The Dundon legacy
Limerick breathed a sigh of relief this week with the sentencing of John Dundon. But a decade of shootings and intimidation – and chronic social problems – have left the city scarred
John Dundon, who was jailed for life by the Special Criminal Court on Tuesday for the murder of Shane Geoghegan.
Mattie Collins at his home on Clarina Avenue in Ballinacurra Weston.
Shane Geoghegan (28), who was shot dead in a case of mistaken identity as he walked home on November 9th, 2008.
It’s a wet Thursday afternoon and Mattie Collins is standing at the doorway of his home on Clarina Avenue. It’s no more than 30 metres from Hyde Road, which for the past decade has been the stronghold of the Dundon-McCarthy gang and the nerve-centre for much of Limerick’s organised crime.
A decade of shootings, arson attacks and intimidation has left deep scars here in Ballinacurra Weston. Once proud homes now sit dead-eyed, with boarded up windows, peeling paintwork or collapsed roofs. Their owners either sold their properties – typically worth less than a luxury car – to the council or applied to be rehoused. Others simply fled. Dozens of homes have been demolished. Only overgrown grass and the ghostly remains of tarmac driveways and boundary walls remain.
“You have good people here. They’ve been trapped by circumstances,” says Collins. “Decent people. They ran for their lives.
“I remember it was seen as a kind of posh area when we moved in during the 1960s . . . beautiful families, lovely homes.”
In better days, 75 houses lined his avenue. People poured their hearts and souls into making their homes and gardens beautiful, he says. In recent years, 36 homes have been demolished on the surrounding streets. Nine are boarded-up.
Fear has stalked these streets for years, the kind of gnawing terror that makes people keep their heads down, their mouths shut and their eyes closed. But today there is a sense of relief.
Dundon joins his three brothers – Wayne, Dessie and Ger – in prison. His conviction comes after a period of sustained success by the Garda in placing high-profile gang members behind bars. In all, 30 criminals involved in Limerick’s drug wars are in prison, while twice that number have served time in recent years.
The city is now a much safer place. Six years ago, more than 100 shootings were recorded in a 12-month period. Last year, there were fewer than 10. Organised criminal activity on the ground has also dropped dramatically.
Tougher antigangland laws, a shift in policing tactics and better resources have all played a part in turning the tide against a rise in criminality, which for a time seemed to be out of control.
The fact that the Dundon gang appears to have cracked from within is hugely significant. The shells of burnt-out or abandoned houses are testament to the power of criminal gangs. But the evidence of April Collins, a former partner of Ger Dundon, along with her sister and her sister’s partner – a first cousin of the Dundons – has broken that spell.
Public representatives say it is a sign that people are willing to stand up and give evidence. Time will tell. No one is celebrating just yet. True recovery for the city’s most deprived communities will require sustained work.
It will hinge on fully regenerating neglected areas and offering meaningful opportunities for people who have had little reason for hope. It is the kind of work that could take generations to complete. In the meantime, public spending cuts and thwarted ambition loom large on the horizon for a new generation.
But, for now, there are reasons to feel relieved, says Collins. The fear that convulsed neighbours such as his in Ballinacurra Weston has eased. “It’s been happening for a couple of years now. The city is getting back on its feet. Things are better. The fear around here has been alleviated. It’ll be nice to see the city in a better light, now.”
The decline of Limerick’s most deprived communities isn’t explained just by the sad and inevitable legacy of history. There is a sense of neglectful, or indeed deliberate, public policies by local and national government that squandered opportunities.
These pockets of the city have some of the highest concentrations of social housing anywhere in the State. They have the highest level of deprivation. The extent of neglect was a shock for people such as John Fitzgerald, the former Dublin city manager, when he toured the areas in 2007.
“I knew the problems were serious, but it was probably worse than anything I had seen,” says Fitzgerald, who is originally from Limerick. “People were living a short distance from the city centre, but it was extraordinary how fearful and threatened they felt. It had tortured a lot of people. Most had paid their taxes, done their duty to society and had retired to a place that was in deep trouble.”
