Ex-Army lieutenant Dónal de Róiste: ‘I can walk with my head high’

More than 50 years after he was forced out of the Army on spurious grounds, the former lieutenant has finally seen his name cleared

There is delicious defiance in the location of Dónal de Róiste’s home. He lives on Military Hill in Cork, opposite Collins Barracks, in a house originally built for British soldiers. Here in this two-up two-down of snooping shafts of sunlight, as he waited and worried and wearied in his quest to clear his name, the 77-year-old commissioned officer has revisited in his memory, over and over, the day nearly 54 years ago that his life turned into Ireland’s version of the Dreyfus affair.

It concluded, at last, this week when the State formally apologised to him and agreed to pay him compensation after a review of his case declared “it is difficult to envisage how greater damage could be caused to the good name of an officer of the Defence Forces” than what happened to him when he was compulsorily retired from the Army by then president Éamon de Valera.

It began in the springtime of 1969, the season when a young man’s fancy turns to romance. Lieut Donal Roche, as he was then, was 23 and in love with the girl he planned to marry, Mary, the daughter of a garda superintendent. The eldest of four siblings, he cut a dashing figure in his uniform and felt gratified that his career brought pride to his parents, Christina and Seán, a tool and dye machinist.

“Duty and service were taught as noble ideals in my family,” says de Róiste, a trim and bespectacled man with a literary quote to fit every context. In his spare time after graduating from cadet school and joining the Army, he travelled the country as part of a ballad group with two other officers, Paddy Walshe and Gerry Swan, and a civilian Dubliner named Brendan Doherty. With de Róiste, a bluegrass virtuoso, playing guitar, the quartet often performed in the Wren’s Nest in Dublin’s Strawberry Beds and Lena Delany’s bar in Tallaght. They would meet in O’Donoghue’s pub in Merrion Row, a session venue that famously hosted The Fureys, The Dubliners, Liam Clancy and Christy Moore, to set off on the road.

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“We were in West Cork and Galway and Donegal. To get to Donegal, we passed through Northern Ireland and we’d play in pubs there. We sang The Sash [a loyalist song] and Kevin Barry [a republican one],” says de Róiste.

All was right in his world, until the moment an armed senior officer, a Capt Pat Dixon, approached him in Custume Barracks, Athlone on April 25th, 1969 and said: “We’re going to Dublin.” Roche sat in the back seat of a Zephyr car beside Dixon, who was carrying a Browning pistol, while another soldier drove them to Dublin.

“I said: ‘What’s it about?’ He said he didn’t know,” recalls de Róiste, who only subsequently learned that being summoned by a senior officer bearing a sidearm constituted arrest in the Army. “He was very flustered.”

On arrival at military headquarters in Dublin, he was escorted up three flights of stairs and left alone in a locked room with iron bars on the window. After being “left to stew – interrogation 101 in the code”, Comdt Gerry O’Sullivan of the Army Intelligence section, G2 and later chief of staff of the Defence Forces, entered the room. O’Sullivan ordered the young officer to account for his movements but Roche did not know what movements he meant.

“He asked me was I stupid or a liar. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He asked about places I went to and people I met in bars and at music sessions. He asked me where Mary lived in Dublin and he didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t know. I’d only ever gone there with her. I wasn’t watching how we got there. One of the questions was how many pints I had. He said it was a security matter and my family would be disgraced and that suicide was an option, though not just yet.”

De Róiste would later learn that he was accused by an informant of associating with a member of Saor Éire, an IRA splinter group, having unwittingly taken a lift to a Galway gig with another band member from a suspect in a shoot-out with gardaí and having briefly encountered the man again at an auction of military vehicles in Clancy Barracks. He was neither told the identity of the informant nor what charges, if any, might be preferred against him. No notes were taken during his interrogation and nobody else was present in the room other than O’Sullivan.

“I was being labelled a terrorist,” says de Róiste, who confesses his only crime was that he “was naive to the nth degree”.

The interrogation continued for several days. Roche asked to be allowed speak to a lawyer, and was refused. He wondered if it was all an elaborate endurance test to measure his military mettle. He thought he must have passed because, eventually, he was released and returned to normal duties in Athlone. No more was said of the episode for a couple of weeks, until Paddy Walshe, who was then based in Templemore and would retire from the Army in 1983 at the rank of commandant, found out about de Róiste’s arrest.

“I had been questioned too about people I had been meeting,” he recalls, sitting beside his friend. “Comdt O’Sullivan told me that Dónal had made a statement that I was meeting [subversives] with him. I said I wanted Lt Roche brought into the room to make that statement in front of me, ‘otherwise I’m not answering any more questions’. He looked so shocked it was clear to me that Dónal hadn’t made the statement.

“If Dónal had told me he was meeting subversives I’d have arrested him myself,” adds Walshe, who played the mouth organ, flute and melodeon in the band. The two men smile wryly.

