Battle of Portlaoise blamed on cuts and rural neglect
An astonishing two-hour brawl that took place on the main street of Portlaoise is symptomatic of the collapse of law and order in rural Ireland, Labour Senator John Whelan has claimed.
Though the row occurred on February 6, tensions remained high during subsequent court sittings last week.
The unprecedented brawl began inside Portlaoise courthouse before spreading down Main Street.
At least 60 people of both sexes and a number of diverse ethnic groupings were involved.
It took more than 20 gardai to quell the disturbance and traffic had to be diverted
Distressed schoolchildren and their parents also witnessed the event.
The affray began after the sentencing of three members of the Travelling community for a previous disturbance in Main Street that involved weaponry, including steel bars.
Tensions had been escalating all day between two factions involved in those court proceedings but worsened when other individuals who had nothing to do with the case also became involved.
Residents and the Main Street traders association, Downtown Portlaoise, are furious over the brawl because they have been warning for some time that such a serious public order offence was inevitable. One local told the Sunday Independent: ''I saw one individual walking up the main street recently swinging a machete, it did not appear to be abnormal to be honest with you.''
One witness said of the riot: "It was unbelievable stuff, at one point two women with buggies were swinging at each other.''
"One gentleman tried to intervene and ended up being knocked into a large flower pot before things calmed down'', they added.
Labour Senator John Whelan claimed the fracas stemmed from: ''a typical tale of crime, cuts and the consequences of cuts in rural Ireland''.
In the wake of a series of courthouse closures across the county, the Portlaoise courthouse building - which dates back to 1782 - has become the central clearing house for criminal cases in Laois.
Since then, locals have complained in increasing numbers about the growth of sporadic violence, loitering, drug-use, drug-dealing, intimidation, the open consumption of alcohol and petty theft.
Portlaoise retailers, who in common with fellow traders across the country have suffered heavily during the recession, want the court to be moved from the high street.
Senator Whelan said: "In the light of this and other similar events it is no longer acceptable or safe to have this courthouse in the middle of Portlaoise, at the heart of the town's shopping and social district.''
Mr Whelan also noted: "The public are avoiding Main Street on the grounds that it is a no-go area.
"It represents a major crisis for Portlaoise retailers, it is like having the Central Circuit Court being relocated to Grafton Street,'' the senator said.