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Youth workers offer a message of hope to teens in Drogheda

A youth project in Drogheda is showing teenagers a way of avoiding drug gangs, writes Alan O'Keeffe

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HOPE: Drogheda youth justice workers Denise Tuohy and Nicola McGee in St Finian’s Park. Photo: Frank McGrath

HOPE: Drogheda youth justice workers Denise Tuohy and Nicola McGee in St Finian’s Park. Photo: Frank McGrath

Teenager Keane Mulready-Woods

Teenager Keane Mulready-Woods

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HOPE: Drogheda youth justice workers Denise Tuohy and Nicola McGee in St Finian’s Park. Photo: Frank McGrath

The brutal murder and dismemberment of teenager Keane Mulready-Woods has left a family devastated, a community in turmoil and local teenagers living in fear.

Young people in Drogheda have been struggling to cope with the barbaric killing of the local teen, and youth workers and volunteers have been working to provide support and guidance in the wake of his death.

Drogheda has been under siege from two extremely violent feuding drug gangs in recent years, which culminated in the savage death of the 17-year-old in a house in the town four weeks ago.

There have been multiple petrol bomb attacks, assaults and gun attacks since the feud ignited in the summer of June 2018. That month a man was targeted by gunmen who shot him, leaving him paralysed. There have been a number of gun attacks since, including two murders in the months before Keane was abducted and killed. Gardai now fear that the teen's murder will see things escalate even more.

"Keane's death has affected the whole community," said Denise Tuohy, a youth justice worker who has been assisting teenagers in the town for the past 14 years.

"All I will say about Keane is that it was a long time since I worked with him. He was a very intelligent young man who got sucked in… It was vile and disgusting what happened to him," she said.

The Sunday Independent visited Ms Tuohy and her fellow youth worker Nicola McGee, who work from a house in St Finian's Park housing estate.

The house is a resource for young people and is supported by the volunteer organisation Youth Work Ireland Louth.

The area is one of the districts in the town blighted by the violence of drug gangs. Several houses have been burned out in Drogheda by criminals for the non-payment of drug debts, or to intimidate people from assisting gardai.

'Rat' appears frequently in graffiti on town walls.

Drug debt intimidation has been rife. Failure to pay €100 for a bag of cannabis becomes a debt of €200 if payment is not made when demanded. The debt is doubled again if the money is not handed over when another demand is made.

The vast majority of people are appalled by the activities of a relatively small number of individuals who have brought misery to so many. Children as young as 12 have been sucked into drug-related activity. Cocaine use is 'rampant' in Drogheda, with growing numbers gripped by addiction.

Despite the horror of the teenager's killing, some young people continued to harbour a distrust of gardai.

"A lot of young people are very negative towards gardai. The guards knocked on every door in the area and interviewed everybody about Keane's death," said Ms Tuohy.

"Anybody with cameras had their hard-drives examined by the guards, to try and find out what happened to Keane. We explained to the young people that it is the guards that are going to put away these vile, disgusting people who did this to Keane.

"Many young people seem to be getting a more positive relationship with the guards now."

Ms Tuohy said several young people participated in a celebration last Wednesday which marked the 18th birthday of the murdered Keane. The teenagers converged on the home of a relative of the dead boy which was festooned with balloons for the event.

"I really hope what happened will be a wake-up call. There was an awful lot of young people very upset with what happened. It had a devastating effect on young people and the community," she added.

Ten young people were "self-referrals" to their youth programme since the killing. They were not doing it from fear, but because they saw how other young people were getting great support from their service, she said.

Ms McGee said: "We hope the young people will learn and make the right choices." Both women are full-time youth justice workers for the Boyne Youth Diversion Project.

Similar projects operate throughout Ireland with the cooperation of local gardai in helping young people develop social skills and a sense of community.

A mission statement for the youth diversion projects said their programmes promote good relations between gardai and local communities and help young people to redefine themselves and their life goals in a positive way that directs them away from anti-social behaviour and towards positive life choices.

Young people are offered opportunities in education, employment training, sport, art and music. Two nights a week, the two women join with volunteers on 'detach' youth work in which they approach groups of teenagers and seek to make lasting contacts with them to guide them. They wear high-visibility vests with the Youth Work Ireland logo during this outreach activity.

Ms McGee said youth workers seek to help teenagers identify areas of their lives where they are struggling.

The programmes include one-to-one counselling, anger management and addiction counselling. But they point out that the HSE provides just two addiction counsellors for under-18s for the whole of counties Louth and Meath.

There is an urgent need for more resources for more youth services and workers in the region. There are more than 3,000 young people living in the southside of Drogheda alone. Yet funding for youth work is 20pc down on what was available a decade ago.

Ms Tuohy said her work can be very demanding: "I couldn't stay in this job if I didn't see the impact it makes. Before Christmas, I was feeling that this job is getting harder and that it was not really what I want to be in anymore.

"Then I met a young man who said, 'Without you, I don't know where I'd be. I'm working now and I'm getting on with my family and I'm doing very well and I got away from people I shouldn't have been with'. So, when you meet people like that, it lets you feel that you are doing your job right."

Sunday Independent