Ciaran Byrne: Why do we love the bad guys who threaten to destroy our society?
LIKE thousands of TV viewers (around 670,000), I was following the twists and turns in RTE's crime drama 'Love/Hate'. But, unlike the thousands of viewers, the TV went off at the gruesome rape scene in episode one of series three – and I haven't watched it since.
I'm in a minority. Just take a look at the volume of the social media chat – most people definitely seem to love it, not hate it.
The series, admittedly filmed, written and directed with considerable skill, focuses on the activities of a Dublin gang, led by the charismatic and deadly figure of 'Nidge', played by Tom Vaughan Lawlor.
'Love/Hate' has been a runaway ratings winner for RTE. But psychologists will be busy analysing for some time why it is that people have lapped up the hour-long episodes full of beatings, murders, drug taking, orgies, men getting done in with beer kegs and women being so viciously attacked.
In many respects, critics are correct in saying the fiction of the TV series has reflected the reality of modern Irish life where gangs operate and their methods are every bit as brutal as the 'Love/Hate' storylines suggest.
Back in the real world, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan yesterday claimed up to 25 criminal gangs were operating in the State, some with international links.
Each had a structured hierarchy with a leadership, a number of middle-managers and low-level criminals who carry out the day-to-day running of the gangs.
Nidge and his middle managers and low-level messengers, fixers and killers sprang to mind yesterday as Mr Callinan made an appearance in Leinster House.
Speaking at the Oireachtas Justice Committee, he told TDs and senators our gangs are mostly based in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Sligo.
The majority were involved in drug-trafficking and were prepared to use violence and intimidation, mostly on their rivals and occasionally, as we know to our collective cost, on those unlucky enough to get in their way.
Then, in a rather odd fusing of fiction and reality, Mr Callinan was asked about the impact of 'Love/Hate'. With some understatement, the Garda Commissioner said its merits one way or the other could be debated for a long time.
'Love/Hate' even has a storyline centred on the violent links between dissident republicans and criminal gangs – in the real world these connections are a cause of serious concern, said the Garda Commissioner.
At first glance, the figure of 25 gangs seems slight given our increasing population. However, when you look at the kind of damage these gangs do to society, you can see why Commissioner Callinan is worried.
Garda resources are stretched like never before and dealing with the activities of just one of the 25 gangs requires money and man-power he can scarcely afford.
There's no doubt some of the organisations function much like small companies with a chain of command, managers and foot soldiers.
Others are chaotic in their structure and, as a result, the impact of their actions can be dangerously unpredictable. The answer, believe senior gardai, is more resources.
Back on TV and taste issues aside, the portrayal of Irish ganglife in 'Love/Hate' will not cause gardai any real concerns though, as any softening of attitudes towards criminals or nice perceptions of their lifestyles would definitely ring alarm bells.
An instructive exchange in yesterday's Oireachtas proceedings came when the Independent TD Finian McGrath asked Mr Callinan how gardai were tackling the issue of young people "being sucked into gangs".
Our top garda said it was typical for teens in some areas to associate crime with a "different lifestyle" – such as cash and fast cars. "We try hard to prevent this but, of course, we don't get through to everyone."
The reality, as spelled out by the commissioner, is that 25 dangerous criminal outfits are loose on our streets, mostly selling drugs, staging cash-in-transit robberies, trafficking women and smuggling goods.
But a smidgeon of good news is that coming face to face with such a threat is a remote possibility for most of us.
One leading criminologist says he believes most Irish people will only ever encounter the horror of gangland crime from the safety of their sofas.
Curiously, while people abhor the real gangs and will never be faced with such violence in their daily lives, they seem to have a sharpening thirst for it on TV.
"People don't want the hum drum and the mundane," he said. "They want the extreme and to see the scary world of organised crime on TV from the comfort of their own homes."
There are mixed messages from all of this; love the TV, hate the reality. Don't be scared, but don't be complacent either. Perhaps the fiction is not so far away from the reality after all.