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Hip-hop and gangland crime in Limerick

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For many years music has played an interesting role in crime, with particular interest being paid to the possibility that music could socialize people to behave criminally. In the immediate aftermath of the 1999 Columbine massacre, media outlets highlighted the perpetrators’ fondness for Marilyn Mansons gothic music as an explanation for the deed (Rolling Stone, 1999). More recently the FBI went as far as to label followers of the rap duo Insane Clown Pose as gang members, giving the followers’ distinct dress sense as reason (CNN, 2014). Conversely however, this article will suggest that through the reconstruction of how we view the genre of rap music, it may be possible to socialize positively those at risk of falling prey to seriously deviant behaviours.

In August 2013 John Dundon, a key figure in Limericks criminal gangland, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the murder of Shane Geoghegan. Geoghegan, a 28-year-old aircraft fitter and rugby player, was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity on 9 November 2008 by Barry Boyle, a member or Dundons criminal gang, who was working on Dundons orders. The intended target was a member of a rival gang, who bore a physical resemblance to Geoghegan. While Geoghegans murder had been the latest in a long line of gangland killings in Limerick city, the case drew significantly more media attention due to the victims status as an innocent bystander. The admittedly tragic story provided the basis for a host of media musings on the callous character of Limericks gangland criminals.

One surprising aspect of the story was the focus on Dundon's musical preferences. During the sentencing, it was reported that Dundon listened to ‘gangster rapon his headphones, as if oblivious to the severity of his crime, and his sentence.

Americas hip-hop subculture emerged in the 1950s and 1960’s in socio-economically disadvantaged areas of America. Sources point to the Bronx, New York as the point of origin. The 1950’s and 1960’s saw the Bronx transform. A highway was built directly through the neighbourhood, stimulating a ‘white flightthat effectively removed the middle class. What was left were poor African-American and Hispanic families. These families suffered greatly in the socio-economic conditions of the time; gangs, violence and crime all became prevalent. 

The hip-hop subculture originally arose as an antidote to societal problems (Rhodes, 2013). Early hip-hop music, including songs such as ‘The Messageby Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, documented ‘ghetto’ life through a form of street poetry that captured in gritty detail the struggles of poor communities dealing with local problems, including the prevalence of drug use, and the impact of Government neglect. Groups like Public Enemy took this to a new level of political consciousness by highlighting institutional racism in America. However, as the popularity of hip-hop music spread it also became more diverse. It wasn't long before the hip-hop culture, especially rap music evolved out of its socially conscious origins, into something else.

Through the crackdown on facets of the culture, such as graffiti, the hip-hop culture began to be labelled as deviant, and was often linked, in the media, to gang crime (Cohen, 1973). By the 1990s rap music had spread to the West Coast of the US. In LA, groups such as NWA developed a genre known as ‘gangster rap. This form of rap music was explicitly confrontational. Glorifying the ‘outlawfigure of the gangster, this music became about expressing macho messages of drugs, violence, and revenge. Evidence of this can be seen in the lyrics of the rap music of the time, for example gangster rapper Tupac Shakur, in his 1994 song 'Hit 'em up', raps 'who shot me, but you punks didn't finish, now you 'bout to feel the wrath of a menace, so hit 'em up...'

The aggressive nature of rap music gave it credence in a society where the currency of violence was essential to survival. Gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips were common place in the rap culture that emerged. ‘Beefs’ or fights between rappers would often spring up on the basis of gang allegiance, the infamous east coast/ west coast war of the 1990s, with rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, as sort of figure heads for each gang became national news. How then does this information translate into the Irish context?

Just as many aspects of hip-hop culture travelled around the world by offering “a way for young people on the margins to tell their stories –in all their hybridity, pain, and humour –in societies where there was no language or medium for these stories to be told” (Fernandez, 2011), the ‘gangster rap ‘variety has also travelled. Here I will take the McCarthy-Dundon gang of Limerick city as an example. Many tropes of the Gangster rap’ culture have become an essential feature of the 'good' gang member.

The McCarthy-Dundon gang caused outrage in 2008 when photographs emerged on the internet, which showed gang members whose upper bodies were covered in tattoos of guns and (importantly to this article) slogans such as 'Thug Life', the latter an expression made famous by rapper Tupac Shakur (The Guardian 2008). Akin to this, in 2009 members of the gang released a video on YouTube, in which they threaten rivals through the medium of rap (, 2009). It is not however of relevance to this to ponder the repercussions of the gang’s actions, but instead to deconstruct them.

