Saturday, October 17, 2015

'I'm Garda Tom, or Tom ... I'm not some kind of robot'

When I was in primary school, a visit from the local Guard wasn't a pleasant occasion, writes Brian Byrne. He was usually coming to check the attendance register, and had been held up as a scary bogeyman by the teacher, to ensure we came to school. Thing was, the Guard did nothing to change that image.

It's so different now. Garda Tom O'Donoghue spent some days this week visiting the local schools, specifically to show that their local Guard was human, 'and not some kind of robot' to be afraid of. The sessions were both informative and fun.

The Diary caught up with him at CPC, where he was introducing himself to his sixth group from the secondary school over a two-day period. He was talking about respect.

"You're a great bunch of young people, and I mean that," he said. "You set a high standard with your behaviour, and I respect you for it. And I hope you'll respect me for what I am and what I do. That doesn't mean calling me 'Officer O'Donoghue', you can call me Garda Tom, or Tom, whatever you're comfortable with."

In his trademark easy way, Garda Tom continued with the respect theme for a while, moving it on to respect for the local community, particularly the elderly. Nothing preachy, just reminding the young people to be aware of others while they're walking in the town during lunch breaks, for instance. "Don't move in big groups, remember that can be intimidating to others even if you don't mean it." And being careful crossing the road. "You're perfectly entitled to cross the road, but it only takes one idiot of a driver to knock you down, so watch out."

He moved on to the life of a modern garda. His own example, coming from Cavan but stationed in County Kildare for all his working life to date. "I started in Newbridge, then joined the Traffic Corps in Naas for a number of years. I worked in Ballymore Eustace before being transferred to Kilcullen. So you're stuck with me for a while."

And the gear. He showed the anti-stab vest, the batons old and new, the handcuffs, the pepper spray ("I got sprayed myself a while ago, when I was dealing with a big violent man and a colleague decided to use the spray. Trust me, you don't want to have it happen to you ..."). He invited students to try the vest on, and the hi-viz jacket for night work, and his bike leathers.

Yes, he had done the bike course, in answer to the inevitable question from one of the boys about the motorbike. Prior to his first day on the course, he'd never ridden one. "I remember that first time up, heading for a wall and only just managing to stop in time." And an important thought for youngsters not yet old enough to drive. "I wasn't the best biker on the course, there were guys who were naturals, could do great things on a bike. But I knew my limits."

Knowing the job too, which is upholding the law, and also helping people, whether with the mundane paperwork of signing licence and passport applications, the more serious issues of traffic accidents, domestic violence, or more to the point of the occasion, helping young people stay out of trouble. "As I said, you're a great group of youngsters. But sometimes any of us can get into trouble. You should know that while I'll do my job, I'll also do my damnedest to help any of you out of trouble, as long as you come to me and tell me."

The whole session was only twenty minutes or so, and there were a few good questions, and good answers during it. "The best part of the job? I get great satisfaction when I've been able to help someone, whether a missing person, or a family problem. Or when someone comes back after five or six years, and they remember you, you're maybe doing something right." Some more advice — "If any of you are involved in sport, stick with it, don't end up hanging around on the street, bored. That'll only lead to one thing, hassle from me."

At the end, it was clear that Garda Tom had done what he had come to do. To show the young people that he was human, like them. Not just a walking uniform. "You all know me now, I'm not just some sort of robot."

Certainly not a bogeyman ...

Pictured with Garda Tom are Matthew Kelly, Aaron Penrose, Kate Glynn and Fabian O'Leary.