Hate instils no fear of dying and no hesitation in killing
Armed gardai and weapons seizures have prevented Limerick's gangs from spilling more blood . . . for the time being
They smiled brightly like carefree lads leaving for a boisterous sun holiday, without a worry in the world. Noddy, Smokie, Frog Eyes and their two friends - violent men with schoolyard nicknames. Happy killers glad to do time for, as they would see it, a job well done.
Or so they would like their gangland rivals to believe.
If you are staring at the prospect of spending the rest of your life behind bars, it's probably best to put on a brave face. The last thing you want when being led away in handcuffs is to give your mortal enemies the pleasure of seeing you shudder or flinch.
A triumphalist atmosphere prevailed outside the Central Criminal Court in Limerick this week, despite the now routine presence of heavily armed gardai. The city's rival gangs both believed they had reason to smile.
The Keane side celebrated the jailing of the five men who killed their man, Kieran. And it was no ordinary jailing; it came with a grave warning from the judge that unless the feuding stops they will die in prison. The smiles were harder for the five convicted men; if things continue as they are, they may never be free again.
Despite the high cost to themselves, the killers and their friends are still savouring the perverse pleasure of having eliminated the top man in the Keanes' crime and drugs empire. By murdering Kieran Keane, they inflicted a massive and deeply personal hit on their rivals. And the Limerick feud is nothing if not personal.
Any hope they might have of early release is dependent not just on their own good behaviour in prison, but on the good behaviour of many others on the outside. And the signs are not encouraging. There is little indication that this feud will end in the foreseeable future. There was no clearer sign than the t-shirt proudly worn by a young man outside the court. It declared bluntly: "Keanes Are Rats."
The mutual loathing of the other side, deep and incomprehensible, is already well embedded in a new generation. The two main suspects for the cold-blooded shooting dead of 45-year-old Johnny Ryan last July are teenagers. To date, the gardai have been unable to get sufficient evidence to charge them.
"The prime motivation in this feud," Supt Gerry Mahon told the court this week, "is the sheer and absolute hate by each side for the other. And that hate has not diminished to this day."
Of the five killers, Desmond Dundon (20) and Anthony 'Noddy' McCarthy (21) are members of the McCarthy-Dundon gang, the third criminal force in Limerick. They lured Keane to his death in an elaborate double-cross. The others, David 'Frog Eyes' Stanners (31), James McCarthy (24) and Christopher 'Smokie' Costelloe (20), are close friends of the Ryans. All five were sentenced to life imprisonment in December for Keane's murder at Drombanna, outside Limerick in January 2003. This week they were given fifteen years for attempting to kill Keane's nephew Owen Treacy on the same night, and for falsely imprisoning both men. The fifteen years will run concurrently with the life sentence.
Mr Justice Paul Carney's warning that the men could die in prison was in the context of that life sentence. In most cases, people who get life are released on parole within eight to twelve years. But if the Parole Board takes the view that the offender still poses a risk to society, they can remain in prison indefinitely.
There are precedents for this. Malcolm McArthur is still in jail nearly 22 years after being convicted of murder. It is unlikely that English killer-rapists John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans, sentenced to life in 1978 for the notorious murder of two women, will ever be free.
With Keane's killers put away, the focus now turns to the man who ensured their convictions. Owen Treacy is a marked man. Somehow the gang failed to kill him after they brought him and his uncle to Drombanna on that night. They shot Keane, but oddly chose to stab Treacy. They did so 17 times, but he survived.
This was not the killers' only failure. They had planned to kill four men that night. They tried unsuccessfully to force Keane and Treacy to phone two members of another family associated with the Keanes and lure them into the same trap. If their plan had succeeded, the road at Drombanna would have been a scene of unprecedented slaughter.
Treacy now has his own life sentence hanging over him; or more accurately, a death sentence. He is the man the Ryan faction is now itching to kill. Murdering him would be sweet revenge for the jailing of the five men. They know it, he knows it and the Gardai know it.
