The true story of Limerick

Wed, Mar 23, 2011, 00:00

We’re used to the familiar narrative of deprivation, family feuds, organised crime and its ‘stab-city’ reputation – but what are the real reasons Limerick has become our most distressed city?

WHEN GAVIN AND Millie Murray were horrifically burned in their mother’s car in Moyross in 2007, what followed was predictable. The media swamped the city. They were looking first for the gory details; second, for the connections that would lead them comfortably back to the familiar narrative of feuding gangsters, feral children and torched houses.

For decent residents and community workers who saw the complex reality day in and day out, it was desperately familiar.

Locals had long since grown accustomed to macho media types parachuting in from Dublin and being escorted through the hotspots by authority figures. Before leaving, they would pose for a picture against a burnt-out house. Later, that photograph would accompany a story with the requisite headline along the lines of: “How I faced down Stab City Gangsters”.

Does Limerick deserve that image? How much of the damage is the work of an excitable media that sticks to the rule: if it bleeds, it leads? Or is Limerick actually the most distressed city in the country? Why have its feuding families become notorious world-wide? Why, despite its integration into the global economy, is it the most socially segregated of the four provincial cities? Why has it the highest proportion of local authority housing of any Irish city, as well as the highest rate of suicide, self-harm and marriage breakdown?

Dr Niamh Hourigan, a 38-year-old, Limerick-born sociologist, suggests that rigid class divisions occur where there is no university (Limerick had none until 1989), leaving few routes out for the most able. In Limerick, people turned their skills into trade union activity.

Combine that with a culture that has always been strongly masculine and factor in the story of the returned Irish migrants from British sink estates, bringing with them a tougher culture of ethnic conflict and a markedly more aggressive attitude to authority and to informal neighbourhood conflict resolution.

In Britain, a neighbour’s complaint about a child’s behaviour carried a serious threat of eviction, says Hourigan. Back in Ireland, the migrant families responded to such complaints as if they carried the same threat, with reciprocal threats and intimidation rather than any attempt to address the child’s behaviour.

But the feuding culture was already in place in the 1970s and 1980s and the participants had gained fighting skills and weaponry that served them well when the drugs boom hit in the 1990s. “Feuds and drugs-related organised crime – they’re kind of cousins really,” she says.

Hourigan is no ivory tower academic. She spent three years researching fear and feuding on Limerick estates by interviewing on the estates, talking to the children of feuding families and child gang participants, to mothers who consciously decided to raise their children “tough” simply to enable them to survive, to children who have worked hard to acquire the mannerisms of “hard men”in order to survive; to the “serious players” in feuding whose stress disorders are comparable to those of soldiers in war zones. One man who grew up in a feuding family describes it as “like growing up in a friggin’ war-zone”.

After dark was primetime for attacks, so he would spend all night looking out the windows at the back while his brother did sentry duty at the front. “I saw one of my family being shot in the end . . . No child should have to see that,” he says. A daughter of a feuding family says she could never relax: “I’ve never known anythin’ else. I’m used to fellas goin’ mad, I’m used to hidin’s, I wish I wasn’t but I am . . .”

Did Hourigan grow to despise the gangsters or to understand them as she learned more about them? “I’m afraid of them. They have earned my respect but it’s a respect based on fear.”

Her “respect” is reflected in the absence of real names in this book. All sources are heavily disguised. The feuding families are referred to as the Blues and the Reds.

The odd thing is that the offspring quoted above are the privileged ones in this scenario, core to the serious players’ families, unlike the foot-soldiers. Some of whom gain a kind of second-class access through extended family kinship; some are from deeply disadvantaged families and are already accustomed to neglect, abuse and violence; some are sucked in through addiction.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the child gang participants, the “most distinctive stratum”. They range in age from three to 14, although Hourigan suggests that residents suffer more fear and trauma on a daily basis from their behaviour than from the more serious activities of feuding gang members.

Some of the children’s activities, such as knocking on doors and throwing stones, could be mistaken by authorities for “play”. The neighbours who are the targets are not chosen at random, however, but on the basis of their vulnerability or the likelihood of their obstructing gang activities.

These children probably have little understanding of the consequences of their actions, says Hourigan, though they appear to recognise their role in the informal power network that governs the streets and get a certain thrill from this. But it’s the “addictive excitement” generated by antisocial behaviour that appears to be the most significant reward for child gang members.

The significance of family, blood kinship, status, respect and reputation cannot be over-estimated.

As Roy Collins, who was murdered in 2009, found, witness protection is a puny obstacle to the power and menace of the family-based gangs.

To illustrate that overwhelming sense of fear, Bill tells a story of how a long queue had formed at the local barbers on a Saturday morning, “a rugby day”, when one of the Blues walked in. “He’s got a bullet-proof vest on and he says ‘I’m next’. So without a word, everyone else gets up and leaves. One auld fella had to go home and change. He wet himself, he was so scared.”

This world view of criminal family gangs has been markedly internalised by local residents, she notes. Ann, a single mother, observed: “You know what they really want is for you to be down on yourself, so that you don’t believe you can have any other life. They want you to keep your head down and just put up with it, even if there are gunshots comin’ in your window and you’re lyin’ on the floor with your kids, even if they’re all shoutin’ and roarin’ at three in the morning and your baby is cryin’ an’ upset.

