Sinead Kelly: In another world next door.

(Since 2019 I was contacted by one of the women who worked with Sinead Kelly. I know a lot more of the story now, unfortunately I cannot share it with you without endangering the lady in question, but she wanted me to tell you, Sinead was a lovely girl, everybody’s best friend, but her own worst enemy).

On this day, 21 June, 21 years ago in 1998, 21 year old Sinead Kelly died of multiple stab wounds on the side of the canal, in Herbert Place, Dublin 2.

I realised recently that I had not paid enough attention to the story unfolding, because Sinead Kelly was also the point at which I felt my activism had achieved it’s goals and I could move on.

Then my goals were clearly defined and simple, to make people aware of the fact that sex workers are not a form of vermin to be eradicated, nor naughty girls in need of clear direction to their “place”, just diverse human beings equal to anyone else.

When Sinead died it was the first time I ever gave my real name on air on Radio Westmeath in her honour, and also gave my real name to the flowers I tied to the railings with the others. Another. anonymous, piece survives, I found it recently.

As the the women pondered their future last night a former prostitute claimed the criminalisation of the oldest profession had made those involved in the seedy trade “many times more vulnerable” .

She said “It has driven a wedge between the prostitutes and the Gardai”…

…The fact that Belinda Periera’s killer was still at large sent “a terrible message out, that it is now open season on whores all the time.

A change in the law in 1993 had put prostitutes at the mercy of organised crime, she said.

“These women begin to get hurt, or even die”. Women plying their trade had only themselves and each other for protection.

“There are no words for how ashamed I am of the society that left them alone in this nightmare and then condemned them for it”  Irish Independent, 23 June 1998

They turned out in droves for the funeral of Sinead Kelly on 27 June 1998. I remember getting all the Sunday papers from the local shop (after the mastheads had been cut off for the returns, I couldn’t afford to buy them!) and it was a huge pile. I think it was the Sunday Tribune that had a meticulous, broadsheet, 3 page spread about a lovely young woman who was trying to beat the drugs and go through college. I broke down and cried, because I knew I had achieved my goals, and because that was all I could do for Sinead, it was time to move on, and that is where I left it.

Sinead Kelly was more than just a crossroads in my own life, she was a human being full of her own hopes, dreams and ambitions. She came from a nice family in Santry had 3 siblings, got involved in heroin and was selling sex at the age of 19.

The sexual offences act of 1993 recriminalised soliciting, which was the only fully independent sex work possible at that time, for the first time in 10 years. One of the negative effects was to destroy the huge benefits of decriminalisation in terms of safety and peace of mind, as well as all but eradicating pimps and under age kids from the big southside red light districts. Decriminalised we had lead almost normal lives with an extra helping of stigma. The 1993 Sexual Offences Act blew that away and put a nerve wracking nightmare in it’s place and no alternative means of income available to escape to.

One of the lateral effects (I don’t think you can call it negative or positive) was to open the door to a wave of young drug addicts to fill the vacuum left by the many independent sex workers who had been driven indoors to work for pimps for fear of arrest and exposure. I was told, years ago, that the streets had changed out of all recognition in months, and that these new women came with pimps and stole from the clients or even other sex workers when they couldn’t get money any other way. Because of the law nobody could afford to turn to the Gardai any more. It was described to me as a reign or terror, by someone who did not scare easily.

The sources for the last paragraph were women who were being directly threatened and the media – not the most unbiased sources. So let me try and drill down beneath for a more balanced version of the truth.

I knew a girl, exactly the same age as Sinead Kelly from a deprived background in the North Circular Road area with two siblings, one younger, one older, and the culture of their childhood, except for the music and the clothes, did not seem very different to the culture of my own. Drugs were a SCARY THING ON TV that did not happen in real life (except cannabis that was SERIOUS BADNESS) – delinquency stopped at cigarettes and cider.  I worked with two women who were very controlled morphine sulphate addicts and knew a third from a family in the inner city who was working to keep her partner in morphine sulphate – something occurs to me – it was all pharmaceutical morphine sulphate from forged prescriptions and small time dealers – not the heroin from organised crime that blighted Sinead Kelly’s life. We talked between clients a lot, and the less clients and later in the evening it got the more honest the sharing. None of them described anything like the world that killed Sinead Kelly, at home or out on the streets. Many of the other women were involved in  the “Concerned Parents” movement and taking shifts on the picket lines that were succeeding in driving the dealers out of the council estates before they could take hold.

On the other hand, by 1994 (12 months after the 1993 Sexual Offences Act) clients on Waterloo Road were being decoyed by women they thought were sex workers and robbed by their pimps – in one case the victim was driven around for at least an hour being savagely beaten by several men.

What changed?

The 1993 Sexual Offences Act created an environment that brought this to the southside, but it didn’t just spring out of thin air.

I think I recognise at least one, maybe two of the gang involved in that beating. Vicious lads from Northern Ireland who seemed to be acting as “henchmen” when organised crime started to gain a foothold in the southside red light districts in early 1993 (coincidentally the reason I got out of sex work for my life in late March or early April of that year).

