Community: UCC’s Cork Prison students celebrate ACE art course achievement

“Your expression through art communicates, refreshes and inspires.”

Photography: Clare Keogh


These were the words spoken by President Patrick O’Shea as he presented parchments to students from Cork Prison, marking their achievement at the end of this semester’s UCC Adult Continuing Education (ACE) art course, on May 23.

A learning community partnership between ACE and the Education Unit, Cork Prison (staffed by Cork Education and Training Board,) the course has been running – with much success – since January 2017.

That success is reflected in the fact that 21 students participated across the three courses – ‘Looking at Paintings: Masterpieces from Irish Galleries’, ‘Masterpieces of Prison Literature’, and ‘A Little History of Cork’ – with several of them enthusiastically returning to the art studio for each module.

An idea initially conceived of by Dr Séamus Ó Tuama, Director of ACE, this art course was tutored by UCC lecturer James Cronin in collaboration with Thérèse Cooper, of the Education Unit, Cork Prison.

President O’Shea refers to UCC as a university ‘in the community, of the community and for the community’, and this mantra helped to shape James’ approach to teaching this course.

President O'Shea at the parchment ceremony.                  

“My guiding question was: how can we bring an authentic UCC learning experience to the education unit? First, I needed to learn from the experience of teachers here in the unit. Second, I needed to build circles of trust with the students themselves, which takes time,” he explains.

The success of James’ tutelage can be seen not only in the warm reception he receives from his class, and the visually stunning artwork created, but also in the positive mark the experience has left both on him and the students.

“These courses prompted conversations about the visual arts, but also on what it means to be a person to oneself and within the community. The artworks represent learning from these conversations. Students communicate their understanding of the learning enacted through their artworks, which have become artefacts of assessment,” he says.

The art studios within the education unit are hives of activity; the temporary homes of intricately-decorated ceramic creations and clay statues that are impressive even in their unfinished form. A semi-complete sculpture of a block of flats, a clay representation of a since-demolished childhood home, elicits nostalgic smiles and the swapping of tales and memories of youth among the students.

These courses prompted conversations about the visual arts, but also on what it means to be a person to oneself and within the community."

The pride attached to the final physical products of this course is clear, with artworks decorating every wall of the prison. Guests are greeted downstairs by the students’ unique take on The Last Supper, a magnificent mural featuring tattooed rappers in place of the traditional Apostles.

Framed abstract paintings line the corridor of Cork Prison. 

Meanwhile, striking abstract drawings are displayed in the heart of the prison, each one an artistic outpouring of an all-too-often overlooked personal narrative. One striking creation features a country cottage surrounded by lush greenery, mathematical symbols, and a hand reaching towards light through a barred window. The artist explains that each element represents an important part of himself: the house, a cherished childhood memory; the symbols, a talent for math; and the hand stretched through the window, freedom.

The care with which these artworks have been created speaks volumes about the importance of this course and learning experience to the students. In a broader context, the impact of the course is fully realised through the long list of guests in attendance at the parchment ceremony.

Attendants included Dr Séamus Ó Tuama, along with ACE colleagues Sinéad O’Neill and Regina Sexton, as well as Cork Prison Governors Patrick Dawson and Peter O’Brien, and Supervising Teacher of Cork Prison Education Unit Edel Cunningham. Tutors James and Thérèse were, of course, also in proud attendance.

Congratulating each individual, President O’Shea formally acknowledged their achievements as UCC students.

L-R: Dr Séamus Ó Tuama, Governor Patrick Dawson, James Cronin, President Patrick O'Shea.

“Every week you participated as students within our university community. The goal has been to introduce you to ideas about art and culture that can inspire your creativity in the art studio,” he said.

“Your expression through art communicates, refreshes and inspires. You are on a learning journey. May this journey be a lifelong adventure for each of you.”

The Education Unit, Cork Prison launched Inside Out, an exhibition of artwork by the students of this course on June 22, on Spike Island. For more information on Adult Continuing Education at UCC, please follow this link.

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