On learning of Walshe’s interrogation, de Róiste went to see a lawyer who resolved to write to the chief of staff seeking clarification of the allegations against him and asserting his client’s right to a court martial. The lawyer received no reply. In 1999, replying by affidavit to a High Court order to produce the letter, the State said no such letter existed in its files. It was not until 2002, when redacted documents were released to de Róiste under another legal order that he saw his solicitor, Micheál Ó Maoileoin, had, indeed, written on May 30th, 1969 and that a reply had been drafted but never sent.

On June 26th, 1969 and without any charges being formally brought against him, the young lieutenant was informed by letter that he was being “retired” from the Army “in the interests of the service” under a section of the Defence Act that no longer exists. He was give 12 hours to pack his belongings and go.

For the next two years, he drifted. Working odd jobs in Dublin, sometimes sleeping in his car at night, he felt “a failure”. His father, an admirer of de Valera, did not believe his son’s innocence and told him never to darken the family door again. “I never went back,” says de Róiste. “When I moved back to live in Cork [many years later] my mother used to get the bus from Thurles to see me.”

He changed his name to its Irish version and left for England, eventually travelling onward to the US. On his passport was printed a legend of shame: “Profession deleted officially.” In the US, he found work in a Pittsburgh steel mill. Mary joined him there and the couple got engaged.

“I was running from ghosts,” de Róiste acknowledges in a voice that still resonates with an occasional American twang.

The psychological fallout from his Army sacking proved too much for his relationship with Mary to bear. The couple eventually went their separate ways. De Róiste married an American woman called Leah and they had two children. At night, Leah would hear her husband “screaming in my sleep”. When their daughter, Sinéad de Róiste, competed in the Rose of Tralee as the Philadelphia contestant in 2004, her father says, he was “scared to go to the Dome to be with her lest I stymie her chances”.

When his marriage ended, de Róiste returned to Ireland in 1988. He got a job driving a schoolbus in Ballincollig, outside Cork City. One day, he was driving the bus when he heard a newsreader on the radio announce that he had been let go by the Army because of his suspected links with terrorists. It was 1997, the year his youngest sibling, Adi Roche, founder of the Chernobyl Children International charity, contested the presidential election as the Labour Party’s candidate. Somebody somewhere had decided to use Dónal’s expulsion from the Army to scupper her campaign. He was doorstepped by journalists. “Adi’s brother quit Army after IRA slur,” said one of the many headlines.

“That really destroyed me. I thought I’d got all the low blows from this thing... Adi was only 14 when it happened but it was used to blow her campaign out of the water.”

De Róiste suffered a mental breakdown. It was to prove to be a constructive crisis. He started attending a counsellor and found a solicitor, Eamonn Carroll, to take on his case against the Department of Defence. Paddy Walshe sat him down and promised to support him every step of the way. His siblings rallied round him. It would take another quarter of a century to get justice and there were times when he despaired, but there was incremental progress too. In March 2010, Seanad Éireann passed a motion of concern “at the lack of procedural fairness and the denial of the principles of natural justice” in his case.

Despite his instinct in the aftermath of his firing to “dissociate myself from the Army in every way”, de Róiste still moves with a military bearing. His voice is gentle and his manner philosophical. Asked why he believes he was chosen for the treatment he receives, he says he does not know. Paddy Walshe, however, has a theory.

“Dónal was a passenger in a car driven by a drunken officer the previous October that hit and seriously injured a young female teacher,” he says. “There was a Garda investigation and Dónal was going to testify in court that he had tried to take the car keys from the officer to stop him driving but the investigation mysteriously stopped. I believe that’s why it happened. Somebody needed Dónal to be silenced.”

In June 2020, a decade after de Róiste’s breakdown, Simon Coveney, the Minister for Defence, appointed senior counsel Niall Beirne to review the circumstances of his enforced retirement. It allowed de Róiste to see, for the first time in more than 50 years, the Army’s record of his purported statements under interrogation, much of which he describes as “fabrication”.

Beirne submitted his report last June. It was published on Wednesday. It states that the process employed in the case was “fundamentally flawed and unfair”, “not in accordance with the law” and that it was “seriously and fatally compromised by the failure to bring his solicitor’s letter to the attention of the minister and the government” before they advised de Valera to banish him from the Army. While the review said the decision to retire him, based on the documentation presented at the time, was reasonable, it also states that de Róiste was denied his constitutional right “to vindicate and protect his good name from attack”. Beirne recommended that the State pay de Róiste’s legal costs.

The report evokes “J’accuse”, Émile Zola’s open letter about the Dreyfus affair, where he wrote: “When truth is buried underground, it grows and it builds up so much force that the day it explodes it blasts everything with it.”

Asked how he feels having his good name restored after a veritable lifetime, de Róiste replies: “I can walk with my head high.”