Dark side of the city: 'The only place heroin is taking you is down into the gutter'

Cork city is in the grips of an epidemic. Heroin use is rampant on the streets, with users taking the drug in the open, not caring who can see them. However, many are trying to get out of the habit, writes Liz Dunphy

Drug use in the city seen at Lower Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Drug use in the city seen at Lower Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Eyelashes singed from burning a flame too close to his face, a young man collapses on a bench outside a city-centre cafe.

Handsome features still visible beneath the decaying, yellow creep of drug abuse, his body repeatedly bends into a right angle as he drifts in and out of a drug-fugue sleep.

Just 10 minutes into a search for heroin use in Cork and the human face of the problem literally falls into your lap.

He said that his mum’s in prison for murder and he’s homeless. Despite a hulking frame that could have made him a rugby jock in another life, he was still troubled by some nightmare that visited him the night before, as he slept on the steps under St Patrick’s Bridge.

The fear among heroin users on Cork’s streets is palpable, but it is the fear of users, and those who sell to them, that makes headlines.

“Deep concern” that Cork is becoming a “lawless city” was expressed at Cork City’s most recent Joint Policing Committee, as politicians called for more police on the streets.

Robbery from a person jumped by 90% in the city, assaults causing harm increased by 16%, and minor assaults rose by 19% between January and September this year compared to the same period last year.

And people living on the streets say that many violent attacks go unreported.

“Everyone carries a knife now,” says Leo O’Keefe, who has been using heroin “heavily” for four months and is currently homeless.

They’re all cutting each others’ face. All slices down the face. It’s disgusting.

As if to illustrate the point, another man rushes up to the window in the McDonald’s we’re standing next to and pulls a large switch-blade from his tracksuit and threatens to stab a man sitting inside.

“He killed my friend,” he said, pointing to an older man sitting inside the fast food restaurant.

“He pumped smack into his neck and he couldn’t take it,” he raged before his friends moved him on.

Dark side of the city: 'The only place heroin is taking you is down into the gutter'

Leo is recovering from a recent attack himself.

Alleged heroin dealers stabbed him in the back, broke his arm, and threatened to kneecap him in his former home just last week.

“One person beat me up and the other person stabbed me twice,” he says. “It was only one of those little Stanley knives you get in Dealz. I’ve a fractured arm, my face was black and blue.

“I was asleep when I got the slaps, then when it was done they said I wasn’t going back to sleep, that I’d be tied up and kneecapped.

I got a threat from the same fella last week. He said: ‘I’m going to cut you from ear to ear.’ He says I owe him €700. I know I owe him about €400 but he’s just added the other €300 on.

Leo, who is in his 20s, was forced to leave his home following the attack and he is now relying on homeless hostels for shelter.

Although he smokes heroin, he says he does not inject. He found heroin highly addictive and regrets ever taking it.

“You take a bag to cure you, another bag to get stoned,” he says. “I’m after four bags already today. So that’s about €100.

“It takes the edge away, just a stoned mellowness.

“My mother died when I was 13 and I’ve been on benzos [benzodiazepine] ever since.

For the last four months I’ve been on heroin. It’s rough. The sickness in the mornings. With Nightlight [Cork Simon’s emergency shelter] you have to be out at seven o’clock in the morning.

"So I’m walking around town at 7am getting sick everywhere. I’m getting on the meth[odone] in the next couple of weeks so hopefully I’ll be off the heroin soon. I can’t wait for that.”

Almost 500 people received treatment for heroin and other opioid addictions in Cork in the first six months of this year.

Heroin addiction is lethal. Out of 736 drug related deaths, 85% involved opiates, according to the most recent figures from the Health Research Board.

Thirty-four of these people died while injecting. Three in four fatalities were male and the median age at death was 42.

Kenneth Dowling, 34, originally from Mahon, used heroin for many years.

“Methadone is a life-saver but it’s a complete [heroin] blocker,” he says.

“So it’s a catch-22. If you go on methadone you’ll never be sick again, which is a great feeling. But it’s a blocker for heroin so you can’t get stoned on heroin and you just become methadone-dependent.

“Some people say you can get two habits, but I don’t really think you can. You have to take an awful lot [of heroin] to feel anything. And it’s not worth it.”

Mr Dowling stopped taking methadone for two weeks recently, and found that he was already dependent on it, experiencing withdrawal symptoms “worse than heroin”.

“[Being] sick from the methadone is twice as bad [as heroin],” he says. “Some people say it’s 10 times worse. It’s like a heroin feeling.

All your bones ache, your muscles ache. The cold just lives in you. It’s torture.

“When I was on the meth[odone], you’d crave the hits still. You’d still crave getting the spot, seeing the blood go into the barrel and squeezing it.

“You could be out tapping [begging] for an hour and a half in the cold, get €25 for a bag, take it and nothing happens. All you get is the needle fetish, the blood. There’s a mentality to that. You’re addicted to the needle.