One theory that can be linked with the ‘gangster is to be found in Harold Finestones 1957 article entitled ‘Cats, kicks and color. Finestone, while studying opiate use among the impoverished African–American population, theorized that his subjects, unable to attain upward mobility within normative society, created the character of the ‘cat’ in an attempt to fulfil a human need of recognition of status from a peer group. The ‘cat, in line with the ‘gangster, came with its own street cred, musical preferences, dress sense, and social structure.

The McCarthy-Dundons, coming from socio-economically disadvantaged areas of Limerick city, can be linked to the conditions of Finestone's subjects. But instead of the creation of the 'cat', the Dundon-McCarthys created the 'gangster'. The ‘cat, akin to the ‘gangster, was seen as an outlaw, not conforming to the rules of society, instead creating a subcultural set of rules and norms by which to live.

However, Finestone's 'cats', although partaking in deviant behaviour, rarely  found economic success through the creation of an imaginative, subcultural social structure, instead merely enjoying the status, among peers of the same group, attributed to the cat. (Finestone, 1957) The ‘gangster, conversely, has an economic dimension. In response to poverty and exclusion, the ‘gangster’ creates his own wealth through criminality.

Ireland's gangsters managed for a time to make a successful business from crime. Drugs and racketeering were two avenues the gangs used to make money. One explanation for this could be taken from Robert Merton's 1938 theory of anomie. For Merton, anti-social behaviour is caused by a dislocation between cultural conventions and the class structure. His theory attributes criminal activity to a lack of norms within the socialisation of a person, ending in a type of moral disillusion, sometimes leading to criminal activity. According to Merton, Finestone's subjects were economically disadvantaged, coupled with lack of traditions (most subjects came from single-parent households), leading to retreatism, meaning the creation of the cat and also high levels of opiate use. 

Similarly the McCarthy-Dundons lacked means, but in contrast, came mostly from traditional Irish traveller backgrounds, rich in traditions and norms that, in accordance with Merton, created innovation and deviation, and the creation of a crime empire. But with the norms of traveller society often being different to that of Irish society as a whole, the creation of the 'gangster' could thus be explained as an attempt to reconcile the two, through the creation of the gangster subculture.

Thus if this assessment of Irish gangland culture can be supported, it would be prudent for society to construct new ways to use the ‘gangster; positive ways. Given the large socio-economically disadvantaged populations in areas such as inner-city Limerick, the recruitment ground for gangsters is large. With the death or imprisonment of every gang member, a new one can be found, with young males at the most vulnerable. 

From looking at previous example of the hip-hop culture, and its role in gangland Ireland, by taking the idea of hip-hop, and specifically rap we can construct new projects that would allow the participants to engage with the hip-hop culture in a positive way. For example, Cork rapper GMC has been running a Rap and Beats workshop, working in socio-economically disadvantaged areas, with the intention of giving the youth a voice through the medium of rap music (, 2013). 

Similarly, as demonstrated in Claire Dixs new documentary about Dublin rappers Costello, GI, and soul singer Willa Lee, the language of hip-hop can be used to encourage positive rather than destructive constructions of identity for young people in poor neighbourhoods.

Through projects like this it may be possible to remove the ‘playaspect of the gangster. In removing this, violence and other aspects of the subculture become part of the real world with real outcomes and repercussions for the actors. Coupled with the voice given to the youths through rap music, a place in society is given, thus making it harder for gangland criminals to recruit from the ranks of youths feeling neglected by society. Projects such as these could also become part of the rehabilitation programme within prisons, giving offenders an alternative means of status other than gangster. 

Thus, as a society, we can remove the negative connotations of the hip-hop culture and reframe it, in order to make progressive changes within communities most vulnerable to gangland activity. It can then be assumed that it is society’s attribution to a musical genre, not the music in itself, that creates the negative imaginaries utilised by the gangster as tools of recruitment, and through the reconstruction of these imaginaries it is possible to reframe how the ‘wanna begangsters view themselves, reducing the chance of criminal activity.

Orla O’Callaghan, a social science undergraduate, University College Cork.




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