When hell proves to be other people living in your neighbourhood

 

Dodging gunfire and cleaning eggs and excrement off house-fronts are among the torments reported by residents at the hands of their neighbours, writes Frank McNally

When Sartre wrote "hell is other people," he wasn't just complaining about the neighbours. But listening to RTÉ radio this week, you didn't have to be an existentialist philosopher to agree that maybe he had a point.

The picture of fear and loathing in the suburban communities of Ireland was first painted by a woman named "Siobhán," who came on Radio One's Brenda Power Show to describe eight years of abuse, intimidation and violence inflicted on her by neighbours in a north Co Dublin housing estate.

The stand-out incident in her saga was the one in which she woke one morning at 6.45 a.m., turned on her bedroom light and lay down again just in time to avoid the bullet that came through the window. She was told it might have been an accident - and it might - but her experience suggested otherwise. Her house had been targeted with bottles, stones, excrement, and rotten eggs. The bullet was only an escalation of the hostilities.

There were some injuries down the years. Her son had been stabbed in the hand and her dog had survived a poisoning attempt only because he was trained not to touch food from strangers - in this case sausages laced with antifreeze and flung over the garden wall. The dog's reprieve was short-lived. He had his eye injured by a stone, and was put down.

A more subtle tactic of Siobhán's tormentors was the hoax call-out. One night she had 10 of them, ranging from taxis and pizza delivery to the emergency services, all in the space of 90 minutes.

Gardaí told her to change her phone after conversations were recorded and 50 tapes made for distribution around the estate. On Garda advice she installed a CCTV camera, trained on her own garden, but the hostility of neighbours to the idea was such that she took it down.

Her enemies were presumed to be among the young people, aged from seven or eight to early 20s, who hung around the streets late into the night while "their parents are in the pub".

Garda resources were scarce, and other avenues were now being suggested. One man on the estate was talking about vigilantes, and someone had offered Siobhán a gun: "I wouldn't hesitate in using it at this stage. It's a very sad thing to say, but it's the truth. If I had a gun in my possession I would probably use it, because I've been driven so far, for so long."

Listening to her story, you couldn't help wondering if she had done something to bring this about. The experiences of others suggested she had - by complaining in the first place. In the deluge of calls that followed from those with similar stories, a common thread emerged: that the day you said something was the day you were marked out for special treatment.

Another serious mistake was owning a corner house, where teenagers gathered in the evenings. Tom rang in with his experiences in Dublin's Terenure - not exactly an urban wasteland. His car bore the brunt of the abuse: windows broken, tyres slashed, paint and, later, paint-stripper thrown, until "the insurance company wrote it off". The Garda response was "very watery". He eventually moved.

It wasn't just Dublin. Mary from Portlaoise was among many with similar tales: stones, eggs, bangers in the letter box, insults on the street. She'd moved, too, and life had improved, but she would still only speak with her voice distorted, to prevent identification.

One man who contacted the programme and has since spoken to The Irish Times had a milder story to tell. He has lived on a private north Dublin estate since 1973. Like most of his neighbours, he's in his 50s with a family reared. But the personality of the estate is changing, he says, because of the Corporation's policy of buying properties to meet its quota for socially affordable housing. The newcomers "all seem to know each other". The latest arrivals are greeted with parties that spill onto the road and go on till 4 a.m. People urinate in alley-ways and leave beer cans behind.

When he protested to the Corporation about its failure to consult residents, he was accused of being "snobby and un-Christian". He insists he's neither: "I left school at 14 and I'm not well off. I broke my neck to pay for this house. I'm 54 now and I'm hoping after I retire I can sell it and it'll get us into a home, or whatever. But now it's being devalued because the word is out that the Corpo is moving into the area. We're doing our best, painting walls and planting flowers . . . and it just seems like the Corpo is knocking us back."