“When I started using first, I’d sometimes inject myself with nothing and suck out blood and inject it again. You’re fixated by the needle. Weird, isn’t it?

“I’ve been around the wrong drug for so long, in the wrong places, doing the wrong things with the wrong people that the abnormal has become normal for me.”

Keith says addiction is a largely circumstantial problem, getting its grip on young people purely because they are unlucky enough to be exposed to it.

“When you’re growing up you’re naive, unless you’re around the right crowd, you’re goosed,” he says.

“People, places, and things — they’re the main factors in people using or not using. If I hung around with different people in different places, doing different things, I wouldn’t be an addict. Because all I hang around is addicts. All I take is drugs.”

Despite his difficulties in life, Keith is kind. He offered me his bag to sit on when I knelt on the pavement next to him. And he spoke in glowing terms of his “gem” of a mum who has “a heart of gold” and deserves “the best of luck in life”.

He got clean before and although he fell off the wagon, he now knows that he can — and will — beat his addiction again.

And there is hope for people who want to end their reliance on drugs.

Two men, whose names have been changed at their request to protect their families, spoke to the Irish Examiner six and seven months into sobriety.

Joe, 30, and Adam, 45, are now healthy, clean, and fit, looking forward to spending weekends with family and busy planning their new lives thanks to their own hard work and the support of Cuan Mhuire’s addiction treatment programmes.

Two residents of Cuan Mhuire on the Western Road, Cork. t calls to the organisation about heroin treatment have increased by about 50% in the last three years. Picture: Dan Linehan
Two residents of Cuan Mhuire on the Western Road, Cork. t calls to the organisation about heroin treatment have increased by about 50% in the last three years. Picture: Dan Linehan

After completing five months in treatment, both men said they were hugely fortunate to have been accepted to Cuan Mhuire’s secondary treatment programme, which provides supported accommodation where recovering addicts can learn to live structured, productive lives again.

Joe, who is from Cork, says: “I was taking heroin since I was 20. I was homeless, strung out to the backbone.

“I dreaded waking up to face another day of it

I remember injecting heroin and as I was nodding off I’d hope that I wouldn’t wake up.

“I was going to throw myself in the river or intentionally OD. I couldn’t hack my life anymore.

“I started using solvents aged 11. Nine years later I was hooked on heroin. I was always trying to get out of my own head, I’d rather be like a zombie, pumping myself full of whatever.

“Heroin is madly addictive. The more you smoke or inject, the more sick you get and the more you need just to feel better again, to be normal.

“I was using six to seven bags a day. It’s €25 a bag so you had to make €100-€150 begging every day. It was like a full-time job.

“I was mostly injecting before treatment. You would feel normal quicker injecting. When I first took it I thought it was great, like ‘where have you been all my life?’ But then it just becomes misery, walking around in the rain asking people for money, injecting everywhere and anywhere.

If you’re sick you’ll always get money to score somehow. I remember using in stairways in town with people passing and I didn’t care.

“I robbed a lot from my family. I wasn’t trusted. I walked around with my hood up and the strings pulled down to hide my face from the shame.

“I didn’t really care about OD-ing. I thought I was Superman, that I could take anything.”

Adam, who is also from Cork, echoes this last statement.

“When you’re using it feels like you’re bullet-proof,” he says. "You see people walking around with their heads down and as soon as they’re high they’re over hugging you, full of confidence. But it’s all mock.

“There’s still a stigma around heroin, it’s still the dirty drug because the only place it’s taking you is down into the gutter.

“I was 12 when I started smoking cannabis but I was 33 when I first smoked heroin. I was in the Midlands prison, you had to do urine tests and if you were clean you got more privileges.

Cannabis and tablets like benzodiazepines would stay in your system for six weeks but heroin and cocaine would only be detectable for three days and if you drank a lot of water or sweated a lot it would be less. So, in a way, prison gave an incentive to take harder drugs.

"And heroin was smaller so it was easier to get into prison.

“I was in prison for 20 years, for selling heroin and robbing banks.

“I’ve been in all the prisons in this country.

Dark side of the city: 'The only place heroin is taking you is down into the gutter'

“I’d commit crimes and then hold drug parties. It was about the lifestyle, the cars, good clothes, I thought it was cool.

“Any time the police came to my house they were fully armed.”

While still in prison, Adam resolved to get clean — after sitting in a cell across from his own son.

“This November gone, I was sitting in my cell and my 22-year-old son was sitting two feet away from me. He was playing Play Station on one telly and I was watching a documentary on the other.

“I never took drugs with my son, but by my actions he thought it was cool and followed suit.

I realised that if I didn’t change I was going to wreck this young fella’s life.

Adam is now hoping to get his son onto Cuan Mhuire’s treatment programme to break the cycle of addiction and crime in his own family.

