A journey away from murder, extreme violence, gang law, and social upheaval was recalled yesterday when a priest spoke of better times now embracing Southill, through the regeneration programme targetting four of Limerick’s most troubled housing estates.
Fr Pat Hogan, parish priest of the Holy Family parish, lived in the heart of Southill, including during the dark times there.
A Canadian government expert visiting prior to the Regeneration programme had said the only other place he had seen such “damaged” children was in Gaza, the priest recalled.
Fr Hogan said: “Families had to sleep in the landing area of the houses through fear of shots being fired in through their window. We got used to bonfires and shootings on a nightly basis. One visitor to my house dived behind a couch when a gun went off.”
He said the community was caught in the stranglehold of drug kingpins.
“These people used children and vulnerable people,” he said. “If you were seen using a mobile phone on the street you were in danger as you would be suspected of being on to the guards.”
The 10 years since the regeneration programme began had been a struggle he said, and a revised and more realistic programme was adopted in 2014.
Fr Hogan told of the awful torment which children had to endure.
“The children paid an enormous price from the violence and the dysfunction,” he said. “We had no idea what was going on in many children’s lives, what they were seeing and watching at home, what was being done to them, what they were being involved in, being introduced to crime.
“One of the great phrases at that time was that a child has no language, but it’s behaviour. And there was lots of behaviour.
“I remember one incident of a child standing in the primary school yard as they were going home. He was about six years old. He was kicking his schoolbag out the gate. One of the teachers went over, as he was in her class, and asked him what was wrong. He looked at her and said: ‘Miss, you have no idea what I have to put up with at home,’ and off he went. There was so much of that.
“An education psychologist working for the Candian government came and visited the school and one of the teachers asked what he thought of the children and would he have seen children like them before. He came back again the day after and said the only place he would have seen children, as damaged like that, this was in the Gaza Strip.”
Fr Hogan said they had to remind themselves of the dark days.
“We can quickly forget where we have come from,” he said. “But we must make sure such things never happen again. They were yesterday’s headlines. They are not today’s headlines and they should not be tomorrow’s headlines.”
Housing Minister Simon Coveney yesterday launched a review of Limerick Regeneration.
A review in 2014 set out a target of 564 new houses. To date, 110 have been completed, a further 131 are under construction, and 270 are at design stage.
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