PARENTS have told of their horror after a man dressed in military garb approached a youth centre brandishing what they feared was a real shotgun.
Terrified children and staff locked themselves in as the man appeared waving the imitation firearm.
The situation became even more tense when fireworks were set off, leading some staff and children to believe they were gunshots.
Tracey Jeffrey's 16-year-old daughter, Shannon Aitken, and 15-year-old nephew were attending St Mary's Youth Centre in Tullamore, Co Offaly, on Monday night.
Shannon came home and told her mother the man had been pacing up and down outside the building.
"She was fairly shocked all right, she'd be a very nervous person," said Ms Jeffrey.
"My nephew was there as well and he came home white as a ghost."
She said that when the man was spotted at about 9pm, one of the leaders told the teenagers to run upstairs.
"The first thing that came to my mind was the mall shooting in America," said Ms Jeffrey.
"Someone said it was a toy weapon but when you're in that situation at the moment, you're not going to take the chance."
She added that she did not think the incident could be perceived as a prank.
"That's not craic with kids involved -- it could have a big impact on any child."
Gardai arrived at the scene at 9.03pm and arrested a foreign national, who is thought to be in his 30s. They also recovered an imitation weapon.
The man was being detained at Tullamore garda station under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act yesterday. He can be held for a maximum of 72 hours.
Margaret Cuskelly's 14-year-old son Michael was terrified by the incident. "My son was up all night crying and he wouldn't sleep -- he was looking out the windows," she said. "He thought it was a real gun."
Her son told her that the man was wearing a hat, boots, full army gear and appeared to be carrying a shotgun.
At one point he walked to a vehicle and "was doing something with the gun at the car".
The man later approached the centre and "he tried to get in the back door".
Her son is a regular visitor to St Mary's Youth Centre and has never experienced trouble there before.
"It does affect kids. You think your kids are safe, but they're not," added Ms Cuskelly.
There were about 50 people inside the youth centre when the incident happened.
Youth centre manager Bill O'Hanlon said: "Some guy seemingly got out of a car and appeared to be brandishing what they thought was a real gun. Everybody was brought back into the building and the building was locked down."
Mr O'Hanlon praised the quick reaction of gardai who were at the scene within minutes.
He said staff at the centre were planning to talk to all of the children who were present.