Rural crime investigation: 'It is frightening living like this, I am terrified'
At 70, Marye Blundell should be enjoying retirement, living out her twilight years peacefully in the Midlands.
But the spiralling crime wave that has become the scourge of rural Ireland almost cost the pensioner her life after she suffered a massive heart attack brought on when her home was wrecked by thieves and her guard dog was poisoned.
"They (thieves) poisoned my dog and the other dog was killed on the road when he ran out to chase them. Then they came and ransacked my home causing extensive damage which caused me so much stress I suffered a heart attack," the retired horse trainer said.
"I died in the Mater Hospital but the doctors brought me back. It is frightening living like this and I am terrified. When the dogs bark at night it means that someone is around and you freeze. Why should I go through that at 70 years of age? I worked all my life and why shouldn't I have peace now?" she asked.
Ms Blundell adds: "I cannot really blame the guards because they have been good to me but there's just not enough of them. The local community alert are terrific but they (thieves) keep coming back.
"Everybody is angry and there is a great community, the guys around here said they will come with their shotguns to protect me … but you can't do that.
"I don't see a solution to this. They (thieves) are just doing what they like."
Ms Blundell and her neighbours living in a geographical area that includes Abbeyleix, Ballcolla, Rathdowney and Durrow in Co Laois have witnessed a marked increase in crime over the past five years.
The problem with crime in this area first began to emerge when the new M8 motorway was opened in 2010 and Junction 3 brought the travelling thugs.
"The opening of the M8 sparked it off in the initial stages but in the last couple of years there has been a huge escalation in crime with house break-ins rampant and also thefts of valuable equipment from farm yards," revealed local community activist Michael Phelan.
Mr Phelan is the chairman of the Woodenbridge District Community Alert Group, established as a result of the escalating crime problem.
"When the M8 opened the increase in the number of robberies became a real concern and we introduced the community text alert system in conjunction with the gardaí and Muintir Na Tíre," he said.
"It has worked very well but it has not stopped the crime and we believe that the robbers are now working on local knowledge and are living in the area."
Earlier this year, the text alert system proved invaluable when it helped gardaí track a man who had tried to abduct a little girl near the village of Cullahill.
The girl's brother bravely fought with her attacker until she managed to escape and raise the alarm.
Mr Phelan, like everyone else who has spoken to the Irish Independent as part of our investigation into rural crime, describes how the gardaí are doing the best they can with drastically limited resources.
In recent years, the station in Ballcolla and Durrow have closed, with the latter opening once a week. The station at Rathdowney, 8km away, opens a few days a week. The nearest operational garda station is in Abbeyleix but it opens for only 12 hours a day.
After that, cover for the entire area reverts to Portlaoise 29km away.
"So you can see the extent of the problem for the gardaí to police this area - there is just one squad car to service an area from Roscrea on the Tipperary border over to Graiguecullen just outside Carlow town, a distance of over 50km," said the Community Alert chairman.
"Apart from the reduction in local gardaí, the gardaí are no longer integrated in the community where they knew everyone."
Local veterinary surgeon Grainne Kavanagh has also been a victim of the spiralling crime wave. "My surgery in Rathdowney has been broken into twice in the past four years and in February my Jeep was taken from my home and never seen again," she explained.
"The gardaí in Athy contacted me after they found some of the veterinary medicines which were in the Jeep when it was stolen.
"The drugs, including very dangerous horse sedatives, had been hidden for collection by some gang later," Ms Kavanagh added.
"It is a huge problem and every day you hear about somebody who has had a recent break-in - it is happening during the day, at night and they (thieves) have ways of getting around everything," she revealed. "There is huge frustration because the farmers feel utterly powerless. The guards aren't able to respond on time because they don't have enough resources.
"So once it is gone, it's gone unless you find what's stolen yourself. Crime here is rampant in the last year or two and they (thieves) seem to be getting more brazen.
"They ram electric gates, dismantle cameras on the roofs of buildings and there seems to be no end to the tricks they have to get around the small endeavours that we make to try to stop them."