Wednesday, August 8, 2007


In “The Annals of Polperro,” the ancient Cornish saga which may or may not have been written by a practical joker in the 1950s, the inhabitants of the tiny coastal village of Burgle were often to be found leaving their neighbours’ houses with armfuls of cauldrons, chickens and tawdry peasant garb. They were so proficient in this enterprise that the term ‘burglar’ became synonymous with house-breaking.
What history fails to record, probably because I’ve just made it up, is that justice was eventually served on this lawless society. Legend has it that they all went down to the coast one night to giggle at a particularly nasty shipwreck, and when they returned home, the whole village had been stolen.
To counteract burglars, society has had to become more and more technologically minded down through the years. For decades, the simple operation of installing a front door confounded all but the cleverest thief, and when the key and lock were invented –at around the same time as each other – it appeared that the burglary trade was on its knees.
The Great Burglary Symposium in Seattle in 1932 finally got the industry to shake off its lethargy with the publication of a number of startling findings. Windows, for examples, were found to break when struck by a hammer. It was reported that ladders could be used for gaining access to upper storey windows. And traditional burglar’s accoutrements of hooped sweater, mask and bag marked ‘Swag’ were not necessarily vital components of the house-breaker’s armoury.
Today of course the burglar alarm industry is big business. Top of the range systems can not only notify weary Gardaí of an intruder, but can also shout “Oi! Get your hands off that!” when said intruder goes to lift your stereo. Sensors can detect an earwig poking his head out from beneath a washing machine, and many an unwary spider has spent time behind bars for thinking he had the run of the house.
Of course the big paradox is that very often today’s burglar alarms alert the burglar to the fact that a house is unoccupied. This normally occurs on a Bank Holiday Monday morning, when the rest of the residents in the estate are sleepily looking forward to another three hours in bed. There is always one house, owners down the country or in Lanzarote, and they’ve left the key with her sister in Rathfarnham. A tiny sparrow will perch momentarily on the chimney guard or a snail will start to ascend the outside wall and all hell breaks loose. And it goes on and on and on and on, until you’re forced to pack the kids into the car and go and visit dreaded Auntie Emily after all.
Naturally it does not take a person with the brain of an Einstein or a Keating to realise that, if a burglar alarm keeps on ringing, then the house is probably empty. When this happens, every burglar in the surrounding area is attracted to the noise, and there’s often a lot of jostling and pushing as competing robbers, all sporting gaily-coloured earmuffs, battle to gain entry.
Another problem with many “burgular alarms,” as dreaded Auntie Emily calls them, is that they are just so expensive. In many cases, it actually works out cheaper to have your house robbed on a regular basis than to install one of these monthly-instalment “peace-of-mind” contraptions, and many burglars are pointing this out in their sales literature.
Of course it is a typical Dublin trait to leave one’s radio on at full volume when leaving the house unoccupied. This in fact is dealt with at Burglary School kindergarten. Pat Kenny gets massive listenership figures because every empty house in the country broadcasts his words of wisdom at full volume. Neighbourhood Watch groups have even gone so far as to warn people going out to pull up the blinds, leave a light on upstairs and “for God’s sake, turn Pat Kenny off.” Though of course this might be for humanistic, rather than crime-prevention reasons.
The aforementioned Neighbourhood Watch groups have a large part to play in deterring local crime, though there is a body of opinion that says they’d be better off watching for burglars, rather than neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods, as a rule, don’t tend to shin up your drainpipe and gain access through the bathroom window, according to Garda statistics.
Signage can also be instrumental in deterring house-breaking. Many burglars are aware that a savage dog’s favourite meal is a lump of steak laced with sleeping draught, yet they will be in two minds about a “Beware of the Anaconda” sign. For years, we had a sign on the gate that read “Try no.32 – they just came into a bit of money,” which was reasonably effective, until the man at no. 32 drove his cement lorry through our front room window.
A simple yet effective alternative to the burglar alarm is the cunningly-disguised “pit-in-the-hallway” ruse. Basically you dig a large pit in your hallway and lay some thick palm fronds over it when leaving your house unoccupied. When an unsuspecting burglar comes along, he (or indeed she) steps on the leaves and plummets into the inescapable hole below.
As an optional extra, many people these days are keeping a couple of ravenous crocodiles at the bottom of the pit. This is slightly more expensive, but it saves on the irritating business of phoning the police and filling out forms.
Some people have found that a taut length of wire between the bannisters and the sitting room door can also be very effective. Steve McQueen used this technique in “The Great Escape,” though its popularity is on the wane, since Garda figures showed that the number of burglars who rob houses on motorbikes is declining.
For myself, the real trauma of burglary lies in those never-ending burglar alarm radio ads. You know the ones. A family comes home and the wife exclaims, “Oh, no! John, we’ve been burgled!” Does anyone discover a burglary and say “Oh, no!” Why are husbands in twenty-second radio ads always called John? Why do we need to know his name? It’s a twenty-second, badly-acted radio ad, not Coronation Street. We’re not going to develop a relationship with this lad, particularly as he’s probably not even there and has gone to lug the suitcases out of the boot.
But really, how significant is the risk of burglary? The 2001 Census returns for Dublin 15 – the latest official records available – indicate that very few people list burglary as their primary occupation, though it is given frequently as a hobby. FÁS no longer offer apprenticeships in it, as many potential crooks find shoplifting easier, probably due to the absence of front doors and Pat Kenny. And you just try getting a hold of a burglar at weekends! Many are simply drifting away from the industry and becoming door-to-door broadband salesmen, or indeed burglar alarm salesmen, but it is hoped that the Government will soon provide some rehabilitation facility for these poor souls.

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