Gangland killings: ‘The children - God love them - tend to go quiet’
Fear and community tensions over murders taking toll on children in Dublin’s inner city
Mark Candon, principal teacher of Laurence O’Toole National School in Seville Place, Dublin, with pupils in the school library. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
Mark Candon has seen it before: the street shootings, the tension in the community and the quiet fear in the classroom.
“In the inner city, when stuff like this happens and there are stressful experiences, the children - God love them - tend to go quiet,” says Candon, principal of St Laurence O’Toole’s, a boys’ primary school a short distance from the site of the latest killing.
“Our job is to keep things as normal as possible. At this time of year there are school trips, football tournaments to finish up. You keep it simple and keep it regular.
“It’s a bit like a bereavement: part of what gets you through the day is the dull, methodical routine.”
Some children in the area are relatives or neighbours of those killed in a cycle of murder and crime; others have witnessed violent incidents first-hand.
Children are especially vulnerable to psychological trauma, which is why the State’s psychological services visited schools in the north inner city caught in the fallout of the series of recent murders.
“The role of schools is to ensure maintenance of a safe, secure and calm school environment and to monitor the behaviour of students,” a spokesman for the Department of Education said.
The shootings and their impact on children and the wider community once again expose society’s faultlines. Children, say campaigners, are growing up in an environment where the odds are stacked against them.
Unemployment rates are among the highest in the country, significant numbers are growing up in chaotic homes and drug-dealing is rife in the wider area.
“The wonder, for me, is that so few children get involved in this activity and reject it as an option,” says Candon.
Not given a chance
“It’s all about hope: do you feel engaged in a society or not? Sometimes you feel like you’re selling kids a pup: do your reading and writing and you’ll get your opportunities . . But for many of them, the system doesn’t give them a chance.”
The tail end of the boom was a rare moment where hope did appear on the horizon, he says.
There were jobs available for the first time in generations; the message that engaging with education would improve people’s prospects began to hit home. The collapse dashed those aspirations, he says, while cuts to community supports have had a heavy impact on the surrounding area.
Drug-dealing, for some, provides a route out of poverty and towards status, money and power.
Many lay the blame at the door of politicians and successive governments for abandoning the affected areas.
Former school principal in the area and ex-TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin, now a Labour Party Senator, says the criticism is understandable but some of it is misplaced.
“I go to meetings where there are sometimes more politicians than local people . . . Politically, it’s easy to say problems are down to a lack of gardaí or lack of investment,” he says. “But if you know the area and the issue, these issues are much deeper. We can’t hope to tackle these issues if we don’t first identify what exactly the problems are.”
He points to success stories such as an early intervention programme trialled in north Dublin that has dramatically improved outcomes for children’s IQ and behaviour.
The first in a series of results from the pilot project also show improved parenting and home-learning environment.
The Preparing for Life programme – which focused on intensively mentoring parents – worked in areas with low levels of school readiness, and worked with them from midway through pregnancy until their children started primary school.
Investment in disadvantaged schools, known as Deis schools, has helped protect schools from the worst effects of education cuts.
Results from schools in the most disadvantaged areas are encouraging: attendance rates have improved and reading and maths scores are better.
Candon points out, however, that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is not narrowing: middle-class schools are improving too, he says, so the goalposts keep shifting further away.
His fear in the latest controversy about the area is that the politicians, the media and society will wring their hands and call for action, but within a short period they will have moved on to the next issue.
“We are an incredibly reactive society,” he says. “But if this goes unaddressed, my fear is that is just becomes normalised. This isn’t happening in Foxrock - but it is happening here.
“There are reasons for that which we need to address. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and hope it goes away.”