The eruption of violence on the streets of Finglas in recent months has an eerily familiar feel.
At different times over the last two decades, the north Dublin suburb has been Ireland's gangland murder capital. When local man Eamon Dunne ran Finglas' biggest drugs gang – until his own murder aged 34 in April 2010 – that gang was linked to 17 murders by some estimates.
Since the start of this year, Finglas has been back in the news for all the wrong reasons. Clashes between rival gangs there resulted in Ireland's first gangland murder of 2022 last weekend when James Whelan was gunned down in the early hours of Sunday morning.
The 29-year-old father of one was shot dead at about 4.30am on Deanstown Avenue in what gardaí fear will prove a major escalation in feuding that has been simmering for years.
Local sources who spoke to The Irish Times believe the fall-out from Covid-19 – including home schooling and amenities being shut – proved fertile ground for the main gang in Finglas to recruit young boys from the area, making for a very volatile situation.
'People will owe these guys money for drugs and then a date will be set for it to be paid. If it isn't paid by that date then it doubles. And if it still isn't paid, the person who owes the money will get a serious hiding'
In recent months there has been a marked increase in the number of high profile incidents linked to rivalries between three gangs in Finglas. One of them is led by a 27-year-old who has emerged as the most significant figure in a new generation of men and boys heavily involved in the drugs trade in the area.
His gang has effectively split into two factions, which are feuding with each other. James Whelan was a former close associate of the main gang leader until the gang split, with both men ending up on opposing sides. Though a third gang is also active in the Finglas area and has engaged in feuding, gardaí are most concerned about dispute between the two factions that once formed one gang.
In recent months, houses have been shot at and petrol bombed, with a grenade thrown at a house during another attack. Beatings have been meted out, including one case in which a man in his early 20s was bundled into the back of a car by a group of rival criminals, armed with hammers.
Some of these attacks have been recorded and video footage sent to the opposing side via social media and messaging apps. That constant provocation, by digital-native gang-aligned boys and young men, appears to have been ramped up as more young people have been recruited by the gangs in a period of vulnerability during the pandemic.
Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan said: "Because of Covid, the kids were out of school and out of their routine for long periods over a number of years and it was an opportunity to [be] lured into a different type of activity."
That often involved young children being used as couriers for drugs and the money generated by dealing, she said.
Ms Callaghan stressed there were “small numbers involved” and that “the vast, vast majority of people in Finglas generally are great and couldn’t do enough for you”.
However, some children preyed upon while having less structured supports during the pandemic were now being exploited by a “well organised” gang structures in Finglas.
She added drug dealing was “open and blatant and people go outside their doors and see this every day going on”.
Another local source agreed, saying as teenage boys were recruited they were then used to draw in even younger children into the same activity.
"Some of these older guys are not stupid," said the local source. "They'll know which kids are from the disadvantaged families. And they'll get them involved and pay them money so they can buy phones, runners, that sort of thing. You see them going around [with] the scooters and the e-bikes, anything that gets them between A and B really fast with the gear."
Other sources told The Irish Times they were aware of very young boys acting as look-outs for older gang members. This involved alerting older teens when gardaí were approaching or if rival criminals, or people who owed money for drugs, were spotted on the streets.
One Garda source believed the spike in violence in Finglas, and the emergence of a new group of boys and young men, was arguably a new phase for organised crime in Dublin after the Kinahan-Hutch feud.
“We had a massive effort for years against [the Kinahan and Hutch gangs] and while they were under pressure other established groups managed to get ahead and get bigger. And some of the younger guys saw a chance to grab a position for themselves,” said one Garda source.
“This is not unique to Finglas, but you can probably see it more clearly there.”
People from Finglas, or who are familiar with the situation there, also believe violent debt collection has escalated locally of late.
“People will owe these guys money for drugs and then a date will be set for it to be paid,” explained one local man. “If it isn’t paid by that date then it doubles. And if it still isn’t paid, the person who owes the money will get a serious hiding. Then these guys will go into the family home, attacking parents and anyone else in the house and smashing up the place demanding the money.
“And when it gets to that stage, the people don’t want to go to the guards. If your house was broken into in Finglas, people would go to the guards. But if you house is smashed to pieces and your family are all assaulted over a drugs debt, there’s too much fear to go to the guards.”
The 27-year-old gang leader orchestrating most of the violence appears to command fiercely loyalty from many of those around him because “he has put money in their pocket and they have status if people know they’re with him,” according to another source. The local community and local gardaí are now very concerned the James Whelan murder represents a step change in the nature of the feud.