The Weston Front
Between 2007 and 2016, it was easier to recruit a hundred consultants that it was to recruit ten social workers in Limerick City. Despite al the fanfare, the multi-billion euro 'Limerick Regeneration' programme would come and go. For the young people of Ballinacurra Weston, one of the most marginalised communities in the state, it was a time of extremes. I know I only ever saw the half of it.
Mark lived about fives minutes walk from where I worked. He was one of the best underage athletes in the country and there wasn’t an inch of space on the family mantelpiece for all the trophies. During my time in Limerick, he would go on to be crowned both European and world champion in his field. There were several other achievements of note in the community such as national boxing titles, outstanding exam results and musical accolades. Mark’s efforts stood apart, though, and I tried my best to raise his profile in an attempt to temper the merciless portrayal of the area in the media.
Mark lived in Ballincurra Weston, a small community in the south of Limerick City that was defined as a hotbed of gangland crime and grinding poverty. I remember one occasion when I came across a well-respected national journalist stage-managing young people and their horses into scenes of dramatic urban desolation for a photograph. The issue was not that these aspects of life on marginalised estates were covered in the media, but more that they was the only aspect covered.
It was a similar problem that Limerick faced when being relentlessly branded as ‘Stab City’ in the noughties. Just as the overwhelming majority of people in Limerick City were law abiding citizens, the overwhelming majority of people in ‘Weston’ had no connection to gangland crime. I met some of the most amazing young people during my time working in the area: young people of which any community in the country would be proud.
Over the course of almost ten years in Weston, I witnessed some dizzying highs and some bitter lows. Sadly, it wasn’t an even mix. The troubling episodes I witnessed could not be balanced out by achievements such as Mark’s. The successes were individual, while the failures were systematic. What a small group of the most at-risk young people were exposed to is both unimaginable and unforgivable.
There were three debilitating problems at the time. The first was an over-arching investment plan for Weston that focused almost exclusively on buildings. Few social problems have ever been solved solely through bricks and mortar. The second was an inexplicable departure of expertise and corporate knowledge. The relevant administrative leadership in charge of the investment plan changed, on average, once every two years between 2007 and 2016: it was even worse in the local police station. The third factor was the collapse of the Irish economy, which significant reduced everyone’s horizons.
Between 2007 and 2016 it was easier to recruit a hundred consultants than it was to recruit ten social workers in Limerick. I arrived in the ‘Treaty City’ two years after the ‘Limerick Regeneration’ programme had begun. ‘ReGen’ as it became known locally, was a vast state investment scheme focused on four of the most marginalised areas in the country: Moyross, St. Mary’s, Southill and Ballinacurra Weston. I ran the youth service in the last of these. This book offers an insight into the challenges faced by some of the most at-risk young people in our country: the labels that affected them and the behaviours that defined them.
In 2009, the spectre of gangland violence was overwhelming in Weston and the community teetered on the precipice of social dystopia for months on end. At times, there would be a raw tension in the air as a result of a ‘hit’ or a (police) raid, or a prisoner release or a whole host of other factors straight out of a gangster movie. The more unstable the environment, the more unstable the behaviour of certain young people. Infamous crime figures were living on their reputations. Everyone else was living on their nerves.
When it came to the most at-risk group of minors, perhaps 50-70 individuals, I saw a lot of truly harrowing things. I saw the pin-prick pupils of ten-year-olds on drugs and the full sexualisation of those not much older. I saw addiction, depression and suicide. I saw parents terrified of letting their children outside and grandparents terrified of just being outside. I saw hope vanquished and countless lives slide out of view. Change, when it did come to Weston, came slowly and was fuelled largely by the imprisonment of key individuals. Extreme instances of anti-social behaviour dropped precipitously and the suffocating sense of anxiety in the community began to lift.
The regeneration programme was a once in a lifetime opportunity to affect social change. There is no doubt but that the quality of life improved for local residents as a result of the initiative. It must be underlined, though, that the starting point was so horrifically low, such a quality of life would be inconceivable to most citizens of 21st century Ireland. The primary reasons for these successes are moot: a lot of evidence would point to the work of the police and a rising economy. There would be few, if any, community workers, who would advocate for the key strategic decisions taken by the architects of Limerick Regeneration in Dublin during the formative years. Hundreds of millions of euros would be invested in houses at the very same time that support and social services for the people who lived in them were cut beyond recognition.
The years 2007-2016 were a period of extremes. I remain in awe of local residents, who not only found the resolve to serve as representatives in an environment that was dangerously hostile at time, but the tenacity and dedication to participate in meeting after meeting, consultation after consultation, disappointment after disappointment. Throughout the carousel of leadership change in administration and the local police force, it was the residents, all working in a voluntary capacity, who deserve most praise. Hopefully, this text will prove to be a fair reflection of the context in which their achievement took place.