Chris Comerford has had a life longer than his 35 years

Chris Comerford has had a life longer than his 35 years
Chris Comerford. Picture: Peter Varga

There's something of a poet about Chris Comerford in Peter Varga's striking photograph.

A dapper poet, one who knows the streets.

And when you meet Chris, and have a chat with him, these impressions ring true.

He's as stylish in person as he is in the image, and, with visible tattoos on his hands, neck and face, there's a definite edge to him.

His portrait is one of a series of photographs taken by Peter Varga, the man behind Humans of Dublin, in an exhibition entitled 'People Like Us'.

The exhibition, organised by the Ana Liffey Drug Project, runs at the foyer of Dublin's City Hall.

Chris has had a long life, longer than his 35 years. There's a past there that you could only paint with broad brushstrokes.

His parents broke up when he was just nine. Two years later and after his mother met someone else, Chris was out of the family home in Tallaght and “living on the streets”.

“Back then I thought I was Jack the lad, but, at 11, I was just a child," he said.

It was then he started smoking hash and began staying in hostels and homes, including a residential home in leafy south Dublin between the ages of 12 and 14.

He loved much of that time, but his substance misuse, teenage anger and problems with authority got him thrown out.

Before he reached 15 he was back on the streets or living in hostels, forming a family of his own with some 25 other teens without homes of their own.

“None of us had a family. It was a surrogate,” he said.

We were all looking for that, for that love, that sense of belonging. I found it in my friends and they found it in me and each other.

He recalled how they all went out shoplifting and stayed in one room of abandoned flats on Church Street, near Dublin's north quays, and shared the food, cans, smokes and sweets stolen.

Charges for shoplifting were clocked up and he was in Saint Patrick's Institution by the age of 17.

At age 16 he had smoked heroin and by 18 it had crept into his life in a bigger way. By 19 he was injecting.

“The drugs started really to get worse, so the charges got more serious and drug dealing was the next big one,” he said.

At one stage he took 60 pills, which he subsequently discovered were anti-psychotic tablets, and nearly died.

He said the fact he never died over his long period of drug taking, which continued up to when he was 33, was down to spells in prison.

“Luckily, I kept on going to jail. Prison was a lifeline for a lot of us. If I hadn't gone in I wouldn't be here today.”

He added: “You walk into prison and you're in bits, at the point you have one foot in the grave. Some people are that bad the judge says 'I'm sorry I can't let you out'.”

He has spent time in St Pats, Mountjoy, Wheatfield, Cloverhill, Midlands and Shelton open prison.

“I've been in every landing in all these jails,” he said.

Referencing the qualities in the photograph, Chris said he was always interested in poems and the spoken word – and it was something he practiced in his time in jails.

It grew in prisons, but it was always there, as far back as I can remember. Ya walk around with all these thoughts in my head at end of the day ya speak it out, but not write it down. I should of, but I was more concerned chasing after heroin.

Chris's life has turned around in the last two years. Now 35, he will be off drugs two years next month.

He has five children, the youngest aged seven months. Chris is meeting his own mother for the first time in a while this week, where she will get to meet her youngest grandson.

Chris's father died in 2017, something he said he has “drawn strength from”.

Chris is a born again Christian, but he only brings it up towards the end of our chat, which ran for nearly an hour.

“I've been saved and I owe my life to my Heavenly Father,” he said. “I have an apartment, I've a brand new baby, I'm getting married, all the kids are back in my life and I've started back writing recently.”

He hopes people see the exhibition. What does he want people to take away from his image?

“That I'm a human being. People are very judgemental, Irish people are the worst.”

And he has this message for politicians: "It shouldn't just be down to Ana Liffey and voluntary agencies to do something productive. They are doing all the nitty-gritty work. The people in power can change things for people.

“They need to do more for society. People are suffering out there. Why are people who have nothing, why should they take crumbs? They are human beings too.”

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