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Drink and A Country Town in Modern Ireland.
" How many of us can put our hands up and say we are not ourselves primarily responsible for the culture of drunkenness that our children are now embracing with such eagerness?"
“In the name of greed we are in danger of losing everything that is good about our town”. So said SF town councillor Paul Hayes at a public meeting held in Clonakilty, West Cork on Monday 4th September and it might have been a good thing if every parent, politician, publican and young adult in Ireland had been present. Certain events in Clonakilty in recent years have the familiar ingredients of many a story that could be told up and down the country: petty politics; worries about garda presence, indifferent parents; grasping business interests and so forth. But an analysis of the situation is instructive because, if we are looking to apportion blame, none of us come out of it looking good.
There appears to be general agreement nowadays that the country is rapidly losing its soul, whatever that is or was. We acknowledge the benefits of increased prosperity but are as rabbits frozen in headlights about what to do with its negative consequences, which are increasingly difficult either to ignore or to avoid. Some folk snarl at talk like this, terrified both of its impact on profit – pursuit of which is the new compulsory religion – and that we might all end up back where we were 30 years ago. Well, it is at least arguable that nothing will guarantee that we end up on the scrap heap more than shoving our heads in the sand about what we are making of our country right now. The trouble with the ostrich perspective is that you are left with limited faculties for thinking and communicating, if you see what I mean.
From the archive: Guns, drugs, work and the future of life in Blanchardstown, Dublin 15We moved to Clonakilty three years ago. Between us we had lived in Columbo (Sri Lanka), Delhi and Orissa (India), Hertfordshire, London, Sheffield, Oxford, The Cotswolds, Dublin, Cork and Macroom. There are good and great things to be said about all of those places but we both think that Clonakilty is by far the nicest place either of us has lived. We regularly meet newcomers here who feel the same way. Clon is an elegant and attractively kept town with great facilities for adults and children alike. It’s by the sea, within easy reach of magnificent beaches and coastline, close to the airport, a 45 minute journey to Cork, a nice city. It has great music, a cinema, a swimming pool and leisure clubs – good restaurants and cafes and lots of activity and interest groups to choose from. And of course it is situated in West Cork which is still, despite the best efforts of ostentatious bungalow and holiday home builders, one of the most beautiful places in the country and which can now also be proud of its art, writing, music, theatre and food festivals. Although Clonakilty is an affluent town, it has a solidly representative cross-section of Irish society, making it a friendly and welcoming place for blow-ins and natives alike. There is something for everybody here. However, I’m not writing this to do the work of the town’s auctioneers. I’m saying these things to emphasise an important point. Let no one reading this delude themselves that anything said below is unique to Clonakilty. Along with many other country towns and cities in Ireland, Clonakilty has been seemingly powerless, despite all of its advantages, to prevent the town from morphing most weekends into a nightmare of drunkenness and quite frequently, vandalism and violence. None of it has anything to do with poverty. If anything, the opposite is the case.
In a society that values working 40+ hours a week, and a 'career', above genuine time with your family, friends, and space to do absolutely nothing if you wish, alcohol is always going to be the answer. We're all working more and making higher wage packets - but we've no time to enjoy it. More than a hundred years after Haymarket, the concept of an 8 hour day being enough to keep society afloat has not been improved upon. Surely with technological advances with labour saving devices, we should all be working 4 hours a day. This doesnt feed into a system based on profit however......continues.
One of the central attractions in West Cork is ‘The Boiler Room’ in Clon, a discotheque for 14-18 year olds and a magnet for young people throughout the area. Every three weeks, they are bussed in from Skibbereen, Bandon, Macroom and elsewhere, thereby trebling or even quadrupling the town’s own quota of reckless young drinkers. And boy, do some of them mean to drink. Vodka and Red Bull. Beers with shots. Hi-energy alcopops. The intention is, basically, to get as much alcohol into their systems as fast as possible. Lots of profit to be had out of that. No matter that they are under age or that they are not allowed to consume alcohol at the disco itself, many of them arrive in the town already drunk and/or high on drugs. Once in Clonakilty, they will mingle with a crowd of equally dedicated older drinkers aged between about 18 and 35, which often includes hen and stag parties down for the weekend.
