Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Obituary: Mike Moloney

Mike Moloney
Mike Moloney
Mike Moloney with his partner, actress and Belfast Telegraph columnist Nuala McKeever
Mike Moloney with his partner, actress and Belfast Telegraph columnist Nuala McKeever

Even if you didn't think you knew who Mike Moloney was, there's a fair chance that you actually did.

With the casual swagger of the buccaneer about him and that barely-diluted antipodean burr in spite of nearly four decades in Northern Ireland, he was hard to miss.

Those were just the immediate, superficial characteristics that singled him out as a man apart.

There was also his impressive resumé of outstanding achievements in the arts – specifically in taking the arts to people in the darkest, most hopeless of places.

True to his progressive principles, Mike's idea of working in the arts wasn't attached to any kind of pretension, exclusivity, or elitism.

His prison record, or rather his record of working in prisons alone, marked this singularly unflappable, affable and much-liked man as far removed from the stereotypical arts fop as you can muster.

As director of the Prison Arts Foundation, Mike's career saw many high points and his work has left a tangible legacy both for the city and countless individuals whose lives were touched by his passion, drive, commitment and humanity.

Mike's first foray into direct arts activism in Belfast saw him set up Belfast Community Circus in 1985 while a lecturer at the Belfast Institute of Further Education.

He then worked as a drama specialist for the Northern Ireland Prison Service from 1991 to 1997 and joined the fledgling Prison Arts Foundation in 1997 as a development officer. He had been its director since 2005.

In that time he wasn't only responsible for directly and simply touching the lives of many prisoners, he also harnessed the power of the arts to afford this marginalised section of society personal expression and a chance for rehabilitation.

The spontaneous outpouring of tributes in the wake of his untimely death on Saturday, aged 59, including many from prisoners who turned their lives around through contact with Mike and Prison Arts Foundation, speaks profoundly and movingly to the high regard Mike was held in – certainly more than most obituaries.

His groundbreaking and instinctively subversive work within Prison Arts often drew media attention – he was one of the few people with the rare requisites of charm and substance to dupe a usually hostile, or uninterested, media into covering prison-related stories with a happy ending.

One such was Dan Gordon's Observe The Sons Of Ulster, staged by the inmates of Hydebank Young Offenders' Centre and famously screened by BBC1.

Bragging rights also memorably went to Mike when, through the Jail House Doors scheme, he secured the services of Billy Bragg, who donated musical equipment for use in the process of rehabilitation to the young inmates at Hydebank, as well as prisoners at Maghaberry and Magilligan.

Personal impressions normally began with the deceptively gruff accent that belied a rather modest and kindly soul and a playful wit to complement that gruff exterior.

Add to that the universal respect he engendered, which he wore as lightly as he did those rakish locks, and an overriding sense that, if Armageddon was announced, he'd most likely put the kettle on while pandemonium ensued about him.

I didn't know him massively well, but I also can't imagine Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, the arts sector, umpteen dodgy arts launches, or even favourite pubs without him.

And I'm almost certain that this cool guy would probably have been both scundered and moved in equal measure at the deluge of tributes.

The one word that seems to occur most often throughout the many spoken and written of Mike is "inspirational". Would that we could all be so remembered.

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