I recently spent time with three community gardaí, two of them based in towns and one in Cork City.
I started in Grange School with the Fermoy area community garda, Conor Gately, who is greeted by first name by children in the corridor, many of whom give him a big thumbs up.
During his presentation on road safety, one girl asks: “Shouldn’t children be afraid of the gardaí?” Conor gently disagrees, asking the class to imagine what might happen if a small child got lost and was afraid to approach a garda. They nod appreciatively. Point made.
In Clondulane NS, a girl called Meggan tells Conor she wants to be a garda when she grows up. He asks the class, “Nobody else?”, and then says to Meggan: “I guess they’re not cut out.”
One indignant boy says: “Hey! We can all hear you!”
Meggan asks if she can try on Conor’s hat. He obliges and gives her his utility belt too. She’s thrilled.
In Kilmagner NS, Conor is asked if he’s ever shot anyone. Children are fascinated by guns. He replies that, in his 20 years as a garda, he has never once even used his baton. Some children seem disappointed, but he says he is very proud to live in a country which has a mostly unarmed police force.
Through his classroom talks, Conor uses an easy, conspiratorial tone and a stand-up comedian’s timing, telling kids that gardaí know most children are very clued in and that’s why they are asked to be “seatbelt sheriffs” — enforcing road safety on their own families.
“The thing I come across most is traffic accidents and I hate going to them,” he says. “The part of my job I hate is giving bad news and you never get used to it. Every guard in the country will tell you the same.”
Over in Charleville, Nick Phelan has been the community garda for eight years. In the face of ongoing generational social exclusion, Nick founded Charleville Boxing Club. This has proven a positive outlet for children from many different backgrounds.
In the clubhouse, 20 or so members exercise under the watchful eye of head coach Tommy O’Donnell, who has eight Munster titles and boxed for Ireland.
There’s a clear respect and affection between Tommy and Nick (behind Nick’s back, Tommy calls him “100%”). There’s a friendship and equality too among the children, from all backgrounds.
Tommy’s son Michael hassles Nick for his hat. “You can’t help getting to know people,” says Nick, laughing, “even if that’s just from walking down the street talking to people”.
Over on College Rd in Cork City, on the Thursday night before Halloween, it’s past 8pm. Every second house is a party house. The night is alive with young revellers in Halloween costumes, laden down with drink from the off-licenses. Overhead, the occasional firework erupts.
Community garda Peter O’Riordan points at one window. Through open curtains, a large poster says ‘Stay calm and smoke weed’.
“Well isn’t that a grand invitation to give a garda,” he says, laughing.
Off College Rd, in a more residential area, loud music is pounding from a student house. As Peter makes his way across an open area, an older woman yells from a balcony: “Tell them turn down that music!” Two young men loiter beneath the balcony. Peter waves the woman a thumbs up.
Knocking on the door, he has a quiet, serious conversation about respecting the neighbours. The music goes down. Walking away, he predicts, “Soon as we’re out of sight, I’ll bet a firework goes off.”
Sure enough, as we round the corner, a firework explodes low above us, loud and golden-bright. Two young men — last seen beneath the balcony — are walking away across the open area. Peter calls after them and eventually they acknowledge him.
They’re both 18 or so. One is quiet, the other full of bravado and shapes. Shoulders swaying back and forth, one whips out his phone to take down Peter’s rank number and to record the encounter.
“Here, guard, I don’t need this,” he says. “I’m after a hard day’s work.”
“And I’m in the middle of one,” replies Peter, “so let’s not waste each other’s time.”
He tells them that while he’s not accusing anyone, there are a lot of reports of antisocial behaviour in this area. Mainly that’s loud partying and fireworks going off. He points out that it would be unfair to crack down on one and not the other.
The youth sniggers and says fireworks are only a bit of craic, like. Using the most offensive language he can muster, he names a list of Peter’s colleagues and describes them in eye-watering terms.
Peter ignores the attempted provocation and tells them fireworks can be very distressing for elderly residents and their pets. Also, they’re illegal.
Receiving a grudging acceptance of his point, he lets them on their way.
From the balcony, the woman who wanted the music turned down declares the boy is “against fireworks anyway”. Peter’s tone is neutral as he explains that he’s just doing his best to apply the law fairly and evenly. He wishes her a good night.
Out on College Road, a Bike Shed van drives past. On the roof is a lit-up bicycle ridden by an inanimate witch. Watching it, we almost bump into three lads in full Oktoberfest lederhosen. Peter laughs, noting how varied is his average night’s work.
Back in Fermoy, after a drug awareness meeting in Loreto Secondary School, it’s nearly 10pm. Conor Gately takes a spin in the Garda van, heading out the Dublin Rd before turning off for the side-roads beyond Kilcrumper cemetery.
“There’s a few people I want to look in on,” he says.
We drive out darkened roads, past isolated cottages where television light shines through curtains and smoke rises from chimneys. Conor says it does no harm for the Garda van to be around of an evening.
Heading back into town, Conor drives around Fermoy’s housing estates, saying he and his colleagues make a point of calling in on older members of the community. “With some older people, you’ll call to the door and they’ll say, ‘Come on in, I’ll stick the kettle on’. With others, they just like to see the Garda van passing by regularly.
“You get a sense of people and it’s important to show them a bit of respect.”
The work of community gardaí is wide and varied but common themes are apparent. Each says that, in truth, every garda is a community garda. Perhaps that’s so, but the community gardaí I met seem especially close to their communities.
At a time when we worry that Ireland is becoming a less friendly place, perhaps the community garda is someone who can help us reclaim a small sense of ourselves as a people, as a neighbourhood, and as a community.