Remembering Domhnall Mac Mathúna

Domhnall Mac Mathúna, who worked for some three decades developing Physical Education in Irish prisons, died in August after a long illness. He had retired from his post in Arbour Hill in early 2014, having been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer the previous year. Domhnall was a man of great ability, warmth and integrity, and a committed professional. Like others in his field, he refused to describe his work by the shorthand term ‘PE’, which might suggest simply recreation or diversion; for Domhnall it was always ‘Physical Education’, it involved growth in learning and well-being.


Born in Dublin, Domhnall lived most of his adult life with his wife Áine and their four children in Ráth Chairn, in the Meath Gaeltacht. The family spoke and lived the Irish language, it was his natural milieu. I recall train journeys with him where the recreational reading material he’d take from his bag would invariably be a book in Irish. An accomplished athlete in his youth, he trained and studied for two years at a California university.


For many years, Domhnall worked not just in Arbour Hill but throughout the prison system, as a ‘development worker’ for physical education. He was Secretary to, and the driving force behind, the Physical Education Development Group (PEDG). This group oversaw great progress in promoting physical activity, health and wellbeing, and the learning to underpin these, among those in prison. Educators who have come to work in prisons in the past decade may be unaware of the extensive national support and development structures within the Prison Education Service in the past, including many in-service opportunities. It also included half a dozen ‘development workers’ who drove initiatives and offered support in different areas of education across the prison system. Domhnall, as National Advisor on Physical Education and Sport, was one of those key people, and he worked passionately with teachers and gym officers, and their respective managers, to promote holistic Physical Education that would reach everyone held in prison.


The PEDG was a key part of that larger developmental structure and reflected the Council of Europe view that physical education, in prison as elsewhere, is an important segment of adult education geared to the whole person. The PEDG benefited from the committed involvement of two national experts in the field whom Domhnall drew into engagement with prisons: Dr Ann Hope (of UCG and TCD) and the late Michael Darmody, a Senior Inspector in the Department of Education and Science.


Domhnall, Ann and Michael spent several years visiting prisons, working with prison and educational staff to bring about Physical Education programmes that would be open to, and appeal to, all who are held in prisons; and that would adhere to the highest professional standards in classrooms, gyms and outdoor facilities. Something of the quality of thinking and the scale of ambition in these aims can be gleaned by looking today at two booklets produced by the PEDG, which were intended to guide this work: Physical Education in the Irish Prison System: The Challenges Ahead (2000) and Physical Education in the Irish Prison System: Best Practice Handbook (2006).[1] I expect both of these texts are still very relevant today. They are certainly a testament to Domhnall’s efforts to enable men and women in difficult circumstances to be able to participate in, and benefit from, high-quality education.


Sadly, Domhnall’s life was cut short in an untimely manner, and his family, Irish-speaking community, friends and work-colleagues lost a gallant man.


Kevin Warner, former National Co-ordinator of Education in Prison.

[1] Copies of both of these texts are still available and may be obtained from Áine Cowley, Head Teacher at Arbour Hill Prison,, phone (01) 6772149.

Every possible learning opportunity

This paper appeared in Advancing Corrections Journal (Edition #6-2018), the publication of the International Corrections and Prisons Association –

This topic was also discussed at the 14th annual Liam Minihan lecture, hosted by Irish Prison Education Association (IPEA), Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, 19 May 2016

Click here for full article download.


Re-imagining Imprisonment in Europe

Now Available . . .

Re-Imagining Imprisonment  in Europe

Effects, Failures and the Future

Edited by Eoin Carroll and Kevin Warner

€29.95 / pb / June 2014 / 304 pages / ISBN 978-1-908308-56-6


Countries throughout Europe are sending more and more of their citizens to prison, yet this has no correlation with crime figures. Alongside this, people are being sent to prison for longer. It appears too that an increasingly punitive approach to penal policy is being adopted throughout Europe by parties coming from both the left and right of the political spectrum.

