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art therapy

"When I was 15 I found €3,500 worth of heroin on the ground... and that was it for me"

We spent an afternoon at Merchant’s Quay Ireland, which provides assistance to drug users in Dublin.

MARTIN SITS IN a room in Merchant’s Quay Ireland and draws a picture.*

As he draws, he talks about his life.

At age 15 he had been kicked out of school and was studying on a FÁS course. One day, Martin says, he found €3,500 worth of heroin in a bag on the ground.

“And that was it for me. I didn’t even know what it was, I had to ask the older lads on the course.

They told me it was heroin… I went home and smoked it. Then the lads were saying to stick a needle in my arm, so I did.

Martin has spent over 20 years addicted to heroin, and has been in and out of drug programmes and rehabilitation schemes for much of his life.

Heroin was always my drug – always.

He spent four and a half years in prison for a series of robberies and was released in January 2015, clean. But it wasn’t long before he relapsed.

Back on heroin and living on the streets, Martin was given an ultimatum by his probation officer to enter on some sort of rehab programme.

Having been through many similar schemes before, he didn’t hold out too much hope for the future.

But this is how he finds himself on a weekday afternoon drawing a picture of a link chain with one link broken in the middle. Written above the broken link is the name “Laura”*.

Laura’s leaving us in September, so this picture is for her. It’s to show the breaking up of the group.

Martin is taking part in an art therapy class as part of Merchant Quay Ireland’s drugs stabilisation programme – a year-long course that works with drug addicts who are still using and helps to curtail their use, before they can be moved on to other schemes.

MQI3 The MQI day centre as seen from across the River Liffey. Cormac Fitzgerald / Cormac Fitzgerald / /

“Art therapy is my favourite class. The first class I came to was art therapy and that’s why I stuck with it,” he says.

I’ll never miss a day of it.

“And it’s because you’re very good at it too,” says Sarah-Jane, the teacher of the class.

Usually there are seven in the class, but today it’s just Martin and Laura.

Laura (35) also sits at the table. She first entered the programme three years ago and will soon graduate and move on.

Laura started injecting heroin when she was 25 and her partner was sent to prison. She spent years homeless and addicted to the drug, even living for a year in a tent in the Phoenix Park.

In September, she will start a college course in addiction studies, and hopes to come back to MQI as a worker at some stage.

She’s nervous about leaving, but feels like she is ready.

“I’m glad I came here. It’s scary leaving but it’s the right thing to do.

I don’t know where I would be without this place.

Merchant’s Quay Ireland

Merchant’s Quay Ireland (MQI) is an outreach and support service for drug users in Ireland. Its day centre is located on the quays in the south inner city.

It provides a number of hands-on outreach services for at-risk people, as well as hot meals daily and a Night Café service where people can come to sleep when the homeless beds in the city are full.

In November of last year, visited Merchants Quay’s Night Café to talk to staff and service users and to report on how the service ran.

MQI past

At the time, then-Drugs Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin had announced his support for decriminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs and was putting forward the idea of medically supervised injecting centres.

These are centres where users could go to inject drugs under the watchful eye of medical professionals, rather than down laneways or in public places.

“We’re absolutely in favour of [the centres] and have been for some time,” Mark Kennedy, the head of day services at the centre, said at the time.

Eight months later, Ireland has a new government and Drugs Minister. New drugs laws have recently been passed, but not ones to introduce the injecting centres.

The Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill passed through the Dáil last month, making illegal a swathe of new substances.

The original bill was split into two, and it’s expected the section that deals directly with injecting centres will be addressed by the Oireachtas before Christmas. Even so, it’s likely to be the end of next year before the first such facility opens.

“There was a sense of momentum back then,” says Kennedy, when we visit MQI again during the week.

But now it’s a matter of when – when are these centres going to materialise?

31/3/2012. Fine Gael Ard Fheis Drugs Minister Catherine Byrne pictured in 2012. Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Former Drugs Minister Ó Ríordáin, from Labour, has accused the Fine Gael-led minority government of dragging its heels on the issue, but Health Minister Simon Harris has insisted laws to allow for the centres will come in.

“We’re being told that it is going to happen very soon. The new minister (Catherine Byrne) is very committed to trying to make a difference in drugs issues,” says Kennedy.

“We would be optimistic that we will see these centres in Dublin.

I think people are worn out and tired of having the same old discussion about what we’re going to do about people who are drug users in the city centre who are injecting and dying on our streets.

MQI1 Mark Kennedy at the MQI centre during the week. Cormac Fitzgerald / Cormac Fitzgerald / /

Bustling afternoon

MQI is bustling on the afternoon visits, with workers and service users moving to and fro between the different rooms and facilities of the building.

Staff joke and man the desk at the reception, greeting service users who come in off the streets by name and keeping a watchful eye over the common area.