“What they want is for you to keep your head down and just shut the f*ck up and accept that that’s your life, full stop.”

Self-esteem can only be a threat to the gangs’ dominance. Central to the process are the physical conditions in the parts under the criminal gangs’ control: litter strewn everywhere, terms such as “scum”, “filth” and “pigs” graffitied on walls, boarded-up, derelict and burnt-out houses.

Tony described how his friend Pete had been tormented by children and lived in squalor, until one day he decided to clean up his house. He painted the front, cleared out the dogshit and mess, and fixed the gate.

“That night, he got his windows put in for it. Smashed the whole f*ckin’ lot, the bastards. They just didn’t want him getting ahead of himself or givin’ anyone else ideas.”

An unapologetic fringe member of a gang unwittingly confirmed Ann’s impression, explaining that they “just want people to shut the f*ck up and let us do our own thing. If they draw the shades [gardaí] down on us, they’ll know all about it. The guards are just another f*ckin’ gang”.

Yet Hourigan points to an odd ambivalence in residents’ attitudes. “These families always provided the community with what they needed,” said Eileen. Another took pride in attending such a family’s special occasions. But the same residents are often shocked to discover that the drugs trade in Limerick is now valued at an estimated €30 million, adds Hourigan.

In this context, the book offers poignant reminders of the optimism, stability and community leadership that Moyross and Southill enjoyed in the 1970s, despite the cultural tensions between the rootless families from the slum tenements and securely employed low-income workers such as nurses and ambulance drivers.

That all changed in the following years, as Hourigan explains. “What happens in the 1980s is that a lot of that industrial working-class leave, because of the £5,000 grant made available to tenants to move to the private housing sector.

“In the 1990s, you see drugs. And most of the people buying those drugs are middle-class people. And it suddenly gives all those people who are poor and who have gained certain skills through local feuds, the opportunity to make lots of money. And they take it.”

Meanwhile, drugs were in the ascendant, with those in the horse trade playing a pivotal role in establishing contacts with national and international drug networks. The gangs marked out their territory, forcing residents out of housing blocks with a one-way-in, one-way-out system.

It was around that time, says Hourigan, “that all the tribunals start to kick off”.

This is a recurring theme for her: “how wrongdoing at the higher echelons totally undermines civic virtue . . . Of course, one should look in particular at criminal activity, but nobody in Ireland has ever been convicted for insider trading”.

She is not making excuses, merely attempting to explain the context in which “choices” are made, as it was explained to her. “Why should someone in Irish society be good? People involved in crime are not stupid. They know what’s going on.

“Their understanding of Irish society is this: Irish society is governed by a set of rules and institutions. And the way in which those rules and institutions are set up, it favours certain people over others, and the people it doesn’t favour at all are them.

“They would argue – if you look at what’s happened in the past two years, in terms of banking and political expenses – you can see that people who benefit from how these rules and institutions are set up, don’t keep the rules. So the question is then, why should I keep the rules?”

She is quick to acknowledge the successes: the community policing initiatives, the Garda’s ERU (Emergency Response Unit), the surveillance evidence. Like almost everyone with an interest in these estates, including the residents, she has enormous respect for the work of the nuns and priests who base themselves in the communities and are perceived as separate from the institution of the Catholic Church.

But equally, she points to the intractable question of the child gang members and the powerlessness of the authorities regarding children under 12, not least the fact that social workers still work from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, leaving gardaí and hospital staff without access to information, still less the practical assistance of a social worker who knows the family. “These are child protection issues and we are in a scenario where at the very least, we need a baseline 24/7 service. Just one person who sits beside a filing cabinet all night, which is what they used to have in the UK in the 1970s, so someone could get Jimmy’s file out and say this is the story.”

In the absence of legal sanctions and of any evidence that taking a child into care improves outcomes, her solution to Jimmy’s behaviour is to put strong, male leaders on the streets, who are prepared to work nights and weekends, and who will simply take Jimmy home when he is misbehaving.

It’s about breaking the habit, Hourigan says. And if he leaves the house again? “He takes Jimmy home again. And again, and again and again. It’s boundary-setting. It’s what Supernanny does.”

And, she notes, these are relatively small areas with small numbers of people.

She points to the feminisation of the social care professions and the urgent need for masculine figures to lead young men, “who are all the time trying to prove their masculinity and concerned about their masculinity. If they have a man who is masculine and reaches out to them, that’s very powerful for them.”

At the root of it, much of Limerick’s woes are caused by drugs that are consumed mostly by the young, middle classes. Her solution is to make it an ethical issue.

Just as animal rights activists succeeded in making fur deeply unfashionable, shouldn’t it be possible to make even more profound links between exploited children, destroyed societies and middle-class recreations?

And no, despite all she has seen, she could never support the decriminalisation of drugs. “Over a 14-year period lecturing 18- to 25-year-olds every week, I’ve seen significant increases – I would say a 400 to 500 per cent increase – in psychiatric illness and depression among the student group, which I think is directly linked to their drug use . . . But the ethical consequences of drug consumption of middle-class users is something we really need to talk about.”


Understanding Limerick: Social Exclusion and Change, edited by Niamh Hourigan, is published by Cork University Press