Paul Williams: How winter is prime hunting season for rural terror gangs
Nowhere is the change of the seasons more noticeable than in rural Ireland as autumn's russet colours retreat before the relentless march of winter under cold grey skies.
When the clocks go back and the mercury drops, the pastoral landscape falls eerily quiet under the blanket of the long dark nights.
With the harvest saved and the livestock brought indoors, life in the countryside slows to a languid pace as farming folk relax and recuperate after the hectic non-stop demands of the agrarian calendar.
But what should be a season of peace and quiet can bring anxiety, stress and worry, thanks to a breed of feral creature for whom winter is the hunting season. For the long, dark nights that follow the changing of the clocks is the favourite time of year for the cowardly criminal cohort that specialises in identifying, and then targeting, the vulnerable living in isolated places across the country.
Criminals prefer to 'work' in the dark; they feel comfortable as they shuffle like rats behind the shadows.
Every year it is the same story across the length and breadth of rural Ireland, and so predictable that you can set your clock by them.
In recent weeks we have heard several stories of predatory "travelling criminals" returning to the back roads of rural Ireland to strike terror into defenceless, decent people.
The first notable victim of the season was a 54-year-old bachelor farmer who lives alone with his loyal dog - described as his "soul mate" - in an isolated area near Birr, in Co Offaly.
A four-man gang smashed their way into the house and then into his bedroom, where the victim was pulled from his bed and savagely beaten.
They also grabbed the dog and, according to locals, gave it an "unmerciful beating".
The farmer was then dragged out to the barn, where he was tied up and left for dead. The savages who carried out this appalling crime demanded money.
What makes this case even more chilling is that six weeks earlier the same house was burgled.
The victim's neighbour and friend, John Leahy, a local county councillor, described how this time "there was nothing there to get, but they completely and utterly ransacked the house" where the farmer was reared.
In fact, the house was smashed up so badly by the raiders that it was rendered uninhabitable.
But the damage won't affect the victim, who somehow managed to free himself, and went to a neighbour's house to raise the alarm. He has told his neighbours that he does not intend returning to his home because he cannot face it.
In the space of less than an hour the life of an innocent, decent human being was damaged beyond belief. The one thing that everyone is entitled to - peace of mind and security in their home - was wrenched from this man with terrifying violence.
The only fortunate result is that it did not cost him his life, or that of his loyal dog.
Cllr Leahy put his friend's ordeal in perspective, and enunciated the fears of so many other people living in rural Ireland.
"This man has done nothing. He is a bachelor. He was going about his business and they nearly killed him.
"They came to rob him, but why did they have to beat the dog and beat him near to death? Where is the end game on it, where are they going to go tomorrow night? They have taken his livelihood.
"They have taken his security away from him and they have left the family to pick up the pieces," he told the Irish Independent.
The people responsible for this attack, and their fellow thugs who are operating across the country, are textbook psychopaths who have no concerns about killing their victims.
This type of crime - classified as an aggravated burglary - is one of the most cowardly and terrifying offences one person can inflict on another, and as such it requires to be given special treatment when these animals are, hopefully, apprehended and brought before the courts. As the rural crime season is only starting, this attack also highlights a problem that the Irish Independent has been raising for the past two years: our gardaí are by no means, in any way, resourced to tackle this crisis - yes, crisis - the way it requires.
In rural Ireland, no one gives a tuppenny damn about whether gardaí falsified breath tests: all they want is gardaí on the ground catching these dangerous neanderthals. In the meantime, all they can do is continue looking out for one and other like they have done in rural Ireland for long before memories began.