If ever there was a reason for a second chance, it’s Willie White.
hen I go to a Swords café for our conversation, the actor and comedian is sitting in the corner finishing his breakfast. I sit down and tell him to start over. He replies, “Well, I was born in Coombe.”
Willie, I say, not that far back.
Still, we have to go back a bit to put it all together. Willie was a heroin addict and spent years in and out of psychiatric hospitals and prisons early in his life. Now he’s playing along The investigation, a play about his experiences. It is a powerful piece that challenges us to see prisoners “as people, not as animals in a cage”.
At 51, in a man who’s quick to laugh and full of outspokenness, there’s no trace of that early struggle.
Willie grew up on the Ballymun Flats with his sister, mother and father. His parents had decent jobs, but his father “probably liked the drink too much.”
“There was a lot of violence against my mother at home, so my childhood was very fear-based. As a child I was always looking for a way out. My sister was my rock,” he says.
Around eight he started doing drugs, stealing glue from the school janitor’s closet. “It gave me this escape from what was going on at home.”
He was a joker at school, always in trouble, and left when he was 15. His parents’ relationship was over and “I wanted to get out and assert myself in the world”. He moved to London, lived in a squat and worked as a butcher.
He became involved in the burgeoning rave scene of the late 1980s. “I took LSD. I ended up suffering from a psychosis.”
During a psychotic episode, he “took my aunt and my cousin and her friend hostage in a house for three days because I thought they were going to have me killed.” He was admitted to a psychiatric intensive care unit for seven months.
“I was very, very scared. I thought to myself, ‘This is where I’m going to be for the rest of my days.’ I tried to take my own life, hanging myself from a window.”
Luckily he was found in time. When his sister took him home to help him detox, “I started doing LSD again, like a damn eejit — I was as fragile as it was.”
The first time Willie went to jail it was for dodging a cab ride. “I was crazy then.” He was imprisoned, then in a psychiatric hospital for five months. Then he turned to heroin.
He started doing things he never imagined, like stealing from his family. He was repeatedly jailed for “burglary and shoplifting, there was no armed robbery, nothing crazy”.
Then came the drug crimes. His mother had moved to London but she would come home to see him. “I sat with her in cafes and she cried her eyes out. It was horrible to be around.”
Fleeing a charge, Willie fled to his mother in London. He turned their house “into a crack den” before becoming homeless. Eventually he was returned to Ireland to serve a five and a half year sentence at Mountjoy.
He was still only in his early 20s.
Every day in prison was about drugs, but dark times were punctuated with lighter moments. He played Fluther in the prison production of The plow and the stars. “About 80 percent of us who were on stage were on drugs. Isn’t it crazy when you think about it?”
And somewhere in the drudgery there was an awareness of the possibility of another life. When Willie brought up his drug problems, he got out early and a prison officer offered to take him to a detox program. Willie began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“People I used to date came in who looked very different, who smiled, who smelled nice, who talked about having a job and a car. I’ve got this little glimmer of hope right now.” He transferred to the detox unit. “Ten of us left. Six of them are dead now.”
Willie was released in 2001. Next month he will be 20 years clean. “I got my life back in order, I got all the things I was promised. I went to meetings, I had two beautiful children.”
He got into stand-up, met Des Bishop and appeared in the RTÉ documentary series joy in the hood. “I’ve found that I’m good at making people laugh.” In addition to his work as a scaffolder, he performed The wild eye, Irish Pictorial Weeklyand love hate.
It all came together, then his sister died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 44. “Here was a woman who was always there for me.” His voice breaks a little. At the hospice, she asked him to continue performing, and he threw himself into the performance. Then his father fell ill and Willie separated from his 22-year-old partner. “It felt like I was going to get another one as the pain from a kick in the mouth subsided.” His father’s illness offered a chance to heal old wounds.
“This was a man I hated as a kid, but through recovery and questions about his background, we developed a great relationship.”
In the hospice “he had a great calm about him. I said to him listen, you won’t be alone, I’ll be here with you. When he died it was just him and me. I was glad it was just the two of us and just holding him and telling him I loved him and giving him some comfort. I miss him terribly.”
He is grateful that their relationship has closed.
