Tuesday 27 June 2017

A new sense of fear is stalking rural Ireland as people's sense of isolation reaches dangerous levels

Deserted streets: Michael Plelan, Mary Cashin and Michael Dowling in Ballacolla, Co Laois. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Deserted streets: Michael Plelan, Mary Cashin and Michael Dowling in Ballacolla, Co Laois. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Dwindling numbers: Trish McDermott and her son Eamon (6), outside Ballacolla National School, which has lost two-thirds of its numbers. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Empty classrooms: Ballacolla school principal Ciaran Bergin. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Time at the bar: Trish McDermott and Pat Kavanagh in the Hawthorn Bar, Ballacolla. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The ongoing closures of garda stations, post offices and shops have pushed people's sense of isolation to dangerous new levels. Constantly worried about burglaries and attacks, communities are working together to fund CCTV cameras to protect their areas. In the week an elderly man was murdered in a remote corner of Waterford, our reporter travels to the Laois village of Ballacolla and finds a community fighting to survive.

Ballacolla is a village at a crossroads like hundreds of others up and down the country. The parish church, with its small congregation, is the landmark at one side of the cross.

Along another road is the 34-pupil national school and the GAA pitch, and in the middle there are three pubs, each hanging on for dear life, and boasting only a few customers.

There are empty spaces that have opened up in the Laois village, like the gaps in an elderly gentleman's set of teeth.

Time at the bar: Trish McDermott and Pat Kavanagh in the Hawthorn Bar, Ballacolla. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Time at the bar: Trish McDermott and Pat Kavanagh in the Hawthorn Bar, Ballacolla. Photo: James Flynn/APX

The garda station is closed - a white square marks the spot on the building where the garda insignia used to be.

The only sign of the closed post office is a bright green postbox; and now you gaze through the window, where the postmistress used to give out stamps, into a void.

Making matters worse, the last shop in Ballacolla shut its doors a month ago. A sign on the door where it used to be says you can buy crisps and sweets in the neighbouring bar.

As one woman, Mary Cashin, tells me ruefully on the street on a Tuesday afternoon: "When I came to Ballacolla 50 years ago, you could buy everything from a needle to an anchor. Now you couldn't even buy a paper or a postage stamp." The village, best known locally for its successful hurling team, seldom makes the national headlines.

There was a flurry of excitement a few years back, when local people started pretending to fish in the large potholes in the road. They wanted to make a point about the poor standards of road maintenance. The story made the national press.

And the post office, when it existed, was once raided by the notorious Dublin criminal Tony Felloni.

In the village, they also talk about Bono popping into one of the pubs last year while a Communion party was going on, and some of the kids not having a clue about who he was.

On a blustery spring afternoon, peace reigns in the village, but in friendly places like Ballacolla and their surrounds, there is a growing sense of insecurity and isolation, particularly since the closure of the garda station.

Without the post office - and without a single shop - the threads that hold a community together are being slowly pulled apart. It takes great effort to avoid the loneliness that can come when a village loses its heart.

Without a garda station, the farmers who live up quiet country lanes fear that their homes will be broken into and their farmyards raided. The fears of country people across rural Ireland have been heightened this week by reports of the killing of pensioner Paddy Lyons near Lismore, Co Waterford.

The 90-year-old was found slumped in a chair at his home with blood on his face and injuries to his head last weekend. On Wednesday, Ross Outram (26) appeared before Dungarvan District Court charged with the murder of Mr Lyons.

Violent incidents are mercifully rare in the area of Ballacolla, but the village has suffered a spate of burglaries since the closure of the garda station in 2013.

Empty classrooms: Ballacolla school principal Ciaran Bergin. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Empty classrooms: Ballacolla school principal Ciaran Bergin. Photo: James Flynn/APX

Michael G Phelan, a local farmer and community activist known as 'The G', says: "I don't think people here will ever forgive the present government for the closure of the post office and the garda station. It happened on their watch."

Not long ago, Ballacolla was the sort of place where local residents could leave the door on the latch, and there was so little traffic that kids could hurl on the street. But now on local farms, there is a big demand for electronic gates amid growing fears about unwelcome intruders.

"The departure of the gardaí came not long after the opening of the new M8 motorway, and it left people very vulnerable," says Phelan.

"The burglars were able to come into the area from the motorway, which is only 3km away, and then get away very quickly."

Once the raiders were out on the motorway, blending anonymously with the traffic, they could be in another county in five minutes.

"It was a traumatic experience for people to have their houses burgled," adds Phelan. "Homes were pulled apart and ransacked, drawers pulled out and belongings scattered everywhere."

In local farmyards, raiders targeted farm machinery, quad bikes, power tools, lawnmowers, electricity generators and diesel.

One local victim of one of these raids, who did not wish to be named, tells me: "It's not so much what you lose that makes you upset. It is the feeling that your privacy has been invaded, and knowing that these guys were rooting around in my yard late at night.

