Tony Gielty was one of Scotland’s hardest criminals. Deeply immersed in gang culture, he was a man who thrived on violence. At the age of 17 he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. At 19 he was a thug, terrorizing inmates and prison staff alike.
Anthony Gielty is the same man, but profoundly different – and he hates the very name Tony. Because while he was in prison he had a encounter with a priest that changed his life. And the change went all the way down: he had a searing and traumatic insight into the sort of person he’d become, and an equally powerful experience of God’s love and forgiveness.
He starts his book Out Of The Darkness (Monarch, £8.99) with a quotation from Mark 5 about the uncontrollable demoniac named Legion, who “saw Jesus from afar” and “ran and fell down before him”. And the first line of his ‘acknowledgments’ section isn’t thanks to his wife, or his editor, but this: “I acknowledge the terrible damage, pain and injustice of my evil actions. The bitterest years of my life could never atone for the damage I have caused.”
Reading his book and talking with him is deeply moving. At its heart is a discovery that life is not meaningless, but that God offers pardon, peace and purpose.
The incident that set Gielty on his downward path came early. He was only 11 when a chance remark of his mother’s about the meaninglessness of life overwhelmed him. He became convinced of the futility of existence, and sought distraction in violence. He tells Christian Today: “I was filled with despair. I looked at life from the cold outside. I believed you may as well get what you can, while you can.
“Buying into this narrative led to more and more hatred, of myself and others. I was consumed with violence and early on.”
He became a fighter, and a good one, living by the code of Glasgow’s gangsters. In prison, he was uncontrollable: the slightest thing would set him off.
What began to change him was an encounter with a priest, Fr John MacFadden, who came to see him in his cell. Gielty tells Christian Today: “I’ll never forget that day. He was very familiar with people like me. I knew he was something different – there was something of Christ in him. There was kindness, love and peace.”
In his book he writes that there was something “deeply disturbing” about MacFadden: there was “an unapproachable kindness in his eyes – eyes that were not telling me I was subhuman or heaping on me the familiar judgment I was accustomed to and deserved”.
That moment was a significant breakthrough. But the pathway from darkness into light wasn’t smooth. He had habits to break, and he was still in the worst place imaginable for a new disciple, surrounded by temptations to revert to his violent ways. He writes about a savage attack on his friend, which he was honour bound to avenge. “Everything in me said I should back my friend up – but I knew Christ was offering a different way of life,” he recalls. “It was between forgiveness and hate – a battle between the two. It was tough.”
He writes movingly of the moment he become convinced God had forgiven and freed him: “An undeniable power had entered my life, and with it a great confidence and trust in the mercy of God. Those dark doubts could no longer touch me.”
As a Catholic, Gielty was inspired by the story of a saint, Louis-Marie de Montfort (born 1673). He had a passionate devotion to the poor and ill, and lived a life of total austerity and commitment. As Gielty sees his previous life now: “I was driven by a strange quest for valour. St Louis-Marie helped me see that story and that valour in a different way altogether.
“I even wanted to join the French Foreign Legion – it was the attraction of a new identity and a forgotten past.
“But St Louis-Marie showed valour for God in overcoming enemies – it was real, it was the ultimate test. It was true courage. I started to see that the code I’d lived by was nonsense.”
On his release from prison Anthony joined a strict Catholic order. He felt he didn’t fit in, and ended up at an evangelical theological college – the International Christian College in Glasgow. He describes that as like “coming home”: “I seemed to be surrounded by people who were passionate about the gospel and reaching others with the message of salvation.” While there he met his wife Anna, with whom he now has two children. He works with an organisation The Haven in Kilmacolm, Inverclyde, with men coming out of the gang culture and with people with drug and alcohol problems. He’s also a prison mentor, going behind bars again to help people whose needs he knows only too well.
He hasn’t forgotten the damage he’s done. But: “As I look back, I have to do it through the lens of the cross,” he says. “I have horror, and deep sorrow and shame – I often have to bring them back to the cross. But I am thankful to Christ.”
And now? “I’m very happy. I’m married with two young sons and I am so grateful for my life. Even to know that life has a meaning.
“Everything is charged with hope, not with despair.”