“Unfortunately, my father had demons and his father had demons.” Willie feels like he’s broken the cycle. “My father always had an admiration for guys who didn’t smoke and didn’t drink and had their own house. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I own my own house.”
In 2018 he was approached by Feidlim Cannon, one half of the Brokentalkers Theater Company along with Gary Keegan. They were interested in doing a play about prison, about Willie.
The investigation combines Willie’s story with research into prisoner welfare by Dr. UCD’s Catherine Cox and hours of interviews conducted by Cannon and Keegan. Keegan appears alongside Willie and speaks for the victims, having once been mugged himself. “None of the plays are fiction,” says Willie. “I brought friends of mine to see it and they actually cried afterwards. I bare my soul in it.”
Willie disagrees with the idea that prison is summer camp these days. “It’s not a damn summer camp. At half past seven the door closes and you stay with yourself and your thoughts, and the people you love go about their lives outside.”
He knows that there are “prisoners in there who did horrible things to people who deserved to be in there, but for the guy coming up for some misdemeanor… there were no restrooms when I was in there.” , you’re pissing in a pot.” The smell of the “spilling out” toilet area still haunts him.
And he was afraid.
“Even the toughest guys are scared in there. When someone says something to you, the day can turn nasty very quickly. I’m not a hardened criminal, I’m just a big soft teddy bear who doesn’t like violence and doesn’t like confrontation. But when you go to those places, you’ve built an image that you’re a real tough guy.”
Willie is full of ideas on how to give prisoners a better chance, but making improvements in addiction facilities comes first.
“If you want to do something about your problem, the beds should be there to make it easier for you. There’s a lot of boys in graves, if they’d only had half the chance to get help they’d still be alive.”
To those who say schools and hospitals should come first, Willie says people like him are not the scum of society. “We’re just people who’ve endured problems in life and didn’t know how to deal with them.”
Recovery programs were essential to Willie “because it’s very scary to be with this lifestyle that’s with broken people.”
“It’s like there’s a tin of cookies and we’re all broken cookies at the bottom. I’m far from fixed, but I get up every day with good intentions and try to do my best. My mom said it’s better than winning the lottery. It’s great to be able to be there for her and give her something instead of taking something from her.”
Being so vulnerable in his performance took its toll on Willie. “I got a little bit of counseling because it felt like I just had an autopsy and I was giving people my soul.”
It paid off. 2019, The investigation won awards at the Irish times Theater Awards and at the Dublin Fringe Festival, where Willie won Best Actor. Covid has slowed its momentum but there are new dates across the country, as well as in Paris and Norway.
Willie has found new ways to cope with his mental health struggles, those times he gets into “a little bit dark place, I started ocean swimming during the pandemic.” He meets with a group in Portmarnock on Saturday mornings. “I just put my head right under the freezing cold water. It’s about being comfortable with life’s inconveniences.”
He still returns to Mountjoy to work with prisoners. “I like to see inmates laughing because for that moment you can actually forget where you are.”
He has his proven lines. “I always say it’s great to have a captive audience. Can you turn off your phones? You know it’s a bit of banter. I’m a great candidate to give them some hope.”
He is a passionate believer in second chances and hopes that after seeing the play, “when you walk past a prison, you might have a thought of someone who is in there. We’re all just one act away from ending up in this place. People think it’s just one type of person going in there. There are all areas of life.”
Willie talks about how lucky his younger self would never believe how things turned out. He now has two granddaughters, a partner whom he adores. “My past is the person I am, I’m not ashamed of it. Every day I get up and no matter what, I choose not to consume because if I consume, I lose.”
He sends me off with a list of self-help books he likes and a hug. He’s going on a weekend trip with friends. Willie White has places to be.
“The Examination” by Brokentalkers feat. Willie White will be touring various locations across Ireland from March 31st. Visit Brokentalkers.ie for information and dates.
If you are affected by the issues discussed here, contact the Samaritans on freephone 116 123; samaritaner.org
https://www.independent.ie/life/its-not-a-fking-holiday-camp-willie-white-on-heroin-addiction-mountjoy-and-his-new-play-the-examination-41463251.html It’s not f**king holiday camp – Willie White on heroin addiction, Mountjoy and his new play The Examination