Noel O’Sullivan, 73: ‘I learned more about people through sport than I ever did through management courses’

Photograph: Alan Betson

Photograph: Alan Betson


In conversation with Rosita Boland

Noel O’Sullivan lives in Donabate, Co Dublin I was born during the second World War. My early memories would have been talk of bombings and shootings. My parents were farmers, near Castlecove in Co Kerry. There were three of us, and one who died at birth. I was the eldest.

I went to a two-teacher school until I was about 14. Most people left school then. The nearest secondary school was in Cahirciveen, 22 miles away. Nobody had cars then. The horse did everything. There were three options put to me: I could cycle to Cahirciveen and back every day, I could go to my mother’s brother in Galway, or I could become a boarder.

I went as a boarder to St Brendan’s in Killarney. If my parents had a bad year farming they’d write to the president and say, ‘We’ll send half the fees now and other half in six months.’ It was never a problem.

St Brendan’s was regarded as the diocesan college for priests. There were 30 in my class, and about half of them went on to become priests. Some went to Maynooth and others to All Hallows. I certainly considered it seriously myself.

I came out of St Brendan’s with complete independence. I never relied on anyone for advice. I had no interest in the farm. I made two applications, one for the guards and one for the cadets. I was high up in the exam for the guards and was called almost immediately. The training was in the Phoenix Park, and it was my first trip to Dublin. The only time you went to Dublin from my part of the world was if you were sick.

It was nothing new for me to be away from home then. I was mad to be stationed in Dublin after training, but the whole class was sent to the country.

I was 11 years in Gort. We were out on cycle patrols and foot patrols to rural areas; we checked every shop at night, to make sure the doors were locked; we went to the railway station to meet the trains, to see if there were any vagabonds coming into town. The pay was miserable: £12 a week.

I never did a line with a girl then; never went steady. I was totally wild. I’d go to dances, and I’d have a mineral with a lassie and maybe there’d be an old court in the car, but it wouldn’t last too long. I used to go to the Seapoint ballroom in Salthill. All the big showbands came there, and it was always packed. When I was 28 I was there one night and I saw this girl. She was stunning, with auburn hair, and for the first time, I thought, This fits in with my idea of what a partner might look like. That was the end of my brief romances around Galway.

Angela and myself got married two years later. In 1972 I was sent to the Border. It was the middle of the Troubles, and there was a lot of IRA activity. Most of the time we were searching cars and woods. I was a sergeant. We used to do patrols around Classiebawn, where Lord Mountbatten came on holidays. Checkpoints were a big thing: you had to go down on your stomach and see if there was a bomb under the car. I was there for two years.

There was an unwritten rule that if you did Border work you got the station you wanted after that posting. But my application got lost. I finished up in Castletown Bere for five years. It could have been hard moving around, and we had children by then, but Angela’s father was a sergeant, so she knew the system. We have four children.

I had massive patience. I never used a baton in my 40 years in the job. The biggest mistake that has been made in the way policing is done now is that we were jacks of all trade, and we learned our trade as best we could. You had to analyse the situation you met and think it out. Nowadays it’s all about specialisation.

After recent events I’m sure the public are shocked with what they’re hearing, but this should have been managed at a local level. It shouldn’t have got to the point where Martin Callinan would have had to carry the can. I have no doubt he was the fall guy, but he had to carry the can for whatever goes on in the force, because the people underneath him didn’t do their job.

I was promoted to superintendent. I was all over the place: Enniscorthy, Wexford town, Ballymun, Bandon. From the time I left Bandon I did 11 postings. My last one was in Limerick, when I was chief super. Age caught up with me. I retired at 60. Apart from my family, what has given me the most satisfaction in life has been my job.

My health is good, which is vital at this stage of life. The major illnesses have stayed away. I’m happy to have had a great life. I love sport. Everywhere I went I was involved in sport in the local community. I learned more about managing people through the GAA and sport than I ever did through management courses.

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