The Bizarre World of Ireland's Celebrity 'Gangsters'
Red-tops on the Emerald Isle treat underworld figures the same way 'Grazia' treats Alexa Chung and Rita Ora
Convicted criminal "Fat" Freddie Thompson on the cover of Ireland's 'Evening Herald'
Last February, a man dressed in an auburn wig and a grey dress quietly slipped into Dublin's Regency Hotel. He was followed by two policemen openly carrying AK-47 rifles. Except they weren't policemen; they, like the man in the dress, were in disguise – three of six people involved in a gangland killing at a boxing weigh-in taking place in the hotel. After they opened fire, two were injured, and one man – David Byrne – died.
The attack lead to soul-searching in the community. In Dublin, people feared the impact of potential reprisals on other gang members. Lawmakers questioned whether the black market created by Irish drug laws had emboldened drug gangs, allowing them to accumulate the wealth and power required to carry out assassinations. Byrne's funeral was attended by criminal figures from around the world. The Gardaí [police] put the city on lockdown.
There was one group, though, that was positively giddy about the killing: the Irish tabloids. In the week leading up to the funeral, they dedicated hundreds of column inches to how much the interment was estimated to cost, and what those attending would be wearing.
"CRIMELORD Daniel Kinahan splashed out over €2,000 on an Armani suit in Dublin's Brown Thomas ahead of the funeral of David Byrne," said one news item in the Irish Sun, referring to the son of convicted drug dealer Christy Kinahan. A number of Irish tabloids have alleged that Daniel Kinahan runs the Kinahan "cartel", but he has never been convicted of any crime. "Hours later, he was snapped alongside thug Fat Freddie Thompson, both men equally dressed to kill."
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This is in keeping with the tone of crime reporting in Ireland. The Irish public are inundated with stories of a "gangland" full of famed underworld figures who are treated the same way Grazia treats Alexa Chung and Rita Ora. Stories typically focus on the minutia of their day-to-day lives: who they are romantically linked to; where they've been spotted staying; what cars they are driving; when they like to watch films; why they were seen in public wearing drag; which celebrities they've been spotted partying with; how they spend their money.
There's a jovial tone to the coverage that British readers will recognise from their own tabloids. "He has told friends he cannot wait for the early morning feeds and dirty nappies and says he has a new perspective on the value of life," The Sunday World wrote, breaking the very important news that sexagenarian Irish underworld figure Martin "The Viper" Foley had found a new love and was expecting to become a father for the third time. The headline: Old Father Crime.
One report detailed a Halloween costume worn by the female friend of a criminal. "These exclusive photographs show [the woman] parading around a pub in Tallaght in an extremely revealing pink number, complete with copious amounts of fake tan and pink lipstick," the same paper wrote, in a piece subtly titled "A Scare at Bedtime".
These lighter "gangland" stories are interspersed with solid reporting on the grizzly details of a murder, but each crime is treated as if it was the latest film from a Hollywood actor. Everything is about personalities and personas.
"Personalisation and a kind of focus on the individual has been a very longstanding tradition in journalism, certainly going back to the mid-1800s," says Dr Harry Browne, Professor of Journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
"It's drawing on a very longstanding tradition of storytelling, of heroes and villains – mostly villains... also, it's very hard for someone who has a criminal record to sue a newspaper for defamation under Irish defamation law. The argument would be that they don't have a reputation to protect."
The subjects of "gangland" reportage are indeed slated. Anyone who's allegedly involved in crime is referred to with dehumanising language – words like "scumbag", "thug" and "monster".
Of course, writing about gangsters comes with huge risks to personal safety, but these risks tend to affect individual journalists rather than big news organisations. "It's going to seem ironic in a world in which [Irish crime journalist] Veronica Guerin is shot and [Irish crime journalist] Paul Williams lives under police protection," Browne says. "But from the standpoint of protecting your employer's pocket and not spending a lot of time in court, sometimes it's easier to write 'dirty' stories about 'dirty' people."
Dirty stories about dirty people certainly sell. Ireland"s two highest-selling newspapers, The Sunday World and The Sunday Independent, are both filled with pieces about Irish gang crime every single week. Other papers, like the Evening Herald, The Irish Daily Star and The Irish Sun, often cover similar subject matter.
"These are lurid kinds of stories," says author Frankie Gaffney, who is from an area of Dublin typically referred to as "gangland" by Irish tabloids. His own work, Dublin Seven, tells the story of a young man who becomes involved in crime in Ireland's capital city. The end of each chapter contains a vignette of a news story, mimicking the manner in which a gangster might be reported upon in the Irish media.
"A while back the Evening Herald had a front page picture of [Irish underworld figure] Fat Freddie drinking tea," he says. "The headline was 'Cup of Hate'. What public interest is there in knowing that Fat Freddie had a cup of tea?"
He directs me to another piece in the Sunday World, from last April, titled "Gangsters Molls love to flash their other halves cash", which chronicled the spending habits of criminals' girlfriends.
"Pedicures at €80 are also regular treatments for the ladies of gangland who pay up to €50 every night they go out for a make-up artist," the 900-odd word article reads. "Competition is fierce for a place at the top table in drug and criminal gangs and sometimes hanging onto their man comes at an even bigger price."
Stories about underworld opulence are given prominence, under the rubric of being a national concern, because they sell papers. Yet the bigger picture is rarely reported on. Last year, for example, the murder rate in Ireland hit a 21-year low, but that's not a story likely to land on the front pages.
"If they actually cared about crime," Gaffney says, "they"d talk about the causes and the correct, proven, empirical methods of stopping that crime. But that's not what they're interested in. They're interested in sensational gossip."
The only time "gangland" reporting falls into a more serious, sombre tone is when crimes are likely to disturb middle class, suburban tranquillity. Once there is a whisper of gang-related violence actually affecting a newspaper's more wealthy readership, stories become suddenly concerned for public order.
"The murderous feud is escalating from the confines of gangland to the heart of civil society," a concerned journalist in the Irish Independent wrote, for example, when a child in a private Dublin school was given police protection for fear that their life may have been in danger due to an ongoing gang war.
"[Crime journalist Paul Williams] makes us out to be like the Mafia godfathers – most lads love it."
Unsurprisingly, those involved in gangs see a mention in "gangland" reportage as a badge of honour. A 2009 study conducted by journalist Lisa-Marie Berry, in which she interviewed 30 young offenders in a Dublin prison about their relationship to the work of crime journalist Paul Williams, found that criminals regarded being included in newspapers, or his books, as a signifier of success, and that such reportage actually encouraged them to become involved in crime.
"I found that these young offenders are being inspired by what they see as glorification within Paul Williams' reporting, and consider themselves consequently, to be the 'criminal masterminds' of their generation," Berry noted, discussing her work.
"You know you are up there with the best if Paul Williams calls you a 'crime boss' or gives you a nickname; that makes people more afraid of you. That can't be a bad thing in the business of crime," a young offender told her during her research. "He makes us out to be like the Mafia godfathers – most lads love it."
The fact that there is less crime in Ireland than ever, and that there might be even less if "gangland" reporting stopped encouraging criminals to make headlines, will do nothing to dissuade the tabloids. As long as we convince ourselves that it's OK to read this stuff, "gangland" reportage – this weird ugly cousin of celebrity gossip – won't be going anywhere. In Irish journalism, at least, crime pays.
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