MERCHANT’S QUAY in Limerick was bristling with armed gardaí, TV cameras, photographers, journalists, and curious onlookers.
Members of the McCarthy Dundon gang were due at Limerick District Court for another remand hearing.
A screaming convoy of blue flashing lights swept into the rear of the court building.
One tourist, who was exiting from the historic St Mary’s Cathedral nearby, asked a local reporter what was happening.
He gave them an inspired response: “They’re filming an Irish mafia movie.”
It pretty much was another day at the office in the summer of 2003.
The security was intense.
Not so much to prevent an escape by the gang members who were in custody for the murder that January of rival gang boss Kieran Keane.
Rather, gardaí feared a reprisal attack on those in custody by Keane’s outfit, the Keane-Collopys, based at nearby St Mary’s Park.
A Garda boat sped along the river as a rocket attack from the water was one of the permutations factored into the security operation.
The feud, which was putting a city to the sword, had been raging since Nov 2000 when Eddie Ryan was gunned down in the Moose Bar.
He had been an enforcer for the Keanes. A bitter falling-out, which originated from a convent schoolyard fight between two young girls, grew to murderous proportions.
Ryan unsuccessfully tried to murder his old boss, Christy Keane, when collecting a child from school.
He failed. Two days later, Kieran Keane and Philip Collopy ran into the Moose Bar and shot Eddie Ryan dead.
The Ryans hooked up with the fledgling McCarthy-Dundon gang who were taking control of drugs in Ballincurra Weston, Southill, and most of the south side of Limerick.
And they had their revenge in Jan 2003 when they lured Kieran Keane into a trap and shot him dead.
Owen Tracy, who was abducted with Keane, survived multiple stab wounds.
With his evidence in Dec 2003 a Dublin jury found five members of the McCarthy-Dundon gang guilty of Kieran Keane’s murder.
It was the single biggest multiple conviction for murder in Irish legal history.
A brilliant Garda investigation had nailed and jailed five murderers in the space of 11 months.
Gardaí also had another early and hugely significant success.
Nine months after he survived Eddie Ryan’s botched attack in Nov 2000, Christy Keane’s luck ran out in Aug 2001.
He broke a golden rule of the drugs trade and decided to move a huge quantity of cannabis, worth about €250,000, which he had stashed in a coal sack and buried in open ground near his St Mary’s Park stronghold.
Unknown to him, three rookie detectives, Ronan McDonagh, Brian Sugrue, and Eamon Curley, were watching his every move and nabbed him, red-handed.
He went down for 10 years at Limerick Circuit Court in May 2002.
Ongoing investigations down the years have placed colossal workloads on the detective units in Henry St, Roxboro Rd, and Mayorstone.
Constant call-outs to crime scenes at all hours — day, night, and weekends — intruded on the families of those at the forefront of the battle against the feuding gangs.
But morale never flagged due to inspired leadership within the detective units. A steely determination to subject the McCarthy-Dundons and Keane-Collopys to due process has been a constant invigorating objective.
Books of evidence, put together by Det Sgt Jim Ryan and Det Sgt Tom O’Connor in many feud investigations, have been marvelled at by state prosecutors as templates of thoroughness and completeness.
Ryan, a native of Banteer, Co Cork, is now a superintendent in Castlerea and O’Connor, a native of Glin, Co Limerick, is a superintendent in Roscommon.
To the fore in the leadership of Limerick’s three detective units at critical times since 2000 were Det Insp John Kerin (now Chief Supt, Ennis), Det Insp Gerry Mahon (retired Chief Supt), Det Insp Jim Browne (now Det Supt, Henry St), Det Insp Bob Noonan (Supt, Nenagh), Det Sgt Eamon O’Neill (Det Insp Henry St), Det Sgt Denis Treacy, Roxboro Rd, Det Sgt John O’Connor, Henry St (retired), Det Sgt Con McCarthy, Henry St (retired), Det Sgt Dan Haugh (retired), and Det Sgt Alan Cullen (Henry St).
The standards they set, helped put John Dundonbehind bars for life.
