FEARS that further violence would break out in Rathkeale between Christmas and New Years Eve were eased as Gardaí kept a tight lid on tensions between feuding families in the town.
Violence marred the run-up to the holiday season as rival groups left machetes abandoned on the streets and cars destroyed in a ramming incident.
The atmosphere was summed up in the voice of a terrified child who can be heard clearly in a social media video that was widely shared last November, following an attack on a mobile home in Rathkeale by men wearing balaclavas and armed with machetes.
The attack was but one of a series of violent incidents that culminated in the ramming of cars on December 19 which prompted national condemnation but drew local cynicism.
In the eyes of many locals, including those with connections to the Gardaí, the trouble has been brewing for months.
In November, local Fianna Fáil councillor and former Garda Kevin Sheahan warned that trouble was looming, adding that he had been told by criminal elements to “stay away” from parts of the town.
“Law and order has gone out the window in Rathkeale,” he said.
Rathkeale’s population triples every Christmas, with hundreds of Travellers returning to visit relatives, get married or christen babies.
“The vast majority return to simply and lawfully enjoy the festivities, but “a minority have no respect for the law”, said Sheahan.
In a bid to curb trouble ahead, Gardaí cordoned off part of the town on November 21, while the regional armed support unit helped local officers seize weapons in a house.
Despite the action, tensions continued to rise, partly spurred by the return of a family that has been involved in a number of alleged attempts to extort properties and land in the town.
Associates of the family, which has geographical links in England, are described as ruthless and have no fear of the law.
While the presence of the group had dramatically heightened tensions in the town, it remained unclear if any members were directly involved in the December ramming since there are overlapping and parallel feuds under way in the town and outlying areas.
Some have have suggested that it was linked to an argument over a court case, others believe it erupted following a row at a pub.
There is a feud involving two Traveller families with local links, one of whom has, according to sources, long been involved in importing drugs from Bulgaria to England.
Meanwhile, individuals with links to a UK-based drugs gang have also surfaced in the town.
Calling for more resources, local Fine Gael councillor Adam Teskey said: “There’s a serious problem in all the towns and villages in rural Ireland. Throughout the length and breadth of the country, law and order is breaking down.”
“You have a Garda station in Rathkeale that is open for a few hours a day. This is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for Gardaí and it should never have been left go this far,” said another former Garda.
Cllr Teskey explained that the local Garda district headquarters in Newcastle West was closed because it was infested with rats, but while Gardaí are based in an inadequate temporary premises in the town, nothing has been done to replace it.
“That’s a farce, it’s a disgrace that our Gardaí have to work in these conditions. They need proper support and a proper Garda station to work out of. It’s beyond me, it’s just beyond me.
He pointed out that a Garda drug unit was moved out of Rathkeale to a more adequate base in Adare.
Despite abuse directed towards Rathkeale’s Travellers on social media, Cllr Teskey said the vast majority of them want “harmony and peace and want nothing to do with what happened”.
“There is a great community spirit between the settled Travelling community and the non-Traveller community in Rathkeale, but a minority are causing a toxic atmosphere here,” he said.
According to informed sources, up to half a dozen feuds involving Travellers are currently ongoing between Rathkeale, Askeaton, Abbeyfeale and into north Kerry, leaving local Gardaí stretched.
Local Independent councillor and barrister Emmett O’Brien warned that the involvement of a number of local families in the drug trade is never going to be tackled unless society as a whole faces up the scourge of drug-taking that is going on.
“The dogs on the street know what’s going on but we have a cultural apathy to the amount of cocaine use in the community across Limerick. The Gardaí are aware of it, but I feel sorry them,” he said.
“It’s hard to get people to give evidence against drug dealers. It’s easier to buy cocaine than it is to buy weedkiller,” said O’Brien, who added people elsewhere might have been “shocked and disturbed” by December’s violent scenes “but they shouldn’t have been surprised”.