Sunday 13 October 2019

'I broke their hearts' - Fair City's Tommy opens up on time in jail

Fair City actor Tommy O’Neill. Photo: Colin Keegan
Fair City actor Tommy O’Neill. Photo: Colin Keegan

Fair City actor 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-inmates.

The actor (66) has been playing Detective John Deegan in the hit RTE soap for nearly two decades, but he lived a very different life before his acting career.

Following a difficult time at primary school, he 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 said.

Tommy O’Neill (right) as Detective Deegan in Fair City
Tommy O’Neill (right) as Detective Deegan in Fair City

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

"I had a spiritual awakening. I never looked back," he said.

"I've had a blessed journey since that day. It all goes back to then - that's when I turned my life over."

O'Neill 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 is fronting an art installation, The Trial, from visual artist Sinead McCann, which explores the theme of healthcare and human rights within the Irish criminal justice system.

Ex-prisoners from The Bridge Project in Francis Street, Dublin, shared their stories, which are brought vividly to life by O'Neill.

"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," he said.

"They were just a group of men. Their stories were so poignant, and I found it very moving."

The Trial opens to the public on Spike Island, Cork, from July 26 to August 26, before moving to Lifford Court House, Donegal, from August 29 to September 12, and Dublin Castle from September 26 to November 3.

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