do see it when someone is ready to make changes.
“One saying I’ve heard which sums it up is ‘I’ve no jail left in me’. But the key thing about the school is the tools of reform are ready when you are.
“My art is visual journalism. My painting reflects issues that I hear around me. And, of course, as a fisherman, those issues revolve around the health and biodiversity of our waterways which sadly is lacking. What I am working on shows a concern for rural existence, as urban sprawl takes over.”
Brian will appear on an RTE 1 documentary called Exhibitionists: Road to the RHA this Thursday, June 27, at 10.15pm. The programme follows the artists through the process of creating an artwork for The Annual, to finding out whether or not it has been accepted. Along the way, it looks at why and how they make art and how they deal with rejection.