'I've done so many bad things; I've done a lot of damage. . I am not proud of that'
Barry always knew he’d end up in trouble with the law. It never really felt like a choice. It was more like some kind of inescapable rite of passage.
His childhood was as disastrous as they come, he says. His dad, who did time in prison, died in his mid-30s of cancer. But he might just as easily have died of drugs or alcohol. His mother, left to rear five children in a flat off Hardwicke Street in the inner city, wasn’t able to cope.
“We ran wild as kids. My mam worked two jobs. Looking back now, I see she wasn’t really fit to be a mother . . . We didn’t get on, so I just ran away from home.” The first time he was arrested he had just stolen a burger and chips from McDonald’s in Phibsborough. He thinks he was about 11 years old. Soon, he was stealing to order. Older kids, even adults, were telling him what to nick from department stores.
“I was tiny. I’d be going around in my school uniform. I’d get away with anything . . . I felt important. You don’t really have a choice at that age, do you? What had I got to lose?”
He kept coming to the attention of gardaí. Soon social workers applied to put him in care. There were mixed results: he remembers a nice foster family but admits he was too wild. Life was soon a blur of broken care placements, emergency hostels or grim bed and breakfasts.
All the while he was clocking up charges and bench warrants. He had a few stints of detention in St Michael’s – an assessment and remand centre in Finglas for troubled youngsters – and Oberstown detention school.
As soon as he was out he was back at it again. He was stealing cars and jewellery, and inevitably getting caught. He was committing crime with the same muddled inadequacy that he and his friends handled their lives.
“You don’t really have a choice at that age,” says Barry, now in his mid-30s. “It seems like it’s the only way.”
The Children's Court in Dublin sees cases like this on a daily basis. Despite the glass roof and bright walls of the courtroom, there is little to lighten the overwhelming sense of gloom that hangs over many of the cases.
In 2005 research by the Irish Association for the Study of Delinquency found what many had suspected: the vast majority of children coming before Dublin’s Children’s Court were from the poorest parts of the city.
But poverty was just part of the picture. Most were from broken homes or had a parent with a criminal record. The majority had left school before the age of 16. Many had very poor literacy and, quite possibly, learning difficulties. The children for the most part had brushed up against the justice system years previously. In fact, 20 of the 50 children that featured in the study were known to gardaí before the age of 12.
Fr Peter McVerry, the social justice campaigner, calls them “disaster childhoods”: chaotic homes with drug-addicted parents, rife with violence and neglect, where the children might stay out on the street to avoid hassle at home.