Rural garda stations to close

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

As 95 Garda stations close across Ireland this week, locals in one affected community lament the cutting of another thread in the fabric of country life .

The Garda station in Tynagh, Co Galway, closed for good last night. It was the classic Irish country station: a reassuringly solid beige-painted house on the edge of town whose front door was furnished with the unmistakable blue lantern of the force. The station has been a constant presence in the village since the foundation of An Garda Siochána, in 1922.

It was just one of 100 stations listed for closure in a November announcement by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. (Ninety-five of these are due to have closed by the end of this month. Thirty-nine closed last year.) In the postbudget anxiety and the Christmas bedlam, many people seemed to miss the scale of the change: doors locked in 100 Garda stations across the countryside, just like that.

In Tynagh, the significance began to dawn on people only when they read the bulletin in the parish newsletter at Mass last Sunday. It was there in black and white under the bingo notice.

“As if it happened overnight,” says Marie Burke. “We had no time to think, and it doesn’t make any sense to us. This was always the main station in the area. There is a jail cell here.”

She is speaking on Tuesday in a house on the main street where some Tynagh residents have gathered to discuss the closure of the station. Burke grew up in Ennis but has raised a family in Tynagh and until her recent retirement worked as a bank official in Portumna. It is only 4pm but the hedgerows outside the village are already dusted with frost and the fire is burning in the living room. The television is on mute; Dáithí Ó Sé is japing on screen.

On Monday night, 60 people had turned up at a meeting to hear a superintendent from Loughrea explain what the change in policy would mean. “He was just doing his job and told us not to shoot the messenger. But there was nothing comforting in it,” Burke says.

“Rural Ireland is slowly – and not even slowly – being closed down. Everything they are legislating for in Dublin has a huge impact here, and it will eventually close villages down. Why would young people come back here? Even to farm? The barracks is gone . . . the health centre will be next. The post office will be next. You can’t come out for a drink any more. People who for all their lives had the pub as their social outlet have had that taken away.

“It is okay in towns and cities, but here . . . They can’t afford to keep the station open for one hour here? This was the main station in this area. Why close it? It has to be down to politics. And they don’t even have to give us an explanation. They treat us like a pack of imbeciles.”

Tynagh is set deep in southeast Galway, a compass point for the bigger towns of Loughrea and Portumna. In 1980 it registered on the national consciousness because of the closure of its lead zinc mine and the loss of 330 jobs and £3.3 million in wages. For almost 20 years, the mine had been a boon to a secluded corner of Co Galway, and the effects of its closure have echoed through the decades since.

Tynagh is a quieter village now than it when the mine was open, but the hurling and traditional-music scenes are still vibrant. It is a typical Irish village: friendly, intensely local and feisty. The closure of its Garda station reinforces the community’s sense that the place doesn’t matter. In 1969, Tynagh station had three sergeants and 14 gardaí: in 1989, it had one sergeant and four gardaí. Until last night, it had one garda. Locals think the world of him.

“You had a station here and a squad car around. That is a great comfort to people,” says Frank Burke (no relation to Marie), who has lived and farmed in Tynagh all his life. His wife is a retired teacher and worked in the local school. “And the small services . . . people can get a passport done or a gun licence renewed locally. But most of all, they know that if they have a problem, Ollie is there. He knows the area, he knows people. If there wasn’t as much crime around the country, this wouldn’t be as big an issue. But this seems like the wrong time to be pulling back.”

Patrols and politics

The lament is the same across most of Ireland. A cluster of nine stations will close in east Galway alone. Seán Canney, an independent county councillor from Corofin, resigned his seat on the Joint Policing Committee (JPC) over the Government announcement. “While joint policing is trying to function, its entire point is being undermined in that it isn’t getting support from the Minister,” he says. “Alan Shatter comes along and slyly announces these closures. So the JPC felt like a box-ticking exercise to me, and I felt I couldn’t be part of something like that.”

Canney believes that people living in the heart of the heart of the country have never felt more vulnerable. A few days ago, he made a regular visit to an 89-year-old woman who lives alone; she was reluctant to open the door until she was certain it was him. The scare stories of siphoned fuel, swiped jewellery, cars and vans lingering outside unlit houses, vacant houses stripped of brass, stolen machinery; and thuggish robberies create nervousness, particularly in the darkest months of winter.

Shutting so many Garda stations heightens the unease. The signs advertising cash for gold and cash for metal seem to people living in the country to serve as a virtual incentive to thievery.

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