Stopping a life of crime at its root – ‘game-changer’ child mental health unit set up in Limerick area plagued by criminality

Limerick Prison, where a large percentage of Moyross residents ended up. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Jimmy Woulfe

A first-of-its-kind child mental health unit has opened in a primary school in Limerick.

The project in Moyross estate could be a game-changer for the area which has been blighted by criminal activity over decades, according to the man behind the project.

Fr Pat Hogan has lived and ministered in Southill and Moyross for nearly 30 years, including when the McCarthy-Dundon gangland feud was at its height.

“During my years as chaplain at Limerick Prison I have found that most of the prisoners could trace back their criminal behaviour to troubled childhoods,” he told

“I have always felt we must get in and work with children from the earliest possible time. The school here is the ideal place in Moyross to get involved and help children deal and process issues with the best possible professional help.”

A professional psychology and child counselling in-school programme, one of the first in the country, is now available to the 380 boys and girls at a new €430,000 Child and Family Centre in the school.

When it was decided to press ahead with the centre, its location had to be worked into the school layout.

Fr Hogan, parish priest of Moyross and chairman of the company set up to oversee the project, said: “We were wondering whether to locate it at one side of the building or at the rear. But the parents were very definite where they wanted it sited. ‘Mental health must be out front for our children’ was the overwhelming view.

“The centre now works seamlessly within the school and in accordance with the wishes of parents, the Family and Child Centre stands at the entrance to Corpus Christi Primary School.”

The cost came primarily from the JP McManus Foundation.

Fr Hogan, who has been a chaplain at Limerick Prison for over 14 years, knows better than most the link between a troubled childhood and a life of crime that often follows.

“Nearly half the prisoners over the years came from the four regeneration estates in the city, including Moyross. The conveyor belt leading to prison has to be stopped in childhood,” said Fr Hogan.

“Nobody was prepared to ask: why is it that so many in jail are from four parishes in the city; what is going on in these areas? It costs tens of thousands of euro to keep a person in jail.

“If you want to cut down on the number of people going into prison, you will find the more you put into child services, properly resourced and properly run, the greater result you will get to prevent an awful lot of people from certain areas ending up in prison. To undo generations of damage in people, it takes a lot of time, and the place to begin is with the children.”

The school in Moyross, he said, is now the real regeneration agency within the community.

“You start off with the four-year-olds in the school, earlier if possible in the home, and build all the way.”

At any one time, there are up to 80 pupils in the school engaging with the centre, with the full support and co-operation of the parents.

“You can have a child who has been around trauma and have trauma in their life, and we have a lot of autism. We also have adult counsellors for parents. This is the way forward,” Fr Hogan added.

“At this very early age, even before a child comes to school, you spot the things in a child. You cannot expect a child to grow if it’s not looked after from before they start school and right the way up. To me, the real antidote to prison is childhood services, and the safe place to access problems is the school.”

He said the school is reaching out to the community and the parents bringing their children.

“We have an excellent student/teacher ratio, but you need a lot of other stuff as well. If children are traumatised who have seen bad things, you can’t teach them. You have to deal with that, and that is what we are now doing.”

Sarah Alley, one of the therapists, uses music to help children express themselves and deal with cognitive difficulties.

“I have children from junior infants at five up to sixth class. What I do is creative arts therapy, a branch of psychology,” she said.