“Doing the five months in Cuan Mhuire was the best decision I ever made after having my kids,” he says. “I owe Cuan Mhuire a lot, this place has been a Godsend.

“What I’ve done to my family is not happening anymore. Any attraction I had to drugs before is completely gone.

“I’ve traumatised a lot of people. I robbed a bank allegedly with a firearm. I didn’t touch anyone but the threat of violence was there. Those people will be traumatised for the rest of their lives all because I wanted money.

“And it affected my whole family. Addiction has a ripple effect. It’s emotional torture. I know the hurt I’ve caused to my sister, brothers, kids.”

Adam says that although guns were easy to get in the drug trade, gun violence has not infected the streets of Cork like it has in Dublin.

“There’s no major competition in the drugs market in Cork because you’re not seeing people dying on the streets,” he says.

“Dublin dealers said that we were crafty in Cork, we didn’t get out weapons and shoot people because we wanted to get paid.

“But a lot of young people carry knives now. Some carry them because they like cutting people but others are carrying them for protection.

“You see people with scarred-up faces now. But people are not dying often because they’re mostly slicing, rather than stabbing.

“There are syringe robberies, and grannies getting their handbags robbed. There’s a lot of mugging and reckless behaviour.

People say that a storm is coming, but a storm has been here for a long time but people chose not to see it.

Both Adam and Joe credit Cuan Mhuire with saving their lives.

Both almost died from overdoses multiple times, while Joe has been in car crashes while high and suffered a lung clot.

“If I relapse I’m going to jail or the graveyard,” says Joe. “I’ve had enough chances already. It’s a healthy fear, it keeps me on my toes.

“And I feel a million times better now. When you’re on drugs your emotional side is switched off, the only thing you care about is heroin.

“But now I really look forward to just spending time with my family.

“And I’m seeing the city in a whole new way. I used to walk around with my head down, just looking at the pavement. Now I look up and I’m seeing Cork for the first time, seeing the church spires and the trees. Now I look forward to just walking around and looking up.

“This place [Cuan Mhuire] teaches you how to structure your life, I never had that structure before. You have support from the other lads in the house and the counsellors. We have meetings every day, we take courses and do chores.

Dark side of the city: 'The only place heroin is taking you is down into the gutter'

“You’re learning to live with life on life’s terms. Up in the treatment centre, lads are trying to get into places like this, but there are not enough houses for everyone. I’m extremely grateful to Cuan Mhuire. If I wasn’t here I’d have had to go back to Vincent’s or Simon and drugs are rampant in the hostels.”

Adam says: “If you asked me two years ago if I’d be in treatment today, I’d have said ‘no’. But coming to Cuan Mhuire has been one of the best things I ever did, it’s up there with having kids.

There should be a constitutional right to treatment.

Michael Guerin, who works at Cuan Mhuire, says that calls to the organisation about heroin treatment have increased by about 50% in the last three years.

“We have six beds for drug detox,” he says. “Three years ago, we would have had between 50 to 75 people waiting for a place.

“Today, we have 250 people trying to access them. We need more treatment beds. The supports are just not there in the community.

“It’s both a funding and a policy issue. There’s a focus on harm reduction but they should be putting money into recovery so people can get better.

“These people are in crisis. They could die from an overdose while waiting for treatment.

“Heroin used to be an end-stage drug. Now, we see it in the mix, on a par with all the others.

“It’s now infiltrated every city and town in the country and it’s in every socio-economic group. It’s no longer an illness of deprived areas.”

And the problem is now visible city-wide. Toddlers have picked up syringes while playing in their parks and business leaders have called for more police on the streets to tackle the scourge.

Look into the shadows, down alleys and in quiet corners of parks, and you see people passing little packets, nodding in and out of consciousness, propping one another up or emptying each others’ pockets, huddled together in doorways to avoid the rain and society’s disdain.

There are currently two sergeants and 11 gardaí deployed in the Cork City Drugs Unit. Gardaí have made 34 arrests for possession of heroin for sale or supply between January and the end of October this year, and they also detected 79 cases of heroin possession for personal use.

Desperation amongst those in the grip of addiction is painfully visible. One heroin user cried in the rain outside Cork Simon and threatened to throw himself in the river after waking up on the street from a heroin sleep, soaking wet and freezing with nowhere to go.

His shoes were stolen at knifepoint on the street last week after he lost his bed at Cork Simon.

“I hate getting my feet wet. He tried to steal my phone too,” he said.

I’ve been on and off the streets for five or six years. Things spiralled out of control when I saw my best friend hanging. Another friend died from drugs, my mother’s house was petrol-bombed, and my brother died of a seizure.

“I’m sleeping in doorways now. It’s breaking me.”

Cork Simon director Dermot Kavanagh says the housing crisis is also fuelling addiction.

