From left: Sergeant Deirdre O’Neill, Crime Prevention Officer at Waterford Garda Station; former addicts and now anti-drugs speakers and counsellors, Conor Harris from Kildare and George Henderson, Waterford; Mossie Cheasty, chair of Kill Community Centre Committee, and psychotherapist and youth worker David Wade.

Conor Harris from Kildare, a talented footballer in his youth and a minor medal winner for the Lilywhites, told how he took the wrong path on drugs. However, he turned his life around and is now a counsellor trained in drug rehabilitation and doing talks around Ireland. He shared his experiences, along with another local counsellor and former user. He was raised in a small Kildare village, where he excelled at sport and loved GAA. As a kid he wanted to play at Croke Park, did play in underage finals and could have been a county player had he stuck with Gaelic football. He grew up in a council estate but when he went to secondary school his peer influences changed and he drifted into the circle of drugs. He stayed in bed too long and did not attend classes. He got suspended from school for drugs and recalled doing his Leaving cert high on cocaine and handing in his paper all agitated after just 30 minutes and walking out of the exams. He started selling drugs at school and afterwards. He spent the money on clothes but also upped his consumption on drugs. He used to sneak out of home doing deals in the evening while still a student. After the Leaving Cert exams, he went with his class on a holiday and was on drugs for 4 days solid. At that point his body gave in and he recalled collapsing on the floor and afterwards experiencing heart troubles from his cocaine use. He ended up in hospital suffering from psychosis. This really shocked him into seeking help and he told his mother of his drug activities. She’d been unaware of his troubles. The 23-year-old landed a job after school but was drug dealing at the same time. His sports career seemed to be over at this stage, but he featured on RTÉ’s ‘Davy’s Toughest Team’ in 2021 and is happily back playing with his club. When reality hit, Conor’s habit saw him spending €1,000-2,000 a week. That could not be sustained, he owed back money to dealers and was on the road to bankruptcy. He even felt suicidal at times. The drugs he was taking were having less affect, despite the extra cost. Eventually, he got into a treatment centre and was assigned a mentor and a sponsor. After years of abuse and criminal activity, he finally got clean and became himself again. For people caught up in this lifestyle, to make the change, finding a new social group not linked to drugs is key, Conor said. It takes courage to make that change. You also need to have a new purpose in life after, or generally, he added. He is now trying to help others after training as a counsellor. In his opinion, the GAA has a massive drugs problem and needs to be tackled to tame the situation, with drugs now being offered to young people in small localities. People need to encourage others to be safe and stay away from them. His advice is to become disciplined, get new habits that are positive, go to the right places and with the right people, and make sure to watch out for others too. We can recall an old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” and people should look out for one another, talk about these issues and do not ignore the mental health of others. Conor was very brave in his talk as he said that mental health problems can affect anyone. He got a great round of applause and much respect for speaking so well from the heart on what was a very credible story.

Waterford back story

Another counsellor working with the Gardai from the county area is George Henderson, who recalled the dangerous road he went down taking and dealing drugs. He is now reformed and advising you people about the dangers involved. He grew up in the Cheekpoint/Passage area and even this small place by the Suir Estuary was and is not exempt from such problems. He said he is now 12 years’ clean, having finally got into recovery, and has just finished a degree in counselling and psychology. He is working towards his Masters in addiction counselling next year. He told how he had to leave the family home and at one stage during his drug taking he had no food or money. He managed to stay for a while with neighbours. A former cocaine user, he said it is sad to see this now hitting small villages. Secondary schools are being affected by this “madness”, and people need to recognise what is happening in terms of house burglaries and thefts, George said. His feeling is that drug use is perhaps here to stay and could get worse in the next 5-10 years. The current situation in San Francisco could come to Ireland, he suggested. In the U.S., the new drug fentanyl is causing an opioid crisis which George fears may hit Ireland and devastate communities. The resultant destitution on the streets of America can be seen on TV documentaries and CNN. Homelessness caused by drug-taking is starting to really take a hold in Dublin and could spread elsewhere. George reckons a war is needed on drugs to fight against addiction getting a grip in our communities. He himself became a dealer to feed his cocaine habit, starting off on cannabis at the age of just 13. Free samples were given and then payments followed. Friends were encouraged to take drugs and noted that there were dealers outside schools too over 10 years ago. He had a network selling drugs but also owed big money to dealers when he decided to give up and his mother helped him out to pay those old debts. George noted also how there were drug WhatsApp groups in Waterford, where trades were offered and requested. Local Gardaí have spoken previously about the Revolut app being used to channel drugs payments. It is a problem too in the pub trade where people go to the toilet to take cocaine on occasion. It’s a huge challenge for publicans and he saw it himself. A pub owner from a country area had even rung him about it to seek advice, knowing that he is a trained drugs counsellor and speaker. George said that in some places he has seen sons and fathers taking drugs together, as well as mothers and daughters. It crosses generations and, despite the health and financial consequences, is gaining a certain type of acceptance, he warned. He is not proud of his previous life and bad back story but is there to offer experience and impart knowledge about what’s happening.

Speaking at the Kill event, members of the Gardaí and Sergeant Deirdre O’Neill made no apologies for highlighting such real-life stories at this and future public meetings. Attention has to be drawn to this serious problem affecting communities, they said. The message is that there is hope, there is help, there is a way out.

Kieran Walsh