Author Shane Dunphy taps into Ireland's escalating problem with deadly gang violence in new true crime audiobook Bleak Alley
David Roy speaks to best-selling Wexford author Shane Dunphy about his new true crime audiobook, Stories From The Margins: Bleak Alley in which the former child protection officer delves into Ireland's deadly gang culture
"KEANE Mulready-Woods could have been one of the kids in Bleak Alley," says best-selling author Shane Dunphy about the teenage victim of Ireland's most recent headline-grabbingly horrific tale of gang-related murder.
"Everything that I've heard about him mirrored stuff that I write about in the book – it was just the same old story."
That 'story' is of a vulnerable youth caught up in a ruthless kind of morality and logic-free criminality where the ultimate goal is to prove yourself the most dangerous and highly feared man around by any means necessary.
Narrated by Dunphy, a former child protection worker turned author and journalist who also composed and performed the music featured in the series, Bleak Alley is the first instalment in his new Stories From The Margins series on Audible.
It's a compelling based-on-real-events (names, places and timings have been altered for privacy and narrative flow) tale of a troubled young man, Mikey, whose horrendous homelife on the Black Alley estate in an unnamed town in the Irish midlands results in him joining the organised criminal gang that controls 'Bleak Alley', as the sink estate is known to its socially deprived inhabitants.
Dunphy finds himself drawn into this world when Mikey contacts him in his capacity as a newspaper columnist with a crime bent, insisting that the pair meet so that Dunphy can report on the 'positive side' of gang life for a change.
Yet, the superficial support and security offered by Mikey's new drug-dealing comrades comes with a heavy price: gang boss Griffin has asked Mikey to do a job for him – a violent, highly illegal job that the youngster is worried he might not be up for, in spite of all his 'tough guy' posturing.
Sensing another young life in danger of going very badly wrong indeed, Dunphy engineers a way of inserting himself into everyday life in Black Alley via the local community centre, which acts as a drop-in hub for vulnerable children in the area. However, he's soon put 'on notice' by formidable top dog Griffin, who's less than impressed that Dunphy has been filling his young protegé's head with "cotton wool".
The tension mounts as Mikey's date with destiny draws ever closer, with the author regularly breaking off from his main story to put its events in a historical and socio-economic context via a series of Notes From The Margins chapters covering stuff like the post-Famine origins of the Peaky Blinders, Dublin's Animal Gangs of the 1930s, key modern day gangland characters like Martin 'The General' Cahill and 'Factory John' Gilligan and the Limerick gang wars of the early 21st century.
Dunphy has previously penned nine non-fiction titles in the once booming inspirational memoir (AKA 'misery lit') genre which drew directly on his 15 years of experience in Irish child protection services, including 2006's best-selling debut Wednesday's Child and 2016's The Boy They Tried To Hide, the latter currently in development as a feature film with Rumble Films (Drive, Nightcrawler).
Most recently, the Wexford-based author has been busy with his trilogy of crime fiction novels (penned as 'AS Dunphy') starring emotionally damaged criminologist David Dunnigan; After She Vanished, When She Was Gone and If She Returned. However, his new three-audiobook deal with Audible marks an eagerly anticipated return to reality-inspired writing, as well as his first proper foray into the never more popular 'true crime' genre.
"I was constantly getting messages from readers of the previous [non-fiction] series wanting to know when the next one was coming out," explains Dunphy, who also lectures at Waterford College of Further Education where he heads up their Social Care Department.
"I had gone back to my publishers a few times and they were always saying that we would just leave things until the movie was ready to come out. Then my literary agent retired and when I went over to meet the guy I'm with now, Ivan Mulcachy, he was upfront with me about the fact that the market for 'misery lit' is no longer growing and suggested finding a new way to pitch.
"By coincidence, the lady who is doing the script for the movie told me last year that 'really, this is true crime' – so although I'm doing child protection work with the kids in the new book, we've kind of accentuated the backdrop of the crime that's involved. And the rest of the books in the series are kind of going to be in the same mould.
"Stories From The Margins is looking at how people group together in different ways through adversity. With Bleak Alley, I wanted to look at what people think of when they think about gangs and how young people come together to deal with adversity. It's based on 20 years of interactions that I had with kids in different types of gang type situations."
While Bleak Alley might feel super topical at the moment, according to Dunphy this is simply down to the depressing fact that the issues facing Mikey and co in its story are the same as those that have been damaging other young people in other deprived areas across Ireland for the past 20 years.
"Keane Mulready-Woods's end was particularly horrible and horrendous and absolutely terrifying," admits Dunphy of the teenager whose brutal murder last month was related to an ongoing gang feud in Drogheda, "but ultimately the desperation and the pain and the anger and the fear that these people are living in, it turns in on itself time and time and time again."
"I spend a chapter talking about the gang war and the terrible violence in Limerick. It's just the same stuff. It's the same cycle, it's the same cycle over and over again. So it's not 'new news' – and unless we see a complete change and turnabout in the zeitgeist and a new political will to do something about this on this island, it's not going to be the last death of its type."
And, as he points out, it's not just our politicians and policy makers who need to take a long hard look at themselves: a booming middle-class drug culture is a key source of funding for gangland criminality.
"The middle-class guy who goes out and does a few lines of coke on the weekend but says 'I'm a law-abiding citizen and what I'm doing is a victimless crime – I'm sorry but it really isn't'," Dunphy advises.
"It is fuelling this culture and that is something that an awful lot of people have to take responsibility for."
:: Bleak Alley is available on Audible now, start your 30 day free trial at Audible.co.uk