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 no 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.
Kevin Warner was a former colleague and close friend of Paul O’Mahony. This is the text of his tribute delivered at Paul’s funeral on Saturday 14.11.15.