'You keep your mouth shut and your head down'


Most Sherriff Street residents remain tight-lipped about the recent shooting of Stephen ‘Madser’ Byrne. But those who speak say there’s a lot more to the area than bad news, writes  RÓISÍN INGLE

EARLIER THIS month one of the most denigrated localities in the country held its annual community week. The programme included a bonny baby contest, a “young sexy Gran” competition, musical chairs, dog shows, doll shows, historical walks and a pram race. You won’t have read about these festivities in any national newspaper. Sheriff Street in the North Wall has long been a byword for bad news. The national perception is that good things just don’t happen here.

The recent murder in the area only fuelled this perception, adding rampaging murderous gangs to the image of a locality bound up with joy riding, drug taking, violence and vandalism. Bunches of flowers are tied to railings near the spot where Dublin criminal Stephen Byrne, nicknamed Madser, was shot dead on Lower Sheriff Street on a recent Tuesday afternoon. He lay on the ground here for about 20 minutes in full view of locals, including children, before the ambulance came. The messages on the flowers say “I’ll miss you, Madser” and “you were too good for this world”. Two gardaí stand at the end of the street where a group of young people are reading the tributes.

Sheriff Street is a small road with a big reputation. Tucked in between the luxury apartments at Spencer Dock and the IFSC. Location wise, it is an estate agent’s dream. It’s in the heart of the rejuvenated docklands, just around the corner from the new Samuel Beckett Bridge and the national convention centre, mere minutes from Connolly Station, a stone’s throw from the IFSC and a short stroll to the centre of town.

This morning it is busy with children on scooters and parents picking their children up from creche. “I’d never move away from here, it’s a great place to grow up,” says one teenager.

In the 1960s, this corner of the North Wall was thriving with more than a dozen shops, six pubs and a post office. Now there are two shops and one pub. Back then the docks provided employment for most people in the area but the containerisation of the industry reduced the need for local workers and led to mass unemployment.

In the 1980s the IFSC was mooted as the economic saviour of the area. The Sheriff Street flats were demolished to make way for the modern private apartments but the much talked about job opportunities never materialised on the scale politicians promised.

The fear factor in the wake of the murder means it’s difficult to find people who are willing to talk about how this latest incident has impacted on residents or even what it’s like to live on a street that has been making bad news headlines for decades.

One woman walking along with a small dog in her arms doesn’t want to give her name but is keen to talk about what she sees as the unfair treatment of the locality.

“When something like this happens, everyone wants to know about Sheriff Street. We’ve had people down here asking questions ever since the shooting; there is this kind of trouble that’s happening all over the country but when it’s Sheriff Street, it’s like ‘oh yeah, that place, what else would you expect?’ ” she says, unable to hide her annoyance.

“We’ve just had a brilliant community week here, the school kids have been off on day trips all over the place. We’ve got more volunteers working in more projects than in any other area but nobody wants to know about any of that. It doesn’t fit with what people think of us.”

She mentions the boxing club, the community training centre and a range of after-school projects. She talks about Mrs McCarthy, a mother of 14 and a woman with a heart “the size of a tonne of bricks” who died the other day. Her funeral is being held this morning and she says the gathering will reveal far more about this community than the recent murder.

“You will not get a seat in that church,” she says pointing at the building where the service for the late Stephen Gately was held. “The whole community will be out to support that family. Everyone knows each other and helps each other and that to me is what Sheriff Street is really all about.”

At the St Laurence O’Toole Daycare Centre, a facility run by volunteers, one woman says that the area where she brought up her four sons is “tremendous”. “What isn’t nice, what is hurtful and embarrassing, is the fact that the action of a few bad apples mean people look down on us here. I’d like to shout from the roof tops about all the great stuff that happens in the area, the voluntary work, all the activities for children but nobody wants to listen,” she says.

And most people don’t want to talk. “You keep your mouth shut and your head down and you don’t ask questions,” says an older man eating his lunch in the centre when asked what it was like living here.

One person who could talk all day about Sheriff Street and the surrounding area is Gerry Fay. The shopkeeper and community activist grew up on the street

but now lives around the corner on Seville Place.

Fay is passionate about an area that was promised much by way of social and economic regeneration but which he believes was abandoned while shiny docklands developments sprouted up on all sides.

According to Fay, the locals have been left behind with only 57 of the almost 300 units of social and affordable housing, enshrined as part of the 1997 masterplan for the area, completed in the North Wall so far. A promised new school shows no sign of being built either, although a spokesperson from the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) said they would be meeting the Department of Education shortly to see how the project might be moved forward.

Fay says this stagnation is “sucking the life out of the community. Without adequate housing people are going to be forced to move away and take their children out of schools which is going to have dire consequences for the community”.

There is some good news. According to the DDDA the contract has been awarded for a 19,000 sq ft linear park along the banks of the Royal Canal from North Wall Quay to Sheriff Street. Work on the park is due to begin shortly.

And next month the sixth annual Luke Kelly night will be held on the street to celebrate one its most famous sons. Vast pots of traditional Dublin dishes, coddle and pigs’ feet, will be served.

“It’s an occasion to celebrate everything great about Sheriff Street present and past and there is a lot to celebrate despite what people may think,” says Fay.