Signs on how to inject more safely and others warning of the dangers of new drugs decorate the walls. As do pictures and paintings and the charity’s motto.

MQI4 A sign explaining to drug users the proper way to inject (Date: November 2015). Cormac Fitzgerald / Cormac Fitzgerald / /

In the main common area, people sit around on circular tables chatting and eating food. One man lies with his head on the table sleeping, while staff move around the various groups, checking up on people and ensuring the centre runs smoothly.

The day centre offers a huge number of different facilities and services for people.

Showers, a doctor, hot meals, a dentist, a nurse, a needle exchange, various therapy and counselling classes are all on offer.

As are different recovery programmes and dedicated one-on-one social workers.

“It’s about getting outcomes for people coming in,” says Kennedy, as he walks through the building.

The vast majority of people coming here don’t want to be here. So we try to move people on to different services and better outcomes.

In the upstairs command centre of the building, key workers and outreach teams work out plans for clients and track service users’ progress.

“It’s like a 24 hour operation here,” says Edel Ambrose, who manages the evening services at the centre.

Edel says that the day is spent introducing new people to the services on offer at the centre, and linking in with other teams and organisations to make sure clients are being adequately cared for.

In the evening, a lot of the time it’s just sitting and chatting with people. People come in and they just need someone to talk to and listen to them.

MQI2 MQI workers in the computer room on the building. Cormac Fitzgerald / Cormac Fitzgerald / /

In the needle exchange room downstairs, Frank Byrne, who has worked at the centre for years, says that the afternoon is the busiest time.

“We would get about 30 people in every afternoon,” says Frank.

When people come in then we can talk to them and point them to other services. It’s an essential service for that.

Kennedy says that Merchants Quay performs about needle 23,000 exchanges a year. A lot the time, users just come in looking for new needles, but the service encourages them to bring in their used needles to be disposed of.

There are a number of other disposal measures for needles around the city, including a bin in nearby St Audoen’s Park,  specifically for needles.

download The contents of the drug bin in St Audoen's Park. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

While in the past heroin was the main drug used by people on the streets of Dublin, Kennedy says that it’s down 20% year-on-year. Taking its place are newer drugs and substances.

When we visited last year, we met users who had been injecting SnowBlow (also known as mephedrone), a new psychoactive substance that needed to be injected repeatedly and was in many respects more dangerous than heroin.

“We have seen many instances in the service where we see a serious deterioration is people’s physical and mental health as a result of these substances,” says Kennedy.

You see people self-harming, you see people getting paranoid, people becoming dependent on the substance.

On top of this, there has been an increasing prevalence of anabolic steroid users coming in for fresh needles. Kennedy says that these would not be your typical intravenous drug user, but rather gym goers and body and fitness enthusiasts.

In the corridor outside the needle exchange, a young homeless couple wait to see the GP.

“I’m here every week. It works to keep you clean,” says the young woman.

The couple had been living hostel to hostel, but have recently been put up in long-term homeless accommodation, which they thank the staff of Merchant’s Quay for.

“They’re always there for you. If you came they would ring the freephone for you to make sure you got a bed, and try to get you a place to stay,” says the woman.

MQI5 Mats laid out at Merchants Quay for people to sleep on last November. Cormac Fitzgerald / Cormac Fitzgerald / /

“The staff are great, they really are,” says the man.

It’s good to know that they’re there. Someone looking out for you.

Charity and therapy

Merchants Quay is a big operation. As well as the day centre, it has long-term rehabilitation and detox centres in Carlow and provides numerous other services.

It employs 91 staff, including three on salaries of close to €100,000 a year.

Not surprisingly, the recent Console scandal and negative press for charities has led to increased scrutiny of the services they provide, with donors wanting to know where their money is going.

“We have given detailed communication to all of our donors to explain to them how our board works and how our services work,” says Kennedy.

We are 100% compliant with good governance practices and we want our donors to know that.

Back in the art therapy class, Martin finishes his picture and talks about his plans for the future.

“20 years I’ve been on this shit. I’ve never done anything else” he says.

“I’ve been to a nightclub once in my life, I’ve only left the country once to go to rehab in England. My whole life has just been this.

I’m stopping now. Partly because I have no veins left, partly because I’ve worn it all out.

The teacher Sarah-Jane says that the current class have bonded well and help support each other. When one person feels like using, they contact someone else in the class who comes to meet them and talk them down.

“They’re there for each other and they support each other,” she says.

It’s a great thing to see.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of Merchant’s Quay Ireland service-users. For more information on Merchants Quay Ireland, visit

Read: Warning about ‘designer drug’ after spate of overdoses in Cork and Dublin

Read: “There are people dying injecting themselves. I had to get the injection that brings you back to life”

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