Specialist ERU and National Bureau of Criminal Investigation teams from Dublin have had a constant presence in Limerick which now has a complement of 605 gardaí — the highest per 10,000 head of population in the State.
Various ministers for justice have never failed to answer the call for extra resources, and now the dividends are clearly manifest.
In the past 19 months there has been one murder in Limerick.
Shootings in the city have fallen from 103 in 2007 — a third of all shootings in the country that year — to seven in 2012.
One great constant in the ongoing battle against the warring feud gangs has been the unstinting support for the gardaí by the ordinary law-abiding people of Limerick.
They have never been afraid to come forward and declare how much they despise the gangs and what they have done to the city and its citizens.
Great examples of solidarity were shown on two notable occasions.
Following the murder of Roy Collins in Apr 2009, his father Steve called for a public demonstration and for people to wear the Munster red in a march through the city.
Thousands of men, women and children rallied to his call, streaming through the city.
They gathered at the steps of City Hall and were addressed by Mr Collins; the then minister for defence, Willie O’Dea; and other community leaders.
After the murder of nightclub security manager, Brian Fitzgerald in Nov 2002, hundreds gathered for a candle-lit vigil in O’Connell St on a bitter winter night at short notice.
Some have been fearless in their condemnation. None more so than John Gilligan, who was mayor of Limerick at the time of the Roy Collins murder.
For Gilligan to speak his mind, it took the courage of a formidable person, bearing in mind that his home in Lee Estate is as near to gang territory as you will get.
One house in the estate was the home of John Ryan, who was shot dead in Jul 2003. Prior to the murder Mr Ryan’s house was so often targeted by gunmen in late-night attacks it was dubbed “The Alamo”.
Gilligan was often awoken at night by the sound of gunfire.
He has walked the walk where others would fear to tread.
One man who has lived under constant threat is Phil Treacy who runs a bakery business.
He heads to his bakery on the outskirts of the city every morning shortly after 5am and does not finish his daily delivery run until late afternoon.
He then returns to the bakery to prepare the following day’s delivery load.
Since his son Owen Treacy gave crucial evidence which helped convict the five murderers of Kieran Keane in 2003, Phil Treacy has had to have constant garda protection. For years his van was tailed by two armed gardaí on its delivery run.
Now he has less overt protection.
Phil Treacy has made it clear that no threat or no gang will stop him going about his lawful daily business, earning a living.
Shane Geoghegan’s murder saw another manifestation of the great spirit of Limerick, as the entire community rallied around his bereft family.
A palpable sense of relief and elation descended on the city at lunchtime last Tuesday with the news that John Dundon was going down for life for his murder.
Limerick has been well served by the judicial and legal system.
As well as helping put together evidence for the many court cases which resulted in the convictions and imprisonment of gang members, state solicitor, Michael Murray, has been in the vanguard in condemning gang violence.
Mr Murray has also been targeted for intimidation.
His office was attacked and his car vandalised when parked in the city centre.
Mr Justice Paul Carney, the senior judge in the Central Criminal Court, paid Limerick his highest tribute when he chose the city for the introduction of murder trials outside of Dublin.
His message was simple and powerful: He believed that the fair-minded people of Limerick would not be found wanting when called on to serve on juries to try anyone from their own community charged with murder.
Judge Carroll Moran, who sits at Limerick Circuit Court, has also played a central role in ensuring justice is not alone done, but seen to be done by the wider community.
Those found guilty in his court of feud-related crimes have been handed down exemplary stern sentences, sending out a very consistent and powerful warning.
Things have changed greatly since the summer of 2003 when the area around Limerick’s courthouses resembled an armed fortress.
The five McCarthy-Dundon lifers seem a dim and distant memory.
As one legal figure observed recently: “They are now nearly 10 years in jail and at that they hardly yet have completed the warm-up lap of their life sentences. They will either come out in coffins or very, very old men.”
Life in Limerick has a new spring in its step. A bright dawn beckons from a huge planned redevelopment of the city centre.
There’s tomorrow in Croke Park and bright winter days ahead in Thomond Park.
What more could we want?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved