As I pass the entrance to gorgeous little Spiller’s Lane, which houses gems of small independent stores, I notice an elderly woman emerge from the alley’s entrance, look cautiously to the right and left – and then flatten herself against the wall.
I gazed at her surprised, and then my attention was jerked away by a sudden movement to both our lefts. Oh, now I understood. Riding an e-scooter very rapidly towards us bang through the middle of the pavement was a young male in a hoodie, (the hood pulled up).
The old lady had spotted him and stood against the wall to avoid him. I stepped stoutly out into his path. He slowed. I requested him to dismount. He dismounted. I explained that he wasn’t supposed to be riding these things along footpaths. He raised a pallid, peevish face to meet my eyes.
“Why?” he said tonelessly.
“It’s a footpath,” I said patiently. “It’s meant for, like, people who are walking. On their feet. You could hurt people like that old lady over there, flying along like that,” I said. “Plus, it’s illegal.”
Without replying, the hoodie wheeled the e-scooter about three steps away from me, stepped up on it again and whizzed away down the footpath and around the corner of the AIB bank - and right into a main street chock-full of unsuspecting pedestrians.
“Thank you,” the old lady said to me. “You’re very brave to face him down like that.”
“For all the good it did,” I said grimly. ”
“We’re on our own, here,” I said.
“You’d never see a garda on foot around the place any more,” she observed. “Why is that?”
We shrugged and sighed and went our separate ways. But that wasn’t the end of it, not by a long shot.
A few metres on, I passed by the town’s Emmet Square, a beautifully landscaped little park full of seats and well-established shrubbery, glorious trees and little fountains, and in the Spring, a sea of daffodils, surrounded on all sides by some of the most elegant Georgian houses imaginable, dating from the 1780s.
Michael Collins himself reportedly lived in one of them as a child and went to the nearby primary school.
Ten years ago, this park was re-developed as part of the Clonakilty 400 Project. It was reopened by President Michael D. Higgins in May, 2013, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the borough of Clonakilty.
The park still looks great. At the time it got new paving, a new entrance, a lovely water feature, gorgeous new lighting, a new sculpture and lots and lots of planting which of course is now quite mature.
These days the park provides wonderful open-air settings for all sorts of community events, and the Clonakilty 400 Project, part of which included the revitalising of Emmet Square, was voted by the public as Ireland’s favourite new project in the RIAI 2014 Irish Architecture Awards. Now, alas, back to that day.
As I approached the park, I noticed a group of male teenagers - again in hoodies – clustered around some of the park seating. It was a weekday shortly after 2.30pm. Why weren’t they at school, I wondered.
Suddenly, one of them pulled up his hood, mounted his bike and started cycling at speed around the pathways through the small park, causing walkers to jump out of his way. I stood and stared. It soon emerged that terrorising Mammies with buggies wasn’t nearly enough fun, so, egged on by shouts and laughter from his compatriots, our hero started forcing his bike through the shrubberies, smashing, breaking and splintering the beautiful ornamental plants that had been nurtured and maintained with such care for so many years.
Enough. I pulled out my phone, rang the local gardaí and reported both incidents. We had one thug careering down the pavements of main street on an e-cycle, terrorising elderly people and forcing pedestrians out of his way. We had another fellow crushing and breaking the shrubs in Emmet Place by crashing through them on his bike, egged on by a gang of lads sitting on a bench in the park. Could they get somebody down into the town? I’d never seen anything like it and I didn’t want to take this crew on by myself.
The guard took my name and number, then informed me that my call would have to be patched through to some central control outfit to whom I would have to explain everything all over again, before anything could be done by the local cops.
What? I said.
“Hang on,” he said. I stayed on hold for a few minutes, standing there on the side of the street watching the attempted destruction of the park. Then another guard came on the line. He was control, he explained.
Before anything could be done, it emerged, he and I were required to go through a lengthy rigmarole of questions and answers. I went along with it for a while, before protesting that if they didn’t get a few gardaí into the town fast, the park would be wrecked and somebody could be injured by the marauding e-cycle thug.
No. I was told politely and firmly, all questions, which included whether I wanted to be interviewed personally by a member of the Garda Siochana, had to be gone through before the gardaí could be authorised to attend the incident. I bit my lip and argued no more. I asked this garda if he was local and knew the Spiller’s Lane area of the town, or the main street. No, he wasn’t, so he didn’t. I gave him the most detailed description I could. We ended the call.
Right, I thought hopelessly. As I started walking away, I heard one of the teenagers say: “Lads, your ‘wan is after calling the guards”. They all laughed heartily. I ignored them and left.
A short time later, my phone rang. Was I still at the scene of the incident?
“No” I said gloomily,” I’d had to go to a meeting.
“Oh,” I said, “that’s great.
Now please don’t get me wrong here because I’m not being smart. But we didn’t need a patrol car to be sent down. What we needed in that town that day - and every day - is feet on the street. We need gardaí on the beat to nip this kind of behaviour in the bud. This is a small, lovely, happy town and young lads are out of control and starting to terrorise people.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw a unformed garda walk up or down a street in Clonakilty,” I said.
“That’s why these young thugs are getting away with things. Why aren’t gardaí out on the beat here anymore?”
I got no answer. The garda at the other end of the line politely wished me a good day. And no doubt, within 10, 15 or 20 minutes, a patrol car did drive down the main street, which no doubt had long ago been exited by the brat on the e-cycle, continued down to Emmet Place and paused at the little Georgian Square, which had been vandalised by young teenage thugs for fun. Who, of course, despite their bravado, were also long gone.
Another day in another small Irish town. This was a bit of a learning curve. I had read that gardaí have to get permission from some disembodied control at the other end of the country to even step outside the door of their station to attend a traffic accident, but here was the everyday reality of it.
So they’re chained to their desks at a time when respect for authority is at its lowest, and when people can terrorise pedestrians and vandalise local landmarks without anybody intervening?