Guardian of the Peace
For decades he policed Limerick’s notorious housing estates while gangs of criminals waged war on their communities and the law of the land.
Along with teams of heavily-armed gardai, he kicked in doors in Moyross, Southhill, St Mary’s Park and Ballinacurra Weston, arrested major underworld criminals and chased down the young lieutenants sent out to do their evil bidding.
But today, former Detective Garda Sean Lynch, has swapped his badge for political office and instead of ramming in doors in dawn raids he is politely knocking and offering a hand of help to the people of some of the most-deprived areas of Limerick.
Just two months ago, Sean was elected as a Fianna Fail Councillor for Limerick City after a tense election campaign that saw him come face to face with many of those he had arrested.
“Ah, it was a bit hairy at times. But you know, mostly I got a positive response from the people. Anyway, they voted for me!”
Winning a seat on Limerick’s City Council may be one thing, but now working for those he once fought against will mark another major challenge.
Last week, in the wake of the Special Criminal Court convictions of Wayne Dundon and Nathan Killeen, the Sunday World took to the streets with him to see just how difficult his new career is going to be.
Ballinacurra Weston, along with other socially deprived housing estates in Limerick, was built in the 1950s to relieve the city slums. Over the past half-century it has suffered from chronic unemployment and, in more recent times, a crime wave which saw it become an absolute no-go area.
At its worst, it was the stronghold of the violent Dundon mob, eventually dismantled by in-fighting and an all-out offensive by the Garda Siochana.
Today, Ballinacurra lies in all its tattered glory like a city after the blitz. Abandoned houses line the streets, many boarded up as part of Limerick’s rejuvenation project, rubbish piles high in the gardens and open green patches where gangs of youths gather in packs.
The Dundon brothers are gone now – Wayne, John and Dessie all serving life sentences for murder. Their women remain in their fortress homes, kitted out on the proceeds of crime.
“It’s much better now than it ever was,” says Sean, as he leads us through a small community centre where locals are urged to come for a meal or skills training. There is a crèche too and playing pitches behind.
“There is a nice little hair-dressers in there and the food is gorgeous at the centre. It is important to give the young people something to do. Make them see that there is another path they can take.”
It is clear there is a lot of work to do. “I always took a hands-on approach to policing – and politics is the same thing. I have a long way to go to convince people I’m coming at it from different prospective now, but we will get there.
“I want to be there to help show the people there is another way forward, which is all about dialogue and education.”
We walk up Hyde Road and turn left onto Crecora Avenue. It was here that members of the Collins family lived – the same former associates that gave state evidence against the Dundon brothers in recent trials.
Horses roam freely, children play on bikes and Sean greets everyone who passes us by first name.
Some stop to chat, asking him how he is and congratulating him on his election. Others turn their heads or shout obscenities when we approach and many, even on this scorching hot summer day, are already so stoned that they walk like zombies back to their homes only just able to put one foot in front of the other.
On our tour he is able to point to houses which were the location for notorious incidents from the Dundon decade of mayhem and murder.
“I kicked in that door more times than I had hot dinners,” he says of one house. “Lovely, lovely people but the young lad got caught up in it all. God love the poor mother, he had her heart broken.”
But quickly he resumes the more positive political persona that has already won him a seat in council.
“But that is all in the past. We have to move forward and put it all behind us. I tell them that when I call to the door. They know me and they start talking about the day I arrested them or whatever, but as far as I’m concerned we don’t go back to the bad old days.
“We go forward – together – and with hope for the future and for the next generation of Weston.”
Education, sports funding and community policing are Sean’s mantra for this and other underprivileged estates in his area.
“Fr Damian Ryan is doing a fantastic job in the community centre. But we need more than that. As a former garda I understand the need for community policing, having officers here on foot, talking to the people and to the kids and changing the attitude that many have to the gardai.
“There is a major plan for rejuvenation of areas like this, but it is not something that will happen overnight and it needs a massive funding boost.
“There are 80 people connected with organised crime in jail at the moment from Limerick alone – and they will be getting out of prison over the years. We do not want them to go back to crime. We need to finally stop it in its tracks or it will have been all a waste.”
We stop and talk to a man with a new baby in his arms who has served time for crimes connected with the Dundon mob. He is pleasant at first, but then accuses Sean of heavy handedness in his former career.
“I may have been tough but look at you now. You have a house, you have a car, a job and now a baby. We cannot dwell in the past. We need to look to the future,” he says. His positivity amidst such hopelessness is infectious.
We stop at another house where a white-haired woman is weeding a floral display outside her home.
She tells Sean she remembers him well, arresting her two sons on numerous occasions. She smiles and Sean tells her it is the first time in 27 years he has seen her relaxed.
“I’m just so glad they are gone,” she says, referring to the Dundon homestead. “I just hope we can get some peace.”