‘People in rural areas need to feel more secure in their homes’
Criminal gangs are ripping the heart out of our countryside communities, so how will Garda chief Drew Harris protect those who are living in fear?
‘You need to see the gardaí around the street’
IT was just after 7pm on Holy Thursday and Josephine Farrell was stacking shelves in her shop. It was a busy evening, with locals passing on their way to Mass.
Josephine — who runs Farrell’s grocery shop, Farrell’s pub next door and the undertaker’s with her husband in the small Longford town of Lanesborough — was alone, standing at the back of the shop when she saw a man with a football scarf pulled up over his jawline step inside.
He walked towards Josephine, 70, and, as he passed her, she felt a sharp prod in the back.
‘He pressed something to my back and told me “open the till”. He walked me down to the till and I opened it. It was half seven, I’d already done the till so he got around €150. ‘My phone rang. He said: “Don’t answer that — don’t move.” I didn’t move. He took the money and all the coins. At the door, he turned around and asked: “Are you alright?”.’
The attacker hopped into his car which was parked right outside the door and sped off. ‘He had the boot left open so it looked like he was collecting something and you couldn’t see the number plate,’ Josephine says. She later heard the robber had also held up another shop in a nearby Longford town.
It wasn’t the first time Farrell’s shop had been targeted by robbers over the years. Their home across the street was also targeted a few years back. With easy getaway routes on major roads towards Dublin, Roscommon, and Athlone, small Longford towns such as Lanesborough, Ballymahon and Edgeworthstown and farms and homes scattered across the vast chunks of rural countryside in between, these hubs are easy pickings for marauding gangs.
Edgeworthstown has a population of more than 4,500, and statistics show the Garda station is among the busiest in the district. Yet although it has 11 gardaí stationed there, only six may be available at any one time and resources dictate it often only opens for half days, say frustrated locals.
Throw into the mix the mass closure of some 139 Garda stations in rural Ireland in recent years, including three in Longford — Ballinalee, Ardagh and Newtown-cashell — and it’s no surprise the scourge of rural crime is a major problem facing farmers and people in areas up and down the country.
Last month leaders from the Irish Cattle and Sheep farmers’ Association (ICSA) and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) descended on the Dáil for a meeting to highlight the struggle of rural farmers and families living in fear, and to shine a light on the prevalence of rural crime at a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality.
‘People in rural areas need to feel secure in their homes — sadly, many do not,’ said committee chairman Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin. ‘A much greater level of visibility is needed.’
And on Monday night, combatting rural crime was top of the agenda in Ballymahon when Garda Commissioner Drew Harris turned up at the public meeting of Co Longford’s Joint Policing Committee (JPC). Locals were delighted he chose their midlands town for his first engagement outside the capital since he was appointed in early September.
Earlier this year a planned half a million euro investment to upgrade prisoner processing facilities at Longford, Ballymahon and Granard Garda stations was put on hold following An Garda Síochána budget cuts for 2018/2019. At the time, Ballymahon Superintendent Jim Delaney said it would impact and put a strain on Garda resources, stating: ‘To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement.’
With money tight, locals weren’t too optimistic but on Monday night, any hopes they had that Drew Harris might announce the reopening of small country Garda stations were quickly dashed.
‘What is the demand for services in that area and exactly what will reopening a station actually achieve because that costs money?’ Commissioner Harris told locals, seeming to pour cold water on the idea.
‘We also want to look at alternatives — surgeries out in villages, mobile police stations and alternative means of providing visibility and that localised service.’
How that translates on the ground remains to be seen; Lanesborough has a busy Garda station, with around ten gardaí, say locals. But with shifts and the huge geographical area they cover — from Rathcline, Newtowncashel, Killashee, towards Longford and Keenagh — there’s not always a garda in the station, or close by, as Josephine found out following her terrifying ordeal.
After the hold-up, a rattled Josephine ran into the pub next door and rang the gardaí.
‘I called the police. They took a while. There was nobody there at the station,’ she explains. ‘I rang them first, then I rang 999. They came eventually. It took about 45 minutes to an hour. They were great when they came.
‘I was very shaken, although people thought I should have been worse. It was very frightening.’
The next day Josephine was back behind the till. She says: ‘It’s early in the evening or the day when things happen — not at three in the morning — and that’s why you need to see the gardaí around the street.’
Josephine’s son Gerry — who works in the family’s businesses and is also a local councillor — says: ‘Mam was in an awful state, shaking. In an urban centre, gardaí are with you in a few minutes but here in the countryside, there are hundreds of miles of roads. We’ve a good Garda station but they can’t be everywhere.
‘If there’s two gardaí on and they’re out in Newtowncashel, seven miles away, they’re gone. Ideally there’d be someone at a desk all the time.
‘I think more Garda presence — walking, cycling and driving around in the cars — and the going back to the local garda knowing everyone and stopping in to chat to a farmer or have a cup of tea, that’s been lost a bit.’
