On the evening of Sunday the 12th of January, a teenage boy wearing a Hugo Boss tracksuit and a Canada Goose jacket made his way through Drogheda city centre, in County Louth, Ireland. He was last seen by his family at around 6PM, as he walked across Saint Dominic's Bridge and over the River Boyne. No one is certain of what his exact movements were afterwards.
The next day, almost 50 kilometres away – in Coolock, north County Dublin – a group of children made a grim discovery: several human limbs packed into a gear bag on the side of a road. DNA tests confirmed that they belonged to 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods – he'd been abducted, murdered and dismembered. Less than 48 hours later, other parts of Mulready-Woods' body were discovered inside the boot of a burning car, in nearby Ballybough.
The brutal killing of Mulready-Woods is the latest in an ongoing feud between two local gangs, which has so far seen three murders and scores of arson attacks. Although several parties involved are suspected of selling drugs, tensions have escalated to far more than a dispute over turf: both sides are now motivated by a desire to exact revenge in ways certain to inflict maximum psychological trauma on anyone who knows their victims.
Violence between the gangs is reported to have begun in July of 2018, when a drug dealer attempted to assassinate an alleged major drug supplier to Drogheda. The shooting left the man paralysed, and he was later taunted by rivals over the phone. Petrol bomb attacks and tit-for-tat attempted revenge shootings ensued, resulting in the death of two men, one of whom was killed outside his home in Louth, the other in Bettystown, County Meath. Mulready-Woods – who was aligned to the man shot in 2018, and had recently been convicted for intimidating a family over a drug debt – was killed in a severe escalation of an already incredibly brutal feud.
The sheer depravity of the murder has shocked Ireland. Killers have dismembered their victims in numerous other cases, but always as a means of destroying evidence, never for the purpose of intimidation. Also being investigated is the possibility that the attack was filmed and sent to Mulready-Woods' associates before authorities were aware of the crime. Images purporting to depict the murder have been widely shared through WhatsApp groups, and the Gardaí (police) are urging the public not to share the disturbing and unverified content.
Gangs have used social media as a means of antagonising each other since the conflict began, with footage of arson attacks and masked men making death threats available on YouTube and elsewhere. A viral message circulating WhatsApp groups speculated that Mulready-Woods' killer had planned to deposit the mutilated remains outside the homes of two well-known criminals, as a warning. Last year, one of the men was involved in filming the suspect being assaulted, before uploading it to social media. The man then posed for pictures wearing the suspect's gym gear in a bid to humiliate him. This theory was later reported by several Irish newspapers as a line of inquiry being taken by Gardaí.
Dr Páraic Kerrigan, a teaching fellow at the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Information and Comms, says the videos can be understood as part of the broader phenomenon of performance crime: illegal acts intended to be witnessed by an audience.
Various aspects of a performance crime – which can encompass everything from happy slappings to ISIS-style beheading videos – can be found in the Louth feud. "It's serving several purposes," he explains. "For one, it's being broadcast to a wide audience. There are also specific audiences within that which are fragmented; these are two gangs which are trying to communicate and antagonise each other via a very public platform."
Large closed social media groups have enabled criminals to easily access an Irish media infrastructure that already frames crime in extremely problematic and even potentially harmful ways. Gangsters are often depicted as celebrities and given nicknames, which critics say has the inadvertent effect of promoting criminality among young people. And while violent criminals are not created by WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook, it's important to note that social media can exacerbate situations – incentives are created for crimes to be increasingly brutal and public. Reputations can be tarnished instantly, prompting hasty responses from dangerous people desperate to save face.
"What we're seeing in many of us sharing these videos is that criminality has become part of an infotainment world that has been facilitated by social media," Dr Kerrigan adds. "I certainly think that celebrity culture and people wanting to acquire notoriety does play a role in this, and our attempt to understand what's happening here. Of course, the irony here is that the crime performers very often generate the evidence which leads to a conviction."
The murder of Keane Mulready-Woods has become a major talking point during Ireland's ongoing general election: Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has pledged to give "every resource needed" to tackle the feud; opposition leader Micheál Martin has called for the expansion of the non-jury Special Criminal Court, which was established during The Troubles to deal with IRA members and is today used to put powerful underworld figures on trial.
But while emergency policing will be important to deescalate the situation in the short term, holistic solutions will be needed to tackle the root causes of young men like Mulready becoming involved in crime. Drogheda has experienced cuts to essential services following years of austerity implemented by Fine Gael, who came to power in 2011 during a major economic recession. Many community development initiatives which function as a barrier to young people getting involved in criminality are gone. Plus, there's plenty of money to be made from drug dealing – cocaine use is at record levels across the country.
"When you're living in a disadvantaged area like Rathmullen [near where the victim was killed], it's so bloody easy to groom a young guy at 12, 13 or 14 into crime," says Declan Power, an Independent councillor for Drogheda. "He doesn't have the money, or the support, at home or elsewhere."
Power also lived in County Limerick during a similar feud in the 2000s, where he saw exactly the same things as he sees now: "Highly built up area[s] with a lack of resources, lack of services… will have criminal activity going on. I was heavily involved in sports development in Moyross [in Limerick] years ago, and again it was the same thing: massive, built up housing estates with lack of resources and services, a school at most."
In a country where dozens of people have died in gang-related violence in recent years, it is becoming obvious that what the Irish government is doing simply isn't working. Unless a long term solution addressing the root causes of crime is implemented, Drogheda is likely to see more armed men patrolling the streets, and more young people like Keane Mulready-Woods ending up as casualties of the underworld.