Treacy has refused to avail of the Garda witness protection programme. But he still has a round-the-clock Garda presence at his house in St Mary's Park. He's a street-wise, cautious man who now rarely moves outside the immediate neighbourhood. When he does, gardai go with him.
Treacy used to drive a bread van for his father Philip who has a small bakery just outside the city. However he hasn't done so since the night he was almost killed. His father has permanent Garda protection on his daily deliveries. Other family members are also protected.
Owen Treacy has no record of serious crime. Despite his apparently modest occupation, he ventured out of St Mary's Park two weeks ago to buy a brand new top-of-the-range BMW, worth over ?50,000, to replace the BMW he previously owned. He was, as always, accompanied by his Garda minders.
How Treacy is going to lead any kind of a normal life in the present circumstances is hard to see. Neighbours say the ordeal of the past year has taken a lot out of him. He has the look of a haunted man. But the general belief is that he is safe as long as his Garda protection remains. Nobody knows how long that will last. The situation is reviewed on a weekly basis.
"The Gardai seriously owe him after putting away those five guys," says one observer. "Suppose they lifted the protection and he was murdered. What would people say if that happened? How would they explain it?"
Despite his ordeal, Treacy shows no sign of giving in. During the murder trial, the defendants regularly stared, smiled, winked and gestured towards Treacy. The message was chillingly clear: we will get you. He could have chosen to turn away or sit out of view; instead, he leaned forward and responded to their implied threats with gestures of his own.
One of the killers, Smokie Costello, was present when brothers Kieran and Eddie Ryan were allegedly kidnapped at gunpoint more than a week before Keane's murder. Costello described how he managed to escape being abducted himself, despite a shot being fired at him.
Another member of the murder gang, James McCarthy, was present at an impromptu drinks party at the Ryan brothers' home on the morning of their surprise reappearance. He and several other young men were photographed by the media swigging merrily from bottles - barely 12 hours after he had helped kill Kieran Keane.
There is nothing to suggest that Kieran and Eddie Ryan were involved in Kieran Keane's death. But the gardai have investigated the circumstances of their alleged kidnapping and a file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
There are also close personal and family links on the Keane side. Owen Treacy is a first cousin of Liam Keane who famously gave two fingers to the cameras after his trail for the murder of teenager Eric Leamy collapsed dramatically last November. Michael Campbell-McNamara, the victim of an execution-style killing last October, was the boyfriend of Liam Keane's sister.
Amid all the tragedy and drama of the past year, and the ever-present fear of another revenge hit, one detects a fragile ray of hope in Limerick right now. There is a palpable feeling that the authorities just might be getting on top of the problem. Four armed Garda cars patrol the trouble spots every night. There are continuous garda checkpoints in certain areas.
These obvious security measures have been accompanied by other discreet efforts at peace. The gardai have been quietly liaising with prominent figures on both sides to persuade them to stop fighting.
The success of this has been hard to quantify; tentative progress can evaporate in a matter of minutes as another incident occurs. These efforts are particularly aimed at the younger generation. The message is that being involved in feuding can have only three possible outcomes - serious injury, jail or death.
This is no idle warning. The gardai have made huge progress against both factions. Over 30 people are currently behind bars, either sentenced or awaiting trial on serious charges. Four others are dead. Major players have been removed from the scene. There is a view that the Ryans, at least, are a spent force. A lot of heavy weaponry has been seized. The joke locally is that Limerick Gardai have decommissioned more guns than John de Chastelain.
Some 250 weapons have been seized in the last two years, all as a result of planned searches. The two most recent seizures came just a fortnight ago in Moyross and Adare. Garda weapons discoveries undoubtedly mean that lives have been saved. But everybody knows there's no room for complacency. Hope can be shattered in an instant.
"All it takes is one moment of madness," says a garda officer. "The one thing about these guys is that they have no great fear of dying. Take your Dublin criminal; his main thing is self-preservation. He will walk away from things. They don't think that way here. They have no fear of dying and no hesitation in killing either."