Kellie Harrington: ‘There were three escape routes, if we needed to do a quick run’

In the first of our exclusive extracts from Kellie Harrington’s new book, written with Roddy Doyle, she looks back on her youth in innercity Dublin - drinking cans, annoying the guards and doing some very poorly-planned shoplifting

I was still in primary school, in sixth class, and I was drinking and experimenting – drinking anything that wasn’t too expensive to buy. And taking pills. I was doing everything that wasn’t what a normal child would do.

I was hanging around in the Clarence Street and Dunne Street flats. Sitting on the wall. There’d be me, Ango, Lizo, Lindsay, Linda, Jade. There’d be boys as well. David and Joe would have been there, and Paul – we called him Batman.

We’d have a big radio, a three-in-one, and we’d put CDs in it and tapes, and we’d be listening to Hot FM, an illegal pirate station that played all the best tunes, the best house and dance music. The batteries were expensive enough, so we all had to chip in the money to get them in the Pound Shop on Talbot Street. Hot FM played all the great dance songs – Alice Deejay, Robert Miles’s Children, 9PM, Sandstorm, The Logical Song, Scatman, Set You Free by N-Trance; Summer Jam – that was a big one. It was a great station. You could text in requests, and I’d be texting: Say hello to Lindsay, Lizo, Kellie and Ango, all sitting on the wall in the flats.

There were three blocks of flats, and a row of pram sheds at the front, and the wall. There was a big empty space in the middle, like a tarmac football pitch, and some of the lads from the flats would come in on stripped-down – stolen – bikes and they’d fly around, pulling wheelies and skids, and passing the bikes around to others to have a shot. The Garda would fly in and the lads would take a chase, and we’d be sitting there on the wall, watching it all happen in front of us.


We’d be sitting close in together, linking, because it was absolutely freezing; the steam was coming from our mouths. We’d be drinking the cans, with the radio on at full pelt. There’d be people from the flats giving out, even ringing the Garda to get them to come down and move us on. There was one way in from the bottom end of the flats, the Dunne Street end, and there were two ways in or out at the top. So there were three escape routes, if we needed to do a quick run. The Garda were going around in their cars or on their bikes, and if someone saw them, they’d go, “Garda!” – giving everyone else the billy, the heads-up.


We’d grab the bags of cans and the radio, and run. Or we’d hide the cans and bottles, stay on the wall, lower the music when the Garda came, and we’d be, ‘We haven’t got the music loud – what’re you talking about?’

My brain was wired differently, maybe

They’d move us on – they’d try to. But we came back. They gave up. All we were doing was making noise and drinking. They had bigger things to be dealing with.

I was going through stuff that I didn’t even know I was going through. My brain was wired differently, maybe. The first time I drank, or experimented, it made me feel good. I wanted to keep that feeling. I was escaping from myself, from the thoughts I was having. Dark thoughts – the feeling that I didn’t belong. With the drinking and the drugs, those thoughts were gone. I just felt amazing. So I was doing it more, and more.

You’re growing up and you see it – drug dealers all around you. They were on every corner. The neighbours and parents were fighting to get them off the streets.

“What do we want?! Pushers out! When do we want it?! Now!”

The dealers didn’t care who was watching them. They didn’t care who they sold to. They didn’t care how old you were.

My Ma and Da were telling me, “Don’t be doing this, don’t be doing that.” They were telling me it was wrong and that I wasn’t to be hanging around. But it wasn’t like I was living in Blackrock or Dalkey. I was seeing it when I walked out our front door. I wasn’t frightened of what was happening, but I knew it was wrong – and I knew that my Ma and Da were worried sick about me. I had three brothers and none of them gave my Ma an ounce of trouble. Just me.

This went on for a good while – years. I was drinking naggins of vodka, mixed with half a bottle of Coke in the Coke bottle, or Bulmers and Blue Wicked. I got the money for it all by shoplifting. Penneys mostly, but I’d get stuff out of other shops too. And I did a bit of babysitting. I looked after two of my cousins for a few hours on a Friday or Saturday. I’d be saving the money and using it on the weekends.

I was taking tops, jumpers, shoes, bobbins, hairbands – anything that was there and that I liked

Me and my friend Donna went into Penneys and Topshop and Miss Selfridge dressed the exact same, like twins, in clothes we’d robbed from other shops, and we were walking around the shop, not a care in the world, and dropping clothes into our bags. That was how brazen we were. It was like, “I don’t care.” I was taking tops, jumpers, shoes, bobbins, hairbands – anything that was there and that I liked. We’d put the clothes on and walk out of the shop with four pairs of trousers and six tops underneath the clothes we’d worn in. We sold most of the stolen clothes that we were wearing. We always found someone to buy them.

Ango – Angelina – was my best friend growing up. We were thick as thieves – literally. We were in Tesco’s once, taking disposable cameras and hair dye and hairspray. We were running up the escalator with our bags full of cameras and mascaras, holding hands and singing, “They’re not gonna get us!” – the t.A.T.u. song from back then.

I’d be walking out of the shop wondering, “Fuck – are they going to catch me now?” It was the adrenaline rush – the same rush I get when I step into the ring. I loved it.

Throughout it all, my Ma would have been thinking, “She’s mixing with the wrong crowd,” and she’d have been blaming it on them. But I never saw it that way. I was the one who wanted to do stuff like that – to drink, to take the drugs, to shoplift. No one had me by the hand, saying, “This is what you’re going to do today, Kellie.”

My head was just so messed up. When kids are developing they’re all over the shop. They don’t know whether they’re coming or going. I didn’t know who I was. I was streetwise; or I thought I was. But I was immature. I definitely wasn’t a normal 13- or 14-year-old. I thought everyone was out to get me and that it was everyone else’s fault. Getting into trouble in school – it was never my fault. But I was always quiet – at least, I think I was. I didn’t stand out. The whole crowd stood out. There were gangs of us. There was no real head honcho – we were all doing the same thing. Stuff that was wrong but felt good. Everything was chaotic.

I was caught shoplifting in Penneys on Mary Street twice, and I was arrested both times. The first time I was with Donna. The only reason we were caught was because my bag ripped in the shop and I had the neck to go up to the counter and ask the lady at the till for a new one. We were brought to Store Street Garda Station. My Ma dragged me home. She was shouting at me – I can’t remember what she was saying. I was grounded but they couldn’t keep me in for long; I just did their heads in. They had to let me back out. They’d lock the door sometimes, but I’d manage to escape. I’d take off, like a bat out of hell. I was out of control.

I’d be fighting with my brothers, mostly with my big brother, Christopher. We battered each other. And it was great – it was brilliant. We’d batter the shit out of each other.

My Da would leave us to it.

“If you want to act like that, off you go.”

And I’d mess-fight with my Da in the kitchen.

My Ma would always warn me, “Now, Kellie – you’re going to end up crying. It’ll get too serious.”

“No, no, it won’t. Come on, Da, come on, Da.”

My Da’s a southpaw, so I always say that I learnt everything I know about boxing from sparring with him. I was fast and flighty on my feet and I’d be clattering him, getting in, and out. In a little kitchen, with the chip pan on full whack! He’d be hitting me back – solid. I’d end up crying.

My Ma would be there, “I told you! He doesn’t know how to play. I told you not to be messing!”

I’d smack him the next day and we’d be off again.

“No,” he’d say. “You can’t handle it – you’re always whingeing.”

“I won’t, I won’t, Da – I swear I won’t.”

Extracted from Kellie by Kellie Harrington and Roddy Doyle, published by Sandycove, 27th October.

Kellie will be in conversation with Second Captains at the Dublin Book Festival. Tickets here