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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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'The gang saved my life. If it weren’t for them lads, I’d be dead by now'

A young gang member speaks about why he joined a gang – and the impact it had on his life.

Shane Dunphy

MIKEY (NOT HIS real name) is dressed in a designer tracksuit. His hair is cut close to his head, the sides shaved in an intricate zig-zag pattern, and there is some kind of complex tattoo showing above his collar-line.

He refuses to tell me his age, but a local youth and community worker informs me the lad is 16. Before meeting him, I needed to check that his story was true. According to people in this area, it is. As I sit before him in the lushly decorated sitting room of the house the council rents to his mother, though, he appears closer to 14. But appearances can be deceiving.

Mikey informs me that he wants to set a few things straight. When I ask him what about, precisely, he sits forward, his elbows on his knees, and looks me directly in the eye.

“About the gangs and all,” he says. “I read your stuff. You’ve been saying in your articles that they ruin people’s lives.”

I nod. “It seems to me they do.”

“You’re wrong,” he says, and I can hear the anger and passion in his voice.

“I’m listening,” I tell him.

“The gang saved my life. If it weren’t for them lads, I’d be dead by now.”

“They protected you from people who wanted to hurt you?” I prompt him.

“Sorta,” he agrees, and I can see he is struggling to find the words. “But it’s more than that. They gave me a life. Y’know what I’m trying to say?”

I suggest he starts at the beginning.

Childhood

Mikey’s early childhood could have been written by Charles Dickens. One parent has myriad psychiatric problems and the other is an alcoholic.

“She never knew what to do with me, and he was evil – when he was drunk, which was most of the time, he used me as a punch-bag. When I was little, all I can remember was being afraid. Hungry and afraid.”

He tells me school was an escape – his teachers did their best, but he found learning difficult and was bullied for being small and dirty and never having cool clothes or the right runners.

Teachers can’t be there all the time, and I did get a rough time from some of the other kids. But it was still better than being at home. The school made sure I had a lunch, and it was warm. That was something to look forward to.

All this changed when Mikey made the move to secondary education. Lost in a bigger crowd with a wider social spectrum, he floundered. And the bullying got worse.

“I got the shite beat out of me a couple of times by bigger kids and that was that. I stopped going in. Me parents didn’t care, and I don’t think the school did either. No one came looking for me, anyway.”

Mikey tells me that he had an epiphany on the evening of his 14th birthday.

“I was sitting at home, all alone. Me Da was out getting drunk and I don’t know where me Ma was. I was cold and I was starving. The TV was the only company I had, and it was broken so that everything on it was a funny colour. I suddenly thought: what if this is it?

What if it never gets any better than this? It was the scariest feeling. I actually started bawling. I knew then and there that the only person who was going to help me was me.

‘I just needed a way in’

Mikey didn’t sleep that night. By the time the sun came up, he had a plan.

“There was a lad who lived two roads up from me. He was in one of the gangs – not high up, but everyone knew he was involved. He always had good clothes, he drove a car and people respected him. I went over and hung around outside his house. He came out around lunchtime, and I walked right up and said I wanted a job. I told him I would do anything, didn’t matter what it was. He could ask me to clean his shoes if he wanted, I just needed a way in.”

Mikey pauses, clearly moved by the memory.

“He looked me up and down, and asked me when was the last time I had something to eat. I told him I couldn’t remember. He says to me: ‘Come on – let’s get some lunch and then I’ll give you an interview.’ And I never looked back. My life changed in every way after that.”

Mikey is vague on what jobs exactly he has done and continues to do for this organisation.

“I’m not stupid. I’ll say we operate with a loose interpretation of the laws of the land, and that many of my associates are known to the gardaí. Does that explain it for you?”

I ask him about the levels of violence that seem to be escalating in gangland over recent months – the shootings and murders.

“It’s a fact of life,” Mikey responds. “You want to do this, you have to be prepared that you’ve only got so long before you have to get out. You stay too long, you’re going to wind up dead. I knew that when I was 14. I was happy to take the risk.”

I suggest that it is a heavy toll to pay.

“This house right here,” he says, surveying the room – deep-pile carpets, a wide-screen television, several games consoles, framed posters of rap artists on the walls. “It’s the same one I’ve always lived in, this is the room I was in when the night of me 14th birthday. I bought all this stuff, and these days I pay the rent and I make sure food is on the table. Me Da knows not to come back here. My friends have warned him to keep away. He’s smart enough to know what’s good for him.”

I ask about his mother.

“I had a room decorated for her upstairs. She’s got her own telly. She stays up there, mostly.”

“So this is what you dreamed of?” I ask him. “You’re warm and you’re fed and you’ve got respect?”

He nods.

“And you’re not scared anymore?”

“I’m not scared of anything.”

“Everyone is afraid of something,” I suggest.

He pauses for a moment.

“If you’re asking me do I want to get shot, of course I don’t. But you don’t think about that – there’s no point.”

I put it to him that these individuals earned his loyalty by feeding him and stopping his Dad from hurting him. I see that mist falling behind his eyes again, just for a moment.

“There are people I work with who are tough and maybe even a bit mean,” he admits.

“But none of them freak me out as much as my Da did. Am I scared sometimes? Yeah, I suppose I am. But not nearly as much as I was before I was in the gang. Like I said, the gang gave me my life. That’s what I want you to tell people: if the gang hadn’t have been there, I really believe I’d be dead by now. They made my life better, and that’s all there is to it.”

I ask Mikey how many people’s lives his gang has ruined.

“Life is hard,” he shrugs. “This is the only thing that was there for me. I didn’t make the rules, I just did what I could. No one came crying when I was in a bad place, so I don’t cry for anyone else.”

As I drove away, I wondered how much blame society had to shoulder for the man Mikey had become.

All names have been changed

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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