The situation in Clonakilty has been brought to a head because of the growing level of public disorder and damage to property over the last 18 months or so, culminating in a night of extraordinary violence, on Saturday 26th August, which saw a queue of young people with head and other injuries outside the emergency doctors’ surgery: cuts, bruises and stab wounds. As has already been briefly reported in the Southern Star, approximately one hundred and fifty people attended the public meeting at O’ Donovan’s hotel in the centre of the town on Monday 4th, which was organised by local Sinn Fein town councillor, Mr Cionnaith O’ Suilleabhain in response to these events. Two people were hospitalised, one of whom was in a near coma and had to be accompanied by the doctor on duty in an ambulance to A&E in Cork City. A second doctor had then to come on duty to treat the waiting queue of injured. All of the normal medical emergencies were hampered by these events. Dr Yvonne Hayes, a local GP told the meeting that she had been called on three other occasions to attend serious emergencies involving young people at The Boiler Room. She described finding a 13-year old girl in an alcoholic coma there. On the second occasion, Dr Hayes was called to attend a 14-year old boy who had collapsed in a coma on his way to The Boiler Room. He had no identification on him so there was no way of contacting his parents to let them know what was happening. The third incident involved a 19-year old boy who had taken several ecstasy tablets so as not to be discovered with any of them at the disco. When Dr Hayes got to the boy he was in an extremely dangerous state, capable of any kind of behaviour, and seriously at risk himself. All three of these children could easily have died, Dr Hayes said. She stressed that hers were just the experiences of one doctor. Others had had similar experiences. Another doctor present, Dr Fiona O’ Reilly, expressed the distress and upset of all the doctors at having to deal with the results of the violence, particularly when it involved the innocent children of neighbours and friends.
It was discovered that the children coming from other towns had no parental or adult supervision on the buses and that they were responsible for organising the bus transport themselves. Some of the boys routinely brought hurley sticks and golf clubs with them. The buses generally drop the children into Clonakilty hours before the disco is due to start so there is ample opportunity to buy alcohol beforehand. One of the staff at the Boiler Room said there was little they could do when some children were bringing drugs into the disco ‘in their bodies’ so that searches would sometimes be ineffective unless they were to conduct full strip searches. 12-year-old children were occasionally showing up and had to be brought inside, it was claimed, because there was nobody at home to mind them. The suggestion was made to organisers of The Boiler Room present at the meeting that they might move their disco to another night, possibly Fridays which seem to be quieter, but the response was given that these discos are helping to finance the town’s show grounds to whom the disco hall belongs, and that the profits from them were contributing to the important amenities provided by the show ground. It was also suggested that The Boiler Room organisers were being a bit mean by charging the children for bottled water when most would be happy to drink tap water. Soft drinks are available to them at E1.20 a can – a healthy mark up there. No question, really, but that the young people are a lucrative source of money. The organisers were asked why they would not open the show ground fields (several acres of grass land beside the disco) so that coach and car parking would not cause a disturbance to nearby residential estates. The Boiler Room organisers wanted us all to understand that they were providing an important social meeting point for our children.
But the Boiler Room is by no means the only source of difficulty in Clonakilty. For starters, it only runs one weekend in three. Residents in the town took the opportunity to describe how they are routinely kept awake until 4 and 5 o’ clock at the weekends, how their cars and other property are vandalised and how they are often told to ‘fuck off’ when they ask people to move out of their gardens – those who feel brave enough to confront them - which many elderly and people living alone do not. Among the things to be seen on looking out of their windows are young teenagers having sex in their gardens. One man opened his door to find a girl attempting to urinate on his porch. The meeting was told that gardens and public places are all routinely used as toilets and for sexual activity. I have witnessed a man of about 30, defecating in the doorway of a house in the middle of the town’s main street at 9.45 on a late summer evening and it was clear others had had similar experiences.
So who is responsible? Well, while it was acknowledged that the Gardai were aware of these problems and that a certain amount was being done, they nevertheless came in for their fair share of criticism from the meeting. Nobody could recall seeing any Garda patrolling the town on foot on weekend nights even though there were supposed to be two Gardai detailed for that duty. Others described great difficulty getting an answer from the Gardai on the phone. There was an infrequent Garda presence at The Boiler Room on disco nights, so that children at least as young as 14 were wandering noisily into nearby estates after 1 o’ clock in the morning. Little or no attempt was made to control parking there, as much a matter for the organisers as for the Gardai, which was forced out onto the roads and estates nearby, resulting in a lot of noise pollution to the residents.