"When I was growing up, you never had to worry about that kind of thing happening."

Dwindling numbers: Trish McDermott and her son Eamon (6), outside Ballacolla National School, which has lost two-thirds of its numbers. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Dwindling numbers: Trish McDermott and her son Eamon (6), outside Ballacolla National School, which has lost two-thirds of its numbers. Photo: James Flynn/APX

Faced with these raids, local people are turning to security measures that were once only used on busy city thoroughfares like Dublin's O'Connell Street and Henry Street. In the local Hawthorn Bar, they are selling raffle tickets to raise money to install a CCTV camera at the nearby motorway exit on the M8.

That way, they can track the movements of cars in and out of the area. Burglars will not be able to make their fast getaway without being picked up on camera.

The approach is already being used in the nearby village of Shanahoe. Local people raised over €40,000 to install 24 cameras on every approach road to the village, monitoring all traffic in the area 24 hours a day.

Law-enforcement experts can debate whether keeping a station open in a remote place like Ballacolla makes any sense, and whether mobile patrols from other stations in bigger towns are just as useful

But visiting Ballacolla, one gets the sense that the insecurity not only comes from the absence of gardaí, but the feeling that the village itself is dying. "There was a sense of security knowing that there was a garda living there," says Noreen Byrne, the driving force of the local Tidy Towns committee.

There is a domino effect in rural villages and towns. When the garda station closes, there are fewer people coming into the village.

The gardaí who served in the station, known by older people as "the barracks", played for the local hurling team, and their children went to the local school.

The real hammer blow came with the closure of the post office, however. Older people came from miles around to pick up their pensions, and talk to their neighbours.

While there, they went to the local shop to buy a paper and groceries, and many of them popped into the pub for a drink before heading home.

"The trouble is that you could go into the village now and you would meet nobody," says Noreen Byrne.

"We campaigned to keep the post office open," says Michael G Phelan. "We went to Dublin and met ministers. There were people who were prepared to run the post office, but it wasn't allowed to continue. When it closed, it drained the life out of Ballacolla.

"When the post office closed, I predicted the shop across the road would close as well. And that finally happened a month ago."

And now, in the surviving bars, the publicans worry that the clock is also ticking fast towards midnight.

Transport Minister Shane Ross may argue that his plan to tighten up the drink-driving laws makes sense from a road safety point of view. In metropolitan Dublin, it all seems to make logical sense.

It will mean that drivers could be banned after just one pint, and Trish McDermott - who runs the Hawthorn Bar - fears what the effect will be on her pub if it is implemented.

"People usually just come in for one or two, just to socialise or have a chat. But I worry that they won't come in any more."

Phelan says the new drink-driving law will make older people even more isolated.

"They will be forced to stay at home, and stop coming to the village. The next thing is, they are turning into a recluse."

The days when gardaí would use their discretion and turn a blind eye to the moderate drinker tippling marginally over the limit have long gone.

Years ago, some members of the force were not always too steadfast in their implementation of the law, according to local man Pat Kavanagh.

Brandishing a pint of Smithwick's at the bar, he tells me: "I once knew a fella in this village one time, and he gave the guard a lift home - and he was cock-eyed himself."

Kavanagh remembers how the Hawthorn Bar, in a previous incarnation, used to be bustling with life all through the day and into the evening.

The man who used to run the pub also had a grocery store and a drapery, and he even sold guns. Next door there was a bicycle shop, there was a butcher, a hardware shop, wool merchant, and a blacksmith. Phelan says there were five places in Ballacolla where you could buy a loaf of bread, but now you have to go more than 6km to Durrow, Abbeyleix, or the gleaming new services with a Supermac's that has opened on the motorway.

One local woman, who lives on the edge of Ballacolla, tells me: "My 13-year-old daughter used to walk into the village with the dog to pick up the paper. She would meet people along the way and talk. Now there is no reason to do that any more, because the last shop has closed."

During the day-time on the street, hardly anything moves, other than the tractors, trucks and cars trundling through on their way to somewhere else. And the place is even more desolate during half terms and school holidays, when there are no parents and children arriving and departing from the national school.

At one time, there were up to 100 children in the primary school.

In the 1990s, a new classroom was built to meet a perceived demand for places, but the children never came, and classrooms were left empty. There are 34 children in the school now and next year it will be down to 30.

"There used to be more children, because people had bigger families. And there are no new housing developments here to bring in extra people," school principal Ciaran Bergin says.

Like hundreds of other villages across rural Ireland, Ballacolla has struggled to adapt to 21st-century life. But amid all the difficulties and the closure of amenities, there is still a strong community spirit.

Volunteers, who are the backbone of rural Ireland, still raise money for the Tidy Towns, the community alert scheme and the thriving GAA club. The garda station, the post office and the shops may have closed, but the community in Ballacolla, in the face of these challenges, will not give up without a fight.

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