Dublin — The woman was in tears as the procession of several hundred mothers, fathers, and children, gathered in O'Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, to protest Ireland's rampant drug problem. Through her tears the distraught mother insisted her 16-year-old son, William, who had recently died of a drug overdose, had never before taken drugs. But suddenly one night he became ill.
``We know who did it,'' she said bitterly. ``My brother-in-law is the drug pusher. William lived long enough to tell us that much.''
Several parents from the same neighborhood in Ballyfermot, a working-class district in Dublin, surged forward to confirm the story and complain that the police were ``doing nothing'' to jail drug pushers.
Others told stories of their own children being victims of drug pushers in a city that for its size has rapidly become one of the worst centers for heroin addiction in Europe.
Desmond O'Malley, a former Irish justice minister, says: ``Dublin is about as bad as any place in Europe, as bad as Amsterdam. That leads to all kinds of crime.''
Still, several people were relieved to say their children had been rehabilitated.
As this reporter moved away from the gathering, he was approached by a young, somewhat disheveled man dressed all in blue: blue shirt, blue sweater, blue jeans.
``They always talk about drug pushers. They never say anything about junkies,'' he said by way of introduction.
``Do you want a story on a junkie?'' he inquired, matter-of-factly.
A short discussion was followed by a stroll to a nearby coffee bar. And then the confession: ``I'm the junkie.''
Tousled curly hair hung over his forehead giving him initially a boyish appearance. But the eyes of the 24-year-old were jaded. He looked and smelled stale, fingers almost black from nicotine stains -- the result of constant, almost frantic cigarette smoking.
``When you have drugs, you smoke one after another. It's the only way you can get what we call `Get your head together.' ''
At the coffee-bar counter he immediately insisted on paying, pulling out from his shabby jeans pocket at least 150 Irish pounds.
It didn't require guesswork to know where the money came from.
``Every day of the week I'm robbing. Seven days a week. Robbing handbags. I work on my own. Most of the times I do. I break safes. I break into houses. I've never had to kill anyone. I've never had to attack anyone.
``I'm not a mugger.''
Once, he said, he even stole 10 pounds from his mother. But moments after doing so he happened to notice a ``T. D.'' (the Irish abbreviation for a member of the Dail, the Irish Parliament), leaving his flat. The T. D., the junkie alleges, without elaboration, gets ``backhanders'' or kickbacks.
He entered the T. D.'s flat and, he claims, picked up 8,000 pounds. ``It was all over the house. It was all over the bedroom.''
As soon as he had this money, he said, he returned the 10 pounds he had stolen from his mother.
He said his plight was desperate and that he needs a heroin ``fix'' three times a day.
``It costs 40 pounds for a quarter gram [one fix]. That's just a little piece.'' His voice trails off as he tries to provide a comparison by measuring a tiny area on a plastic coffee stirrer, but gives up the attempt.
His three daily fixes cost him 120 pounds. It explains the compulsion to rob.
Why didn't he rob the man he was talking to now?
The answer was simple. He didn't need to. He had the money.
Such was the immediacy of his experience it never seemed to occur to him, while he was flush, that he might plan his next theft.
He has committed more robberies than he can recall. He has been arrested on occasions, but the police have been able to catch him only on technicalities such as not possessing tax insurance, not on possession of drugs. To date, he has served three separate six-month sentences.
When did he last take heroin? ``This morning about an hour ago.'' He said he got the money by robbing the handbags of nurses at a Dublin hospital.
``It's not easy for a junkie to get off drugs. If you haven't got it, you can't work. You feel sick. You keep on getting into sweats. You start fighting with your friends.
``That's when you haven't got it. When you have it, you sit down and relax. You're in a world of your own. You can be really nice to the people.
``I feel sick now. About 7 o'clock it will hit.''
At his mother's insistence, he had gone to a drug center for treatment three times -- most recently on his own volition.
Robert, as he later identified himself, said he had gone to a local clinic. But he can't give up drugs, he says.
``I'm not really giving myself a chance. I'm taking heroin at the same time.''
He talked of the work done at the clinic, complaining that there are too few beds and too many drug abusers. But there was only praise for the doctor who treated him. ``He's a good man. He'll tell you straight. He'll tell you how my whole life has gone. You can ask him to show you my files.'' He identified the doctor by name.
After the conversation, this reporter contacted the clinic and requested an interview with the doctor. Medical ethics prevented him from giving details, but by way of confirmation he said that Robert could not have known as much as he did, and, particularly, about the doctor himself, unless he had been a patient at the clinic.
A check was also made at the club in the heart of Dublin where Robert claimed he regularly received his heroin. It was downstairs at basement level.
Through the glass door people could be seen hovering around snooker tables and video machines. Outside the door is a buzzer which allows visitors to call for a security check and clearance to enter. This reporter was not cleared.
Robert claims the club eludes police detection because the people inside ``swallow the stuff'' before police can be admitted. The protest meeting of Concerned Parents Against Drugs right outside was hardly coincidental. Presumably it was one of the incensed group who had scrawled ``Buy your drugs down here'' on the walls leading down to the door as a means of exposing the club.
Robert doesn't give any compelling economic or social cause, such as unemployment or a broken home, for his addiction.
``It was just there. I experimented. I wanted to see what it's like. I got hooked on them,'' he explains.
Five years later he's counting the cost. ``I have a kid through a girlfriend and another [child] on the way. She's pregnant again. It's ruining my life.'' His girlfriend, who had managed to overcome her own addiction, was understanding, trying to help him do the same.
The thought that his son, Mark, might get involved in drugs later on, troubled him. What if he were to discover in later years that his boy had turned to drugs?
``I don't think I would give him a hiding. I would tell him what I went through.''
He seemed of two minds about whether he wanted to give up drugs himself.
``I do and I don't,'' he said. Then he added, ``There's not enough help [drug cure] in this country.''
He thought there was only one way out of the drug scene. ``I sometimes think the only thing to do is to drain all the old blood out of my body and put new blood in. . . .''
Later he conceded the problem was mental. ``It's the mind. I did cold turkey once. I saw it's all in my own mind.''