This book stems from the Scribani international conference organised by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice which was held in Trinity College Dublin. The chapters analyse some of the key features of imprisonment throughout Europe today, including the political, social and economic forces shaping prison policy and practice. Authors explore how people in prison are treated and portrayed and what future imprisonment should look like in terms of policy, population size, prison conditions and most importantly, its use.

A unique publication, this book brings together contributors from across Europe who work in different capacities in and around national penal systems: prison and probation officers, prisoner rights advocates, teachers, academics and others. A number of chapters act as conduits for the voices and opinions of people in prison. What binds together the variety of authors in this book is an immense desire to re-imagine how we respond to people who fall foul of the law, recognising them as fellow members of our society, and responding more constructively and with greater humanity.


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John Lonergan


Kevin Warner and Eoin Carroll

The Future of Imprisonment in a Modern Democratic Society

Andrew Coyle

Re-imagining Imprisonment: Punishment Enough

Juliet Lyon

Why do we send people to prison? A View from Ireland

Peter McVerry

How to Reduce Prison Number: the Experience of Finnish Penal Policy

Tapio Lappi-Seppala

The Societal Impact and Role of Imprisonment: An Example from Solvenia

Dragan Petrovec and Mojca Plesničar

Can the Criminal Justice System Promote Desistance from Crime? Learning from Labelling

Shadd Maruna

Women and Prison: Is There a Need for a Different Approach?

Jean Corston

The Social and Economic Costs of Female Imprisonment: the Prisoners’ Point of View

Rafaela Granja, Manuela P. da Cunha and Helena Machado

Retribution or Restorative Justice: a False Dichotomy

Patrick Riordan

Articles by Others

  • CORMAC BEHAN – Prison Education, Rehabilitation and the Potential for Transformation. Full Article
  • Stephen Duguid – Cognitive Dissidents Bite the Dust—The Demise of University Education in Canada’s Prisons – Full Article
  • Kathy Boudin – Harvard Educational Review – Full Article
  • Maggie Deignan – Portraiture and Social Context – A Case Study – Full Article
  • Learning the Basics of How to Live’: Ex-prisoners’ Accounts of Doing Desistance – Vicky Seaman and Orla Lynch – Full Article
  • Sean Wynn – When the twain do meet – VOL 52 issue 1 – Full Article
  • Pam Lorenz – VOL 53 issue 2 article – Full Article
  • Mary Kett -Literacy Work Vol. 52 issue 2 article –  Full Article


The McCarthy report on public services failed to see that jailing fewer people and more use of open prisons would save millions and bring better results for prisoners and society, writes Kevin Warner.

This article appeared in the Irish Examiner on 03/08/2010.

Click here for the full article.

Negative, miserly, punitive

The proposed changes to gratuity payments to prisoners is contrary to Council of Europe’s rules and lets down those who want to avail of educational, training or counselling services, writes Kevin Warner

This article appeared in The Irish Examiner on 31 July 2012

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It’s 25 years since the Whitaker Report on our prison system was published. We are still grappling with the issues it dealt with because we did not take its advice, writes Kevin Warner

This article appeared in the Irish Examiner on 07/09/2010

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What’s the Difference between Ireland and Iceland? One Letter and a Decent Prison System …*

This paper identifies aspects of the prison system in Iceland that offer
positive models for Ireland. Although Iceland experienced a similar financial crash to Ireland, Iceland’s penal policies remain very much in tune with Nordic approaches, which have largely resisted the punitive impulses evident in English-speaking countries.

Comparisons between the prison systems of Ireland and Iceland reveal a much lower rate of incarceration, and more socially inclusive attitudes, in the latter. The paper examines, in particular, prison regimes in each country; on most criteria, conditions and the manner of treating people in prison in Iceland are seen to be significantly better than in Ireland. The thinking behind the different policies and practices is explored: concepts such as ‘dynamic security’, ‘balancing care and custody’ and ‘normalisation’ have much greater currency in the prison system of Iceland than in that of Ireland.

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