Cllr O’ Suilleabhain described how earlier in the year he had proposed the council call a public meeting to try and set up a co-operative approach to the issue, involving all sections of the community. The town councillors all arrived at the council meeting at which the motion was to be discussed and voted on, to find that a senior Garda, Superintendent Maher, had been invited, without their knowledge, to address the meeting before it began about the subject of crime in the town. The Superintendent painted a positive picture, describing the town as peaceful and relatively crime free. He quoted from court statistics, which showed only 5 convictions for assaults during the period January to June 2005 as an example. After he had spoken, Mr O’ Suilleabhain was invited by the then Mayor, Ms Phil O’ Regan (FG) to agree that in view of the Superintendent’s reassuring report, there was no need to debate the motion, after all. Mr O’ Suilleabhain disagreed and so the discussion went ahead. The motion was voted down by six to three votes. The two SF councillors and an Independent voted in favour. All of the FF and FG councillors voted against the need for a public meeting. The reasons given were that it would create alarm and be bad for business in the town. It is of course absolutely true that for the rest of the week Clonakilty is a pleasant and peaceful town. But that doesn’t alter the truth of what is happening at weekends and about which there has been public alarm for some time, whatever our councillors might like to tell themselves. Given events since that council meeting it might be logical to assume that the same councillors would have reflected on the wisdom of their decision, but sadly that does not seem to be the case.
At the public meeting, the activities of known drug dealers in the town were discussed. They routinely conduct transactions in various well-known locations and the question arose why they were able to continue to do this with apparent impunity. A nun at the local convent hospital complained that their grounds were regularly used for drinking and drug taking but that while Gardai were aware of the problem, it nevertheless continued. She also said that staff and patients were frightened at times.
Some of the local publicans were known to have held 18th birthday parties for children who were considered good customers and some were regularly holding discos on their premises without applying for licences as is required by law. One audience member complained that some publicans would continue to serve people no matter how visibly drunk they were and then push the problem out onto the town at closing time. He gave as one example the spectacle of a man he had seen in a pub having difficulty standing up and getting to the bar where he barely managed to order a pint of beer. When the pint was served, he had picked it up and being unable to hold it, immediately dropped it onto the floor. He then ordered, and was served, another pint.
A senior British police officer present at the meeting expressed his frustration with the lack of accountability of the Gardai and what he saw as their failure to engage with the community in a meaningful way. He had been coming to West Cork for 35 years and now lives here. He had worked in a Warwickshire town with greater difficulties and been involved in the effort that had restored it to order. He was astounded by the way the Irish Gardai functioned and particularly by their failures of management at senior levels. This police officer told how he had been directly involved in drafting the UK’s Crime and Public Order legislation and had wide experience of these matters. He described how everyone in the community had been involved in addressing the issue in Warwickshire. He suggested that Clonakilty people keep logs of anything they observed so that they would be in a position to check the crime statistics that were being quoted. Another audience member said he realised that, according to the statistics quoted by Superintendent Maher, he had apparently personally been very privileged to have witnessed, in the space of ten minutes, four of the five recorded assaults during the period of time covered by the report.
The role of parents, too, was criticised. But while the meeting agreed there was a lack of parental supervision, others complained that ‘there was nothing for the children to do’. Bullshit. Clonakilty is one of the best-served communities in the country. It also has fantastic natural amenities. Young people can choose from sea or pool swimming, sailing, surfing, rugby, GAA sports, soccer, tennis and cinema. There are lots of opportunities for voluntary work and if none of the special interest groups like chess, dancing, drama and music are of interest, there are great facilities for starting groups of their own. There are several halls, including a nicely refurbished Parish Hall available for the purpose. There are beautiful walks and easy cycling country. What is the matter with parents that they are unable to direct their children towards these sorts of activities? And why do they think it is up to the rest of the community to do something else if they turn their noses up at everything that has been made available for them? Why can children not meet in smaller groups in their own homes so that they can have time for personal socialising? What’s wrong with playing cards, listening to music or cooking together? Young people may complain they want more freedom, but if that ‘freedom’ comes at the risk of being exposed to or participating in drunken sex and violence, what is the problem with weighing the situation up and simply saying ‘no, this is one thing, as a responsible and considerate parent, I will not allow you to do’? What is wrong with organising social evenings for smaller, local groups in the local parish hall, with food and good lighting where the organisers know who is invited and how they are getting to and from the event, and where profit is not a part of the equation? These are children we are talking about, after all. And if they object, is it not up to us to us to firmly and supportively maintain the necessary supervision until they are mature enough to understand that we were strong enough to protect them properly. It’s as if to say ‘no’ to a teenager were an unthinkable option for many of us. If we don’t do it, why the hell should anyone else do it for us? It is a bit much to blame town councillors or the Gardai (who, whatever true failings they may be guilty of, and despite being under-resourced, nevertheless seem to be expected to be everywhere at once on weekend nights), if we are the ones allowing the opportunities for misbehaviour ourselves. To send a child up to 30 or 40 miles away at night, on an unsupervised bus to another town, with up to four hours to spare before the event they are attending begins, is surely to take a risk with their welfare.