“Drug treatment is more successful if someone has a home to return to,” he says. “But it’s getting harder and harder for people to find a route out with the housing crisis. Housing supply is a real issue.

“Research shows that if you have a home, treatment is much more successful.

“Drug use and homelessness are linked. If you find yourself using drugs to a problematic extent, you may stop paying rent and get evicted, or drug use may cause problems at home which may result in someone becoming homeless.

“But also, being homeless is a very traumatic experience and people often self-medicate to feel better. The more they self-medicate, the more psychologically and physically addicted they become and things spiral further out of control.

“Research shows a huge correlation between drug use and housing instability. If you’re on the street the risk is highest, if you’re in emergency accommodation, you’re at the next highest risk, but if you’re in stable housing, even if you’re already a drug user, your risk is much lower.”

Mr Kavanagh says heroin has only become a tangible problem in Cork over the last 13 years.

Heroin was not much of an issue in Cork until 2006, 2007. We typically had about 12 users, while there were 20,000 in Dublin.

“Then it started to become more of an issue.

“Polydrug use is the norm now. It makes life more complex — and more dangerous. Now everything is available to everyone.

“Controlling the supply of drugs is ever more complicated because of online supply. People who supply drugs can get them sent to various services like Parcel Motel so they never go to their home. I think it must be a nightmare for law enforcement now.

“People often start on a path to problematic drug use to feel better about life, but for far too many it majorly compounds their problems.

“The most worrying risk is premature death.

“The average age of death for a rough sleeper is 42. This figure is skewed by drug use amongst the young.”

Mr Kavanagh says Cork Simon staff are trained to administer Naloxone, an opioid blocker used to reverse an overdose. It’s been administered 14 times by Cork Simon staff between 2018 to date.

“It should be as widely available as possible because it is life-saving,” he says.

An awful lot of drugs have different addictive properties. Some are psychologically addictive and that is difficult enough but heroin is also physically addictive which makes it harder than others.

“But crucially, with the right support and the right treatment, most people can and do get over it.”

One Cork mother whose son did beat heroin addiction and is now helping other former addicts to get clean said that the problem is now an epidemic in the city and county.

Mary, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, says: “People need to take their blinkers off and look around. It’s frightening what you’ll see.

“I saw two teenagers in town last night, all black around their nose and hands from heroin. One was lighting it on the tinfoil. That’s what they do to smoke it.

“You’re seeing people younger and younger taking it. I’ve seen 14- or 15-year-olds in their school uniforms taking it. I saw a well-dressed woman in her late 30s or early 40s dealing to two young boys recently. One was wearing a school uniform. It was absolutely frightening.

“People don’t have any empathy for drug users but they’re some mother’s son or daughter too.”

Mary’s son was still a teenager when he first tried heroin while on holiday after his Leaving Cert.

“He was in his late teens, had just finished his Leaving Cert in an affluent school, he was starting a trade,” says Mary.

“He was on a foreign holiday and he met a group of lads who gave him ecstasy. When they couldn’t come down from it they said ‘here, try this’ and gave him heroin to smoke. And that was it.

“They say that every person has to hit rock bottom before they get treatment for their addiction.

“My son was homeless for three months and he got in with the wrong company. He asked me for help. He said it was either that or suicide. That’s how bad it was.

“I follow the inquests now and so often in suicide people have narcotics in their system.

“Heroin is an epidemic in Cork. I said it was a problem 10 years ago and people thought I was exaggerating. And it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it’s everywhere.

“As a mother, I’ve been through hell and back. I was on the brink of a mental breakdown.

“But my son’s in his 30s now. He’s out the other side of it and he’s supporting other young people in addiction. He’s doing tremendous work and I’m so proud of him.”

Sinn Féin councillor Thomas Gould agrees that a heroin epidemic has hit Cork.

“It’s a huge issue at the moment and has been for about two years,” he says.

You see it down the side streets and in loading bays, anywhere people can shoot up in quieter, darker areas.

“People are finding it in schoolyards and playgrounds. People are picking up needles in their neighbourhoods and drug paraphernalia from their front doors.

“Heroin dealers are seen to be going around selling openly and people are seeing drug users shooting up in public.

“People feel that heroin is not being targeted as aggressively as it should, either by the police due to lack of resources or by the courts.

“A lot of people feel that judges are not giving severe enough sentences for drug dealing.

“Numerous gangs across the city are involved in heroin. You can go anywhere in Cork, to any suburb, and get heroin. It’s also in the colleges now. It was never there before.

“There used to be a fierce stigma around heroin. It was seen as the death drug, a hardcore drug for hardcore addicts. But now it’s more prevalent and more people are taking it.

“There is an ease of availability, ease of purchase, low price, and a change of culture. Drugs are more accepted in society now. In the last 20 years the drug culture has completely changed.

The key to me is stopping the supply.

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