The Fitzgerald report led to the establishment of Limerick Regeneration and the unveiling of an ambitious plan to transform the sprawling local-authority housing estates of Moyross, Southill and other parts of the city.
The plan involved demolishing up to 2,500 houses, creating two new town centres, co-ordinating responses to social and education problems and, ultimately, breaking the cycle of disadvantage that has gripped these neighbourhoods.
Five years later, progress is slow. The economic downturn hit shortly after the plans were launched and much of the money earmarked for the €1.6 billion project dried up. Homes were demolished, but just a handful of new developments have been built.
For those involved in regeneration, there is a sense that recession hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. Putting up new homes, without tackling underlying social problems, is a recipe for disaster, says Fitzgerald, who has since moved on.
“We were under a lot of pressure to start building houses. That used to drive me mad. But that’s the easy bit. Knocking down homes, putting up new ones. You’ve got to be insane to start that off without tackling the underlying issues. Otherwise, it will go the way of other new homes, which ended up being destroyed after a few years.”
Much of that work is quietly taking place in places such as the Moyross Community Association. It’s normally a hive of activity, but the young people involved in the summer camp project – an eight-week programme of activities for 30 seven- to 12-year-olds – are on an outing.
“This kind of social stuff is making a real difference,” says Geraldine Clohessy, a community development worker who lived in Moyross for more than 20 years. “It’s teaching them about responsibility, discipline . . . Otherwise, they’d be just hanging around during the summer months.”
Above St Munchin’s family resource centre, in Ballynanty, are high-quality preschool, homework and afterschool clubs. Older children can take part in the “follow your dream” project, which encourages young people to fulfill their potential. Other programmes are aimed at giving teenagers a taste of the college environment, along with more practical courses in welding and motorbike maintenance.
But reversing neglect like this is slow-burning, generational work. The scale of the challenge of recovery is daunting. Dr Niamh Hourigan, a Limerick-born sociologist, carried out an indepth community-level study of fear and feuding in the city between 2007 and 2010.
Hourigan spoke to dozens residents in the area, including mothers who consciously decided to raise their children tough to enable them to survive; children who worked hard to acquire the mannerisms of hard men; and serious players in gangland feuds whose stress disorders are comparable to those of soldiers in war zones.
Her study quotes Sharon, a local resident: “The gardaí were down making an arrest and they had the squad car down and as usual, the kids were up kickin’ the tyres and chattin’ to them and I heard one garda say to this young fella about five sayin’, ‘So what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and he turned to him, cool as you like, and said, ‘I want to kill one of those f*ckin’ Reds.’ ”
“Early intervention is crucial,” says Hourican. “I think things have improved a lot because of regeneration work . . . If you can hold young kids back from sliding into the [criminal] lifestyle, it will pay dividends.”
She worries that cuts to public spending will threaten these projects and that history is in danger of repeating itself. The progress made over recent years, she says, is fragile, and political will and resources are needed to keep regeneration as a priority issue. “Cuts to things like welfare and resource teaching hit these communities very hard,”she says.
“The success of early intervention and diversion schemes could unravel very quickly and end up creating the same conditions that allowed criminal gangs to thrive... The turnover of a new generation is very quick. Within five years, you’ll be looking at the emergence of a whole new generation.”
The issue of the regeneration programme is hotly debated locally and has no shortage of skeptics. Some of them have formed Limerick Regeneration Watch to chronicle what it sees as broken promises, missed opportunities and a lack of meaningful consultation with the community.
“The past five years have actually resulted in living conditions worsening for many residents, yet we are told that regeneration is being done for us,” says Cathal McCarthy, chairman of the group, who lives in Ballinacurra Weston. “We have no say in the decisions that affect our lives and our ‘representatives’ on the residents fora were not elected by the residents.”
