The problem of beggars hassling elderly massgoers outside Athlone churches came to the fore this week (March 27 ) when the District Court attempted to deal with two of the key protagonists as best it could, despite judicial reservations.
Before the court was an elderly and infirm couple, Francisca Gheorghe and Dezso Dondos, with addresses in Meadowbrook, Willow Park, Athlone.
The two, who had absolutely no English between them, were before the court on an obscure public order charge as begging is no longer against the law.
Aware of this anomaly, Inspector Aidan Minnock explained that he felt the Gardaí had to do something about the problem after receiving a large number of complaints on the issue.
“Elderly people going to daily mass are being intimidated. Bowls are being pushed in their face, and they’re not being allowed access or egress to or from the church,” he said.
He went on to point out that this problem was also beginning to be seen outside a number of the town’s banks, but did acknowledge the defendants were “somewhat vulnerable”.
As no official translator was present both the elderly defendants were completely ignorant of proceedings, although they did have a solicitor, Mr Robert Kelly, whom the judge addressed.
“They’re allowed into the country, have no social welfare, but will want legal aid and the whole shebang,” said Judge Seamus Hughes.
“There is no prospect whatsoever of collecting this,” he said, referring to the €500 maximum fine available to him.
“I appreciate your position, Inspector, you have to respond to complaints, but at the end of the day I make the final decision,” he pointed out.
“I’ll not send these people to prison. My hands are tied to a certain extent. I can only put them on a peace bond, and order them to stay away from churches and banks [as a condition of it being signed],” he said.
“The Gardaí have seen them acting aggressively,” said the inspector.
“I understand, Inspector, but if I send him to prison, he’d be out in hours. Somebody more enlightened than us will have to come up with a better idea,” said the judge.
Understanding the communication difficulties of the situation, he added: “I’m asking people to sign bonds, and they won’t have a clue what they’re signing. It could be their own birth certs as far as they’re concerned”.
Though both defendants signed the bond proscribing their proximity from either institution - bank or church - the court was unaware as to just how much of the 12-month prohibition they understood.