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Crime in the Countryside

Crona Esler, “Unless by Invitation, Crimes that Shocked Ireland.” Blackwater Press, E, 9.74

Padraig Nally had recently been robbed several times, and had become increasingly fearful for his property and safety. He had taken to cradling his legally held single barrel shot gun for as many as five hours a day, as he nervously awaited another raid on his house in South Co. Mayo. So when at  1.30 pm on 14 th October 2004 he heard a car revving in the road outside, he went out to investigate.

In the melee which resulted Mr Nally shot one of his “visitors” dead. If ever there was a case in which “the devil was in the details” this was it. And these details are too complicated to be recounted again here, although Mrs Esler tells the story well. She shows real sympathy for both sides in this horribly divisive case which gripped Ireland and attracted international attention ten years ago. The one certainty though is that the circumstances surrounding the death of John Ward ( who was certainly up to no good) will always remain bitterly controversial. On the one side of the debate will be the representatives of the travelling community of which Mr Ward a part; and on the other were what might be called the “plain folk” of rural Ireland represented by Mr. Nally.

My hunch, both at the time, now when I read this instructive volume, and when I reflect on my own experience of rural crime ( Mr. Nally is not the only victim! ) is that Mr. Nally over reacted to what were undoubtedly extremely trying, indeed all but impossible, circumstances. Clearly the six year sentence for manslaughter imposed on him in his first trail was harsh. Nevertheless I think that, on balance, his acquittal in his second trail also amounted to a miscarriage of justice. My thought ( I would hardly want to dignify it with the word conclusion- because I was not after all in court) is that Mr. Nally was indeed guilty but that he deserved at the most only a nominal sentence, or should perhaps have been pardoned- although there would probably have been insuperable political difficulties attached to this course.

Mrs Esler’s book though has the advantage of not dealing only with Mr. Nally’s case. She places his story firmly within the contest of rural crime in the West of Ireland, but also deals with the similar English case of Mr Martin who, it will be recalled was imprisoned for manslaughter for killing a thief who had broken into his house in Norfolk.

The events which Mrs Esler describes with such zeal and skill are so horrifying that it is difficult to discern the core of the matter. But regarded in tranquillity, and we should remember that neither Mr. Nally nor Mr. Martin ( in truth an odder man than Mrs Esler allows ) had much opportunity for reflection, is that neither the police in England nor the Garda here seem to be able to provide for the security of those who live in the countryside. The Garda admit this privately, and the spread of electric gates in my part of North Wexford bears testimony to the reality of the matter.

This though in turn is no more than a reflection of a deeper difficulty that besets the social democratic state in dealing with remote and sparsely populated areas. Most voters are congregated in the towns and want as many “free” services as they can get- for example such as good policing- while paying a little tax as possible. This leaves those relatively few voters who live in rural areas at a substantial disadvantage..and the criminals ( as well as the Garda ) know it…and hence the electric gates- for those who can afford them!

There needs to be a far clearer understanding among decision makers that it is the moral responsibility of the state to ensure the safety and chattels of all its citizens- and not just  those who live within a few hundred yards of a police station. This can only be done if the forces of law are more widely dispersed than they are at present which is, I suppose, a complicated way of saying that we badly need to bring back the village policeman or his equivalent. There is no other alternative unless we are to have many more terrible and tragic cases like those Padraig Nally and Tony Martin.

There are two sorts of books about episodes such as these. There are books which  dig deeply into what happened; and there are those which merely to describe what happened. Mrs Esler’s contribution is in this latter category. Those looking for learned sociology or criminology will be disappointed here. But this is a solid piece of work on which others may build with confidence- and we are in Mrs Esler’s debt for her writing it; although it might perhaps have been wiser- if only to forestall criticism- for her to have noted, something that she seems to have unaccounatbaly missed namely, that Mr Martin is the nephew by marriage of the far right activist Andrew Fountaine ( 1918- 1997) who was deselected as Conservative candidate for giving an anti- semitic speech in 1948!