A spokesman for the Office of Regeneration insisted it has been consulting communities and that these views will feed into a revised implementation plan to be launched shortly. “The focus of the programme has now moved to the new build of modern, well-designed, energy-efficient homes in the communities, and the refurbishment of houses to be retained,” a spokesman said.
McCarthy says one of the most apalling features of the programme is the depopulation of the area. More than 1,000 families have been relocated, he says, which is undermining the community and crucial services, such as schools.
While some local authority tenants were relocated to other estates in the city or county, home owners were given the option of either waiting for their new house to be built; selling their home to the council at the “market” rate – typically €30,000 – to €80,000 depending on the area; or giving up their home in exchange for €35,000 and rented accommodation elsewhere in the city.
The schools in some areas – such as St Enda’s postprimary school, the only secondary school in the southside regeneration area – are due to close. Numbers in recent times have fallen as low as 127 pupils.
Numbers have also been falling at primary schools, new figures show. In 2007, Corpus Christi National School, in Moyross, had 272 pupils; now it has 178. It’s a similar story at Our Lady of Lourdes National School, Rosbrien, down from 224 to 144 pupils; and at Southill Junior School, down from 71 to 51 pupils.
McCarthy says the voices of residents are being ignored and describes the regeneration as a “State-sponsored land grab”. He says he and others in the organisation have been dismissed by authorities in a whispering campaign as being linked to republican or fringe political groups. McCarthy insists he has no political affiliations. “We just want to be heard. We want to have an input into how our communities are run. Is that too much to ask?”
It’s not just the city’s deprived communities that need help. Limerick as a commercial centre faces real challenges. The city has one of the highest proportion of vacant shops of any town or city in the country, at 15-20 per cent, depending on various studies.
For business owners like Kevin Hogan, who runs Melt Chocolate Cafe, it’s about survival. Various plans to beautify the city are taking place, such as pedestrianising streets and laying down stone paving. But it makes little difference without shoppers.
“The authorities need to make rates cheaper; make parking more accessible and affordable,” he says. “It’s tough for the businesses left. The more shops you have, the more people you have.”
This week it was announced that Marks & Spencer is to set up a large outlet. It is good news, bringing hundreds of jobs, but the plan is to locate on the outskirts of the city.
Eoghan Prendergast, of the newly established Limerick Marketing Company, accepts it’s not ideal, but says a new plan, Limerick 2030, offers a more coherent blueprint than what went before in developing the city and surrounding areas.
The joining of the city and county councils will help to market the city in a more effective and collaborative way. Ambitious plans are under way to develop the riverfront, attract new business into the city and reverse a tide of decline, he says. “Manchester took a similar approach in the 1990s and turned things around. Now, it’s the second most popular city in the UK for international visitors. It’s an example we intend to follow.”
This week’s progress, while positive, is just a milestone on a much longer road to recovery for the city and some of its embattled residents.
That recovery will be a daunting and tentative process. All agree that providing meaningful alternatives for young people who see little option outside of drugs as a way of life will be crucial.
Maintaining the momentum, political will and resources involved in the regeneration of Limerick will be crucial, too. Trying to get State and community agencies to work together is another constant challenge.
An end to violence, and a rejuvenated city, would be a fitting testament to Shane Geoghegan. His aunt, Margaret Walsh, sat through much of the trial, along with the rest of the family. She was the driving force behind the “pitch for Shane”, in which 20,000 terracotta figurines were moulded by people around the world to show solidarity with the family.
“When I think of Shane now, I think of a man who brought a smile to everyone who knew him,” she told The Irish Times. “You couldn’t be in bad form around him. He’d make a joke, and you’d forget your troubles.
“You know, we think of him all the time – hundreds of times a day. Shane was every mother’s son. It just happened to be him. Limerick must never forget him, or what happened. Losing Shane was too high a price to pay. We have to stick up for the community and never let anything like this happened again.”