With its ageing population, and many farmers and elderly people living alone in remote, isolated areas, cut off from major towns and close neighbours, this part of South Longford gives a snapshot of rural Ireland’s concerns. Money for policing might be tight, but rural farmers and families feel forgotten. Certainly, they are sitting ducks to criminals.
‘A much greater level of visibility is needed’
Luke Kelly is 87 and lives alone but for his cat, Mrs Brown, in a small farmhouse around five miles from Lanesborough.
His neighbours are scattered around the nearby countryside on small and medium-sized suckler and sheep farms but Luke is very cut off, down a cul de sac. You really couldn’t live in a more remote setting.
There are many ageing farmers like Luke, living alone, getting on in years, their children — if they had any — living abroad or in bigger cities like Dublin. Luke is a bachelor all his life and has lived alone since his brother Peter died in 2007
His eyesight is failing, he very rarely drives and he has needed a zimmer frame to get around his farmhouse since a bout of pneumonia and a two-month stint in hospital last year.
Mentally, he’s as sharp as a needle and fiercely independent. I find him sitting beside the turf fire he’s lit in the range this morning. Everything he needs is within touching distance — a box of turf, his rosary beads, his glasses, his newspaper, his mobile phone and the radio. He has a red panic button tied around his right wrist.
‘Drew Harris — now he could be okay — we’ll see how he goes anyway,’ says Luke, who makes it his business to keep up with current affairs.
‘Wasn’t it Churchill who said if you can face some people some of the time, you’re doing alright?
‘ I feel safe here. I’ve got my alarm on me. If I push that, the whole place comes alive. They’ll all be on ringing me.’
Luke, who pays local home help ladies to visit him daily, has nothing but praise for the local gardaí. Thankfully, criminals have never targeted him.
‘They’re afraid of me — I have a single barrel shotgun and I’d use it as defence to save myself,’ he insists. ‘ They’d have a fierce big job to get in here anyway.
‘A woman Community Garda comes to see me here and she’s a lovely girl — she comes in to say hello. The gardaí can’t be everywhere — they’re doing their best. I see a blue light lighting up the skies sometimes, you mightn’t know they are there but I know they are around.’
Back at Farrell’s pub, Gerry’s dad recalls a different world when he always left his front door open, the keys to his cars in the ignition and never needed the gardaí.
Gerry says: ‘We’re a commuter town — most people my age get into their car and leave every morning for Dublin or Roscommon or Athlone so houses are very exposed. There have been quite a lot of burglaries in the area. If they haven’t got boots on the ground, they’re not going to crack it.’
Gerry says locals do understand re-opening stations mightn’t be the best solution to combatting crime.
And they’re hands on, leading the fight with 250 households out of a population of 1,400 on a local text alert scheme in Lanesborough, another 150 homes signed up in Newtowncashel and a similarly successful scheme running in Ballymahon.
Gerry says: ‘Catching these gangs is like shooting fish in a barrel. With thieves and robbers, they know the gardaí are light on the ground in rural areas and they could be in Dublin in an hour in a high-powered car.
‘We realise the viability of reopening these stations isn’t a runner but we want the main stations well-staffed and well-resourced so one patrol can focus on main areas while others are on the road.’
With Center Parcs due to open in Ballymahon in July next year, and the added influx of residents and traffic, Gerry says more gardai and a better infrastructure are vital.
Down in Ballymahon, Gerard Finn, who runs Finn’s petrol station and Supervalu, across the road from the Garda station, a modern, cottage-style building at the top of the town, says locals were impressed with the new commissioner.
‘Drew Harris came across very well — it’ll be no harm having someone coming from the outside,’ he says. ‘I think he’ll get a lot of respect in the force. He comes across as very professional. It all depends on the spending the Government gives him. We’re fortunate in Ballymahon — we’re well-staffed and they’re very active, very visible with a lot of interaction. It’s a huge catchment area.’
Gerry agrees: ‘It’s a pivotal point for the gardaí and with the new commissioner, it’s a positive time and he can make a difference and I think he is that type of person — locals were impressed. He’s only nine weeks in the job.’
The people of rural Ireland desperately need Commissioner Drew Harris to try turn the tide on crime. They want to feel as safe in their homes as Luke Kelly does in his cottage — so remote, he sees the reassuring blue flashing lights light up the sky whenever gardaí are nearby.
‘I love being at home,’ he says. ‘In hospital, it’s like being in jail, you do what you’re told. But I do everything for myself — nobody handed me a spoon, I’d to get it myself. I thought I was going to die last year but I didn’t, there’s always someone looking after you somewhere. I think it’s Jesus.
‘I’m not very religious, no, but I know he’s there. He’s the top man — someone has to be there looking after you.’
‘I have a shotgun and I’d use it to save myself’
Concerned: Josephine Farrell with her son Gerry outside their shop in Lanesborough
Determined: Luke Kelly in his remote Co. Longford home