And if we want our young adults to treat us with respect, why do we not involve them more closely in running their own communities? They are seldom, if ever, given any meaningful opportunity to contribute their views about the way things are done, let alone have those wishes acted upon. They have no say on, for example, developmental impacts on their environment, which can see some children herded into very small green spaces for open air play, for instance. One exception to this trend is a local Garda initiative. We are lucky in West Cork to have among us Junior Liaison Officer, Garda James O’ Mahoney, based in Bandon, who is the instigator of the annual Youth Awards scheme. This programme awards young adults for outstanding achievements in sport or voluntary and other community activity. The scheme has been so successful it is to be taken up nationwide. Having attended the awards ceremony in October last year, it was clear that Garda O’Mahony and his colleagues were determined to acknowledge the fantastic and often unseen contribution made to the community by young people and to stamp out the tendency to think of them in a negative way. During his speech that night (which was the 10th annual awards ceremony) he told how his greatest problem was in choosing from among so many amazing young people. The assumption that young people are irresponsible and uninterested is insulting to most. And given that they are greedily targeted for economic exploitation, it’s clear that many respond to these attitudes by living down to the cynical expectations that the adult community is imposing on them, or more often failing to protect them from. In many ways, they are positively prevented from being responsible for themselves. The so-called ‘youth culture’ which they are encouraged, literally, to buy into is a monumental and manipulative lie – from idiotic television programmes, viciously stupid teenage magazines and relentless advertising, to the even more idiotic ‘celebrity’ gossip, rife with materialistic and other excesses – and all of which they are immersed in from the moment they are capable of switching on the box, or are able to read. Again, it is us parents who are failing to reject or control the poison directed at our children. We complain about it but, essentially, do little to stop it. We are not helped by the fact that responsible parenting is routinely depicted as boring and stupid – even on what are regarded as family television programmes. Frequently what is shown is an inversion of the proper roles, whereby the clued-up, streetwise – and generally insufferable teenager, has patiently to manage dimwit, old fogey parents who talk about stuff like (yawn)self-respect, responsible behaviour and helping out at home. Parents are really up against it with that stuff.
But perhaps most insidiously of all, how many of us can put our hands up and say we are not ourselves primarily responsible for the culture of drunkenness that our children are now embracing with such eagerness? It has been said a million times, it’s not new, I know, but we drink in our homes, in the pub and on every conceivable occasion that we get together. And we drink to get drunk, to the point of stupefaction, even. Nothing can be done collectively without laying on booze to facilitate the occasion. Our parents’ generation did it before us, we indulged the practice even more eagerly and now we are handing the torch onto our children who are descending to even more seriously addictive behaviour at an alarmingly early age. We are storing up a national deficit of depression, addiction, health problems, impaired judgment, relationship and social breakdown and ultimately a seriously malfunctioning society unless we get a grip on this situation. The cracks in our psychological, moral and social infrastructure from alcohol abuse are already clearly visible. I put my hands up and admit I have played my part. We are all perpetrators or victims of this culture, sometimes both, one way or another. It is our national emblem, the drunken Paddy. And if their violence on each other is not enough to persuade us to stop, what lunatic fire are we playing with when teenage girls are able to go out in short skirts, without underwear, for sexual encounters with boys, often complete strangers, who in turn expect to be gratified with oral and other sex – in gardens, in public toilets, in any space they can find for the purpose – all fuelled by alcohol and drugs.
The postscript to our public meeting in Clonakilty is that, two nights later at another Town Council meeting of the same group of nine councillors, Cllr Cionnaith O’ Suilleabhain was roundly criticised for having called the public meeting on the problem of public disorder. Dismissing the fact that 150 people had attended, he was accused of bringing bad publicity to the town and of exaggerating its difficulties. It was argued that any problems the town had were under control. No concession, apparently, was made to the fact that so many people had expressed an opposite experience, of the serious concern felt for our young people or of the lessons that clearly needed to be learned from the recent upsurge of violence. Whether or not Cllr O’ Suilleabhain is making local political capital out of a problem which we all know is a country-wide phenomenon, he has undeniably taken a welcome and overdue step toward addressing the problem of our drinking culture as it is affecting young people in West Cork. Not a single representative of the Gardai (the Superintendent being the only one to send his apologies), the Vintners Association, (aside from Mr Tom O’ Donovan in whose hotel the meeting was held), or the Clonakilty Business Association attended the public meeting even though all were notified about it. Are we talking to ostriches?