Garda Conor Gately on the beat in Fermoy pictured with Tony Morrissey. (Picture: Donal O'Keeffe)

With the country in lockdown, Community Gardaí are more than ever performing a vital service – by Donal O’Keeffe.

Last week, when one Fermoy Garda told an older woman, living alone in isolation, that she should never be afraid to call the station, she asked if it would be okay to call just for a chat. He gave her his mobile number and said “Anytime”.

Garda Conor Gately tells that story with a certain professional pride, as we stand physically distanced in the town park.

“As Gardaí, our job is to look after people,” he says. “I’m the Community Garda here in Fermoy, but ultimately all Gardaí are Community Gardaí. And here we are now, in this strange, horrible situation, when our job is more important than ever.”

Conor tells me he has a couple of deliveries to make, and he says that while normally I could hop in the passenger seat of the Garda van, in these times I should follow him in my own car.

As we drive from Fermoy out to Castlelyons, I listen to the radio and hear the grim news of the latest deaths. Double figures are the new everyday now. Through Bridesbridge, and left at Leary’s Cross, I follow Conor’s distinctive Garda van as we head for Conna.

Out the road a bit, the van indicates and pulls into a gateway and up a driveway. I follow, and Conor delivers some medical prescriptions to an older woman. She says she’d rather not be named, but she wants readers of The Avondhu to know that she appreciates very much the work the Gardaí are doing, and she says she buys the paper every week. Conor leaves his mobile number, and when she asks about people calling to the house, he tells her the lockdown has made things really simple. With the whole country shut down, nobody cold-calling anyone is legitimate, he says, so if someone you don’t know shows up at your door offering any sort of service, please pick up the phone and give us a shout.

We drive on through Aghern, Conna, and Curraglass for Tallow. Conor has a call in the far reaches of Ballynoe, which is part of Fermoy’s territory, but that necessitates crossing briefly into West Waterford.

“We’re not the Dukes of Hazard,” he says. “We don’t have to slam on the brakes at the county line.”

At Tony Morrissey’s house, it quickly becomes apparent that if borders don’t really matter to the Gardaí, they don’t matter to the locals either. Tony accepts gratefully Conor’s delivery of his prescription, and says the West Waterford Gardaí have always looked after him too, even though he swears he’s not quite sure which townland his house is in. Tony won’t say his age, but he concedes that he’s cocooning. On his window is a sign reading “Due to the rising cost of ammunition, I will no longer be able to provide a warning shot”.

Tony says he’s been battling cancer for 20 years now. “Please God I have it beaten, although I don’t want the Covid-19 on top of it.” He says he’s blessed to have so many great neighbours, and he’s stuck in everything, the Men’s Shed, the Tallow Tidy Towns, and the Knockmourne Vintage Car Run, which was supposed to go ahead in the third weekend of May, although that is probably in doubt now. Tony says a decision will be made soon, and he’ll let The Avondhu know.

Tony is a natural raconteur, and he regales us with tall tales and yarns. He also produces what he says is a natural remedy for the common cold, a vile-smelling concoction of sugar and onions. Whatever its efficacy as a curative, it would certainly do wonders for physical distancing.

As we head away, Tony says the Gardaí are doing a fantastic job, and he’s very grateful. Conor tells him to be sure to call if there’s anything he needs.

Back at Fermoy Garda Station, Conor says that while Gardaí have been using social media to let people know help is available, they are conscious that some of the most vulnerable people may not have access to social media, and so they are asking the public to spread the word.

Gardaí are asking people to observe physical distancing, and to stay within their own two-kilometre area, unless making vital journeys. Gardaí are carrying out regular checkpoints, and are encouraging people to abide by Government recommendations. As in all things, Conor says, a bit of cop-on goes a long way.

He adds that Gardaí are anxious too that the public knows they can pick up the phone at any time and talk to a Garda. We’re here to help, he says.

On Sunday, Conor emails me to tell me of a special birthday party he and his colleagues attended.

“Started off yesterday (Saturday) with a family who wanted to do something for their mam’s 90th birthday and asked us to join in. They decorated the outside of her house on Oliver Plunkett Hill with balloons etc. A few Roads Policing lads and myself joined the cavalcade of cars at Fermoy Park. The private cars were all nicely decorated with balloons and signs. Loads of grandkids on board. We drove past the house, where the lady waited in her doorway. Everyone beeped and cheered as we drove by, but every other car passing also joined in. It was a really nice community effort and a great way to get around the guidelines. Distancing etc was respected throughout.”

Conor says people have been sending pizzas and other gifts of food to Garda stations, and while that kindness is very appreciated, it’s not necessary, and we should remember all of those on the front line.

“This crisis has brought out the very best in Irish people. People are being very decent in thanking the Gardai, but it’s very important that we all remember to thank the volunteers too.

“We really are all in this together, and together we will get through this.”

In a country where the idea of policing by consent is ingrained, at a time when our society has rarely before been asked to make such sacrifices, surely the notion of an agreed relationship between police and community has surely never been more precious.

Fermoy Garda Station: 025-82100

Garda Emergency: 999 or 112.