Dog-walking, traffic checks, lawn-cutting, food parcel drops and home visits, it’s all in a day’s work for Cork’s busy community Gardaí. Donal O’Keeffe joins them on the lockdown beat.
Coronavirus is the biggest test Ireland has faced in our lifetimes, Community Garda Conor Egan says, and there’s no repeating the exam, but the good news is they’ve been given the correct answers, he says.
"Yes, it can be hard, but it’s harder to lose loved ones.”
Conor has been a Garda 13 years, and a community Garda four years, a job he likens to that of an air traffic controller, with any number of different issues in the air at one time, all needing to be brought safely to land.
Being off-duty doesn’t work when you’re helping people with their problems, so he and his fellow community Garda in Blackrock and Mahon, Jimmy Smiddy, invested in a mobile phone, so people know they can always contact one of them.
On the morning the Irish Examiner joins him, Conor drives up to St Vincent’s GAA Clubhouse on the Blarney Road. These days it’s a warehouse for Cork Penny Dinners. Conor Egan is greeted by first name by volunteers.
“I don’t want to be called ‘Guard’. I’m Conor. We’re all about breaking down barriers.
Day-to-day policing can be hectic, but community Gardaí have more time for follow-up, and building relations with the community.”
Volunteers load food parcels into Conor’s van, for delivery around Blackrock and Mahon. Catriona Twomey from Penny Dinners says they’ve seen a massive spike in demand for their services this last month, providing 400 to 500 parcels a day “to people we never saw before”.
Back at Blackrock Garda Station, Conor is joined by Ronan O’Sullivan. Ronan is a probationary Garda, a student on loan from the Garda Training College in Templemore.
A native of Mayfield, Ronan previously served seven years in the Navy.
"We’re all happy to be doing our bit.”
Pat and Ann Boyd are over 70 and cocooning in their Blackrock home, and missing their ten grandchildren terribly. They are delighted when Conor and Ronan deliver a prescription. Ann says they’re brilliant, and Pat says their admiration for the Gardaí is huge.
Out on the road, the driver of a horse-drawn sulky shouts “Howya Conor!” as they trot past. Conor calls back that the horse will surely be ready for Cheltenham soon.
A lot of the community Garda’s job at the moment is appealing to people’s better nature, says Sergeant Mick O’Connell in Cork’s Anglesea Street Divisional Headquarters.
“For the most part, people are being compliant with the Government’s Covid-19 restrictions, because they want to do the right thing.
"It could be their own loved ones who might die, and people get that.” Mick is one of three community sergeants covering Cork City, overseeing 32 Gardaí and eight probationary Gardaí.
He says with obvious pride that he has the cream of the crop working with him.
Twenty miles away, outside Fermoy, traffic is busy in both directions.
The Garda Checkpoint signs are up, blue lights flashing in the afternoon sun, as Gardaí stop cars heading in and out of town.
Under the shadow of Corrin Hill, community Garda Conor Gately joins Garda Peter O’Lochlainn and Garda Seamus Luddy of the Roads Policing Unit.
Many drivers have letters from work saying they’re essential workers, and everyone says their journey is necessary, but some confess they’re out shopping, with a partner in the passenger seat along for the spin. The gardaí are patient, but explain over and again that this is about trying to save lives.
One driver, headed for SuperValu in Fermoy, is turned back to Spar in Rathcormac.
In Douglas, Garda Lorraine O’Donovan and probationer Patrick Collins call to Phil Goodman of Young at Heart Seniors Organisation. Lorraine has been a Garda for 22 years, and a community Garda for five years, a job she says she loves.
Patrick says he’s delighted to be getting hands-on experience as a community Garda. He’s goalkeeper with Cork’s senior hurling team, and he and his teammates have already surpassed the €50,000 target for their 42-hour fundraiser for Marymount Hospice and are on-track to raise €70,000.
Phil says Young at Heart has seen a 50% increase in demand for food and support lately, and she says the organisation simply couldn’t function without Garda support.
Lorraine and Patrick load up bags to distribute over the course of the afternoon, calling to several people, among them a family which has suffered from domestic violence, an older man cocooning in the city centre, and a Somali family celebrating Ramadan.
In Ballinlough, Lorraine and Patrick visit John O’Shea’s home. Though he looks younger, John will be 101 in June.
“If I could get out at all I was right, but this Corona is too dangerous. This lady here is a very good friend to me. I couldn’t say enough for the guards.”
With minimal fuss, Lorraine makes a bowl of soup for John, and also feeds his ginger cat, Brownie.
“1919 I was born, in Caherdaniel in Kerry, but Cork was the only place that ever looked after me. We had a bit of a farm, but rocks and stones was all it grew. I moved to Cork in 1940, when I joined the Army.
“I got a very nice letter from the president for my 100th birthday. Wasn’t that very good of him to write? I couldn’t tell you will he write again this year. Please God he might.”
As they leave, Patrick shoos Brownie into the house, and Lorraine tells John to be sure to lock the door, and to please call her anytime. He says he will.
In Fermoy, at the Cluain Dara Day Care Centre, the sky is darkening, and cherry-blossom petals blow across the tarmac. Rain is threatening as Conor Gately calls on Jim O’Connell.
Jim is the caretaker here, but his job has expanded since Coronavirus hit. He says Cluain Dara, with its 25 residents, and 11 more over in Mary Potter Crescent, would be lost without the support of the community, and the help of the Gardaí.
“Conor is great to us here. Night or day, he’s only a call away, and that means the world to our residents.”
Leaving Cluain Dara, Conor tells a story about a Fermoy colleague calling to an older woman and telling her to never be afraid to pick up the phone and call the station. “She asked ‘Is it okay to call just for a chat?’ He gave his mobile number and said ‘Anytime’.
“These days,” he says, “all Gardaí are community Gardaí.”