It is Thursday afternoon in Ballinrobe and St Mary’s Church in the town is as serene as you would expect any church to be on a weekday afternoon. A couple of parishioners come in to light candles and to reflect and pray.
The church is empty, but evidence that a Confirmation ceremony took place there two days previously are readily apparent.
In the porch, every child from the four local national schools, as well as a handful from Ballinrobe Community School, who were confirmed, are pictured. A number of the pews leading towards the altar are also adorned with artistic drawings of key words which the sacrament of Confirmation ought to symbolise. ‘Peace’, ‘self-control’ and ‘gentleness’ are three of the messages.
They stand in stark contrast to what took place in this holy building towards the end of last Tuesday’s Confirmation service. As chief celebrant Archbishop Michael Neary was issuing words of thanks, one man leapt from a pew and ran into the porch area where a violent brawl took place among a Traveller family as part of an ongoing feud.
The details of what happened are reported elsewhere on these pages but, when you speak to people in the town on Thursday afternoon, a number of things are apparent.
Some people don’t want to talk about it at all. Others will talk but only on condition of anonymity. To say the people are living in fear would be an exaggeration, but people are nonetheless wary of putting their name to their comments.
“I’m not afraid of these people, but I’d be worried that they might target my children or grandchildren,” one man told The Mayo News.
There is also a wilful acknowledgement among some in the town that those involved in Tuesday’s horrific scenes were the actions of but a very small percentage of the Travelling community in the town.
“I’ve spoken to some Travellers in the town since the incident, and they’ve said that they hope they’re not tainted with the same brush because of the actions of one family. It is only a handful that are involved. But this was pre-planned, pre-meditated, disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour,” one local man told The Mayo News.
Tackling the problem
While virtually everyone we spoke to expressed abhorrence at what had happened, attempts to ascertain the best way to stop the violence again drew varied opinions.
“One thing is very clear. The community is very upset about what happened,” Cllr Michael Burke told The Mayo News. “To bring this into a church shows the type of behaviour that these individuals are capable of. I have had some very strong views put to me and there have been calls for a public meeting on this issue, but I don’t think we should rush into something like that,” he added.
One community activist spoke of the need for a collaborative effort. “I’m very proud of my town and I’m sickened with what this incident has done to the image of the town. It has put us back in the dark ages. I think the various different community groups should come together with the Gardaí, the clergy, the social services and Mayo County Council to work to make Ballinrobe an anti-social-behaviour-free zone.
“If everyone works together, we can try to eradicate this violence and thuggery. If anyone acts out of line, then we should report it. It needs the support of everyone in the community because individuals standing up to it are easier to get at,” he added.
Certainly that sort of joined-up thinking could benefit the town. As Cllr Michael Burke says in response to the question of policing, a greater Garda presence on its own would not be a good thing for the area.
“We don’t want a police society either where there will be Gardaí everywhere you turn. It wouldn’t be good if there were Gardaí standing at the gates of the church for a Confirmation Mass and people would be critical of that too. This isn’t Limerick, but things aren’t good right now either,” he said.
Parish Priest of Ballinrobe, Fr Conal Eustace, could not be reached by The Mayo News, but speaking at Masses over the weekend, he urged people to reflect on the positive aspects of the town if talking to any members of the media, and he suggested that this incident was an isolated one.
However, that wasn’t the view on the streets of Ballinrobe last week. Cllr Burke claims he witnessed an incident the evening before the Confirmation Mass, during which one member of the Travelling community tried to run-over another with his car. Some of the other people we spoke to also cited a number of cases of assault in the town in the past couple of years involving some members of one particular Traveller family.
As reported in our lead story, the apology from the Sweeney family is a new departure, but the overriding reaction to it in Ballinrobe is similar to Cllr Burke’s: Wait and see.
Ballinrobe Confirmation Mass brawl pre-planned
Sorry for slash-hook brawl