Understand, these were different times, there was no such thing as logging into your passive anon account and scooting around social media to get an idea what was going on, so all I know and can discover remains fragmented and unclear. The frontline of organised crime moving in, was tied in some way to the northside massage parlours, a small pornography studio (that may, or may not, have been apocryphal) and a real taxi firm that was shut down a year or two later for some other kind of shady dealing, they were taking on apartments and inviting street sex workers to move into them. There were also plans for a Soho Style Champagne Club on Leeson Street. The presence of “henchmen” made all this very sinister indeed, but still, I see no particular flood of heroin or drug addicts, nor even a potential for one.

It is stated over and over again in the the public domain that these young women came from Benburb Street – the saddest kind of red light district of all, where the oldest, most broken and most desperate go to sell sex. In many cities you will find them on the docks, in Dublin they sold sex for whatever they could get on a long straight street just behind the North Quays that is now occupied by a stretch of the Luas light rail. None of us ever went there for any reason – I never even drove through there, when I went looking for Benburb St recently I was quite surprised by where I found it. If a client was seen on Benburb St (there were guards who would warn us) none of us would go near him. The fear of AIDS was still pretty irrational and unreasoned at that time – but there was more to it than that, a deeper revulsion and a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I”.

It goes without saying that any woman known to have worked on Benburb Street would never be allowed to work anywhere else in Dublin again. Yet suddenly after the 1993 Sexual Offences act came into full operation in September (there was a 2 or 3 month negotiated “grace period”) the southside red light districts were awash with reasonably attractive young women with pimps, bad drug habits and few scruples, by the time Sinead Kelly was murdered in 1998.

The reason why they would come to the southside as soon as the sex workers who had always been there were too depleted and disempowered by the 1993 Sexual Offences Act to prevent them is simple – you could get twice as much money from each client on the south side, and still work Benburb St in the day time (it was the only day time red light district in Dublin) if you needed money for drugs earlier.

That doesn’t bring me any closer to understanding who these young women were and how they became so addicted and lacking in self respect and scruples. Sinead was identified to her killer by a literal “Judas Kiss” from another, younger woman who went to Gardai later because she claimed she had been told Sinead was only going to get a “frightener”.

Sinead’s murder was no “frightener” gone wrong – she was held down by one or two men and stabbed repeatedly by another, which, even by the most vicious standards of organised crime, seems excessive for the £850 debt it is believed to have been about. In the years since, the Gardai came to know who killed her without enough evidence to charge them, as far as i can tell these people served time on other charges. Another of these young women had both her wrists broken a week or so before for similar reasons. Were they making escalating “examples” to frighten a lot more money owed by these young women and their pimps?  Did it work?

Maybe I have made Sinead Kelly sound like someone who wasn’t terribly nice – but drugs can do that to anyone. I didn’t know her, all I know is that I wasn’t the most incandescently wonderful human being that ever lived age 21 either. I didn’t deal drugs, but then I wasn’t a drug addict who needed a load of money just to function every day, and that may just be my good fortune rather than my virtue at play – my best friend as a teen was a heroin addict trading herself to pedophiles in London age 12, and she was a MUCH nicer person than me.

As far as I can tell many of the younger girls who sold sex in Benburb Street and Herbert Place as well as the young boys who sold sex elsewhere came from Madonna House which was phased out from 1994 and closed suddenly in April 1995 leaving many teenage residents homeless:

As far as I can ascertain, Sinead Kelly was not in Madonna House, but without those who were, there might not have been a subculture to reinforce her and she might have found a way out to a life.

From memory of the feature articles of the time, people said Sinead was lovely and gave reasons why, so it wasn’t just regard for the dead. It would be great if I could produce a survivor, find out what became of the rest of them, but I can’t so in the default let me show a quote from Deirdre Kinahan’s haunting collage of the real women of those times “Be Carna” produced the following year, 1999. I think this particular voice was probably crafted skillfully from a few of these young women to speak for them all:

“Roisin’s dead. I heard this morning. She was found in a flat. dead. stabbed to death. stabbed…I phoned Aisling. I intended to be cool but something snapped….I told her about Roisin and the squat and the res and the drugs…. I fucked up, I know. Aisling brought me back and gave me a home, sisters, dogs. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t see it. I had to fuck it all up. Got thrown out of the school, fucked about with the lads from town. I wanted to show I was a city girl…I wanted them to see that I was different…cool, experienced, fun….I think I wanted it to be fucked coz that’s how it always had been. Aisling took it all. three years I fucked with her family and then I left. Robbed her cash and left…She says I can come down. Never mentioned the money. Wondered for years where I went. She said she crawled the town for days after I’d gone, contacted the guards in Dublin, nation-wide. Jesus, they’ve arrested me often enough, amazing they never twigged.”

That “other world next door” and all it’s broken young occupants, certainly still existed two years later:
Kim O’Donovan (deceased 24 August 2000 aged 15)

I cannot help wondering if that “other world next door” she lived and died in still exists and if we are doing enough, or anything at all effective, to address it?

…and you know what? Criminalising clients and throwing funding at Ruhama wouldn’t have saved Sinead or Kim…or any of them…