A few years ago, maybe ten, I saw a documentary that featured video footage of a street gang from Peru called Los Pirañitas or The Little Piranhas. The Little Piranhas are a bunch of homeless kids, mostly in their early teens. They prey on adults, usually unsuspecting tourists, by surrounding them and cutting open their pockets with knives before making off with whatever money they can grab. Just like a school of piranhas might attack a bigger fish.
When I saw the video clip of one of these muggings, I was living in a small mid-terrace house on Beechmount Parade, Belfast, with my soon-to-be wife, Michelle. We were constantly aware of the groups of teenagers that hung about on the street corners all hours of the day, hoods drawn up and baseball caps pulled down low. Now, West Belfast can’t really be compared to the slums of Lima with regards to poverty, Peru is still regarded as a third world country. But West Belfast it is one of the most socially deprived areas in Northern Ireland. Illiteracy, drug use, crime… and this all feeds into the terrible problem with teen suicide that seems to grow every year. To me, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine a school of Piranhas on the streets of Beechmount. And so I did.
In my novel, WEE ROCKETS (originally titled PIRANHAS), a gang of ten fourteen-year-olds terrorise the streets of West Belfast. The story is set in 2007, a very unusual time in recent Northern Irish history. The Provisional IRA had called a ceasefire, decommissioned their weapons and sworn off punishment beatings for anti-social behaviour in Catholic/Republican communities. But at the same time, Sinn Fein, the political party long associated with the Provos, hadn’t signed off on the new ‘catholic-friendly’ Police Service of Northern Ireland. This meant it wasn’t the done thing for residents in these areas to call the police in instances of criminal activity. There was no real law enforcement and Beechmount was literally smack in the middle of the new Wild West.
It’s easy to see the gang as the force of evil in this novel but, to be honest, I’m quite fond of the little bastards. They’re just kids, after all. A product of their environment. A bunch of scared boys afraid to be seen as weak in each other’s eyes. And when I think back to the days when I lived in Beechmount, always wary of those smart-arse kids dressed in tacky sports gear, I wonder if I was a bit unfair to be so suspicious of the inspiration for my WEE ROCKETS. I didn’t think of what was underneath the hoodie, back then. They weren’t individuals in my mind, but a pack of potential threats. I’m glad I don’t think that way now. And if my novel helps others to feel a little empathy for the real world WEE ROCKETS, I’ll feel like I’ve redeemed myself somewhat for my youthful ignorance.
Gerard is a novelist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland and Wee Rockets is available on the Kindle.