‘The goal was to free Don Tidey. And we freed Don Tidey’ – 15 gardaí decorated for bravery

Posthumous gold Scott Medal awarded to Garda Gary Sheehan who was killed by IRA

Former supermarket boss Don Tidey speaking to Margaret Sheehan, mother of Garda Gary Sheehan,  and her daughters  Grainne and Jennifer, after their brother was posthumously awarded a Scott Medal for bravery  at a ceremony in Dublin Castle. Photograph: Alan Betson

Former supermarket boss Don Tidey speaking to Margaret Sheehan, mother of Garda Gary Sheehan, and her daughters Grainne and Jennifer, after their brother was posthumously awarded a Scott Medal for bravery at a ceremony in Dublin Castle. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

When Nacie Rice thinks back to 1983 and the operation to rescue Don Tidey, his main memory is the sight of trainee gardaí running for cover as IRA gunmen fired automatic weapons at them from up a hill.

“It’s something that still sticks in my mind. Their caps were falling off and there was shooting.”

One of the earliest lessons drilled into trainee gardaí in Templemore is to hold onto their cap, whatever happens. As a result, the recruits in Leitrim that day were going back to get their hats instead of sprinting for the safety of the woods, recalls Rice, who retired from the Garda as a deputy commissioner in 2013.

“We had to use almost bad language to get them to never mind your cap, just get into cover. It was that surreal.”

For Rice, who was then a detective sergeant, the ordeal was just beginning. He went further up the road where he met Tidey in the company of a garda and a soldier.

“I said to myself, ‘This is great – we’re going to get home for Christmas.’ I didn’t know anybody had been killed at this stage.”

Rice and another garda were taking Tidey to safety when they heard a car “roaring” down the road. An IRA gunman leaned out sprayed the group with automatic fire, hitting Det Garda Donie Kelleher.

Rice returned fire with his revolver “just to put them off” before assisting Kelleher. He then took Kelleher’s Uzi machine gun and set off after the car. He found it down the road, empty except for an abandoned rifle.

His account was one of many shared on Friday morning at a ceremony outside Dublin Castle to award Scott medals for bravery to 15 gardaí involved in the operation to rescue the prominent businessman from his kidnappers.

Tidey, a supermarket executive, was kidnapped outside his home in Dublin in November 1983 as he took his daughter to school. A nationwide search operation was launched by the Garda and Defence Forces which, 23 days later, convened on an isolated area around Derrada Wood in Leitrim.

Revolver

One of those involved in the operation was Det Supt Bill Somers, a trained Garda negotiator. It was Somers who first located Tidey. He put his revolver to the side of the businessman’s head and told him to identify himself. Tidey responded: “Do you not recognise my accent?”

Somers’s eldest son, John, recalled on Friday not knowing whether his father was alive or dead as they listened to the news of the operation on the radio.

It was a close-run thing. His father was one of those strafed with rifle fire by the IRA men as they brought Tidey to safety. Somers got Tidey to a ditch where they spent the next three hours until the operation came to an end.

John recalled seeing the three bullet holes in his father’s coat before it was taken away as evidence. “He was in shock but he was still alive.”

Many who attended the ceremony wondered why it has taken so long to recognise the bravery of the 15 gardaí. This is particularly true for the Somers family. Bill died in 2010 at the age of 69. His wife, Helen, died in March.

Somers was a “very humble individual”, according to John. “My Mum more than anything else would have liked to be here accepting it.”

The medals may never have been awarded if not for the work of a now-senior garda who has campaigned in the background for years. He was a recruit at the time and was sitting beside Garda Gary Sheehan on the bus when they were being ferried to the search area. Sheehan, along with Army Private Patrick Kelly, was killed by IRA gunmen during the operation.

The memory of Garda Sheehan, who would have been 61 on Friday, was at the centre of the proceedings. Of the 15 recipients, he was the only one awarded a gold medal by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

“We wonder what his life would have been like had he not been murdered almost 38 years ago on that ill-fated day,” his youngest sister, Jennifer McCann, said. “Would he have been married and had children and grandchildren? Would he have stayed in the force like his father and grandfather?”

Grateful

She said her family were grateful Garda Sheehan “did not die in vain” and that Mr Tidey has had all this time with his family.

The family made a choice not to become bitter, she said. “Although the perpetrators of this terrible crime have not being brought to justice, they know who they are. Their friends and family know who they are.”

Mr Tidey, now in his mid-80s, was also present at the ceremony. He could be seen examining the medals and conversing with his rescuers and their families.

Over the years there has been criticism of the rescue, including the decision to send trainee gardaí such as Sheehan on such a dangerous operation.

“The goal was to free Don Tidey. And we freed Don Tidey,” said Rice. “We were searching a huge area. The fact that we came upon Don Tidey was in itself a damn good result.”

Over the years rumours have spread that Garda Sheehan’s and Pte Kelly’s deaths were a result of friendly fire. These have been upsetting and frustrating for their family and colleagues.

“This is all smoke and mirrors,” said Rice. “Of course it’s easy to deflect. That’s what people do. “

The deaths of Sheehan and Kelly were the work of “common criminals”, he says. “Certainly as far as I was concerned they were not freedom fighters. No freedom fighter would tie up a man and keep him like a wild animal for weeks on end and shoot an unarmed garda and shoot a soldier.”

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‘I put my fingers through the bullet holes in dad’s jacket and was grateful he was alive’

I was 10 years old when my father, Bill Somers, was one of those who helped to rescue Don Tidey. I remember our house was full of very anxious gardaí. A sense of dread and despair was palpable, their heads down.

None would make eye contact with me. Word had got out that two men were dead. Would one be my father?

But my father walked through the front door a few hours later. My parents embraced in silence, suggesting that something serious had happened but, thankfully, our house was spared the pain that two other homes felt that night.

I remember that my father still had a machine gun over his shoulder when he returned that night, a real machine gun in our house.

That night I snuck down the stairs when all were asleep and I found his jacket. I put my fingers through the three bullet holes in the material and was grateful for the bullet-proof vest that had saved his life.

We were lucky because we would have my dad for another 27 years. Two other families did not have that chance.

Every Garda family shares the life of those who wear the uniform. If it had been the Somers’s house that had received the worst news possible that night – not the Sheehans, or the Kellys – it would have been my mother who would have shouldered the pain, and kept the show going.

And she would have done so, like others have before and since. We only lost her in March 2021, but although she did not get to see Friday’s Scott Medal ceremony, she, and all of us, knew 38 years ago that my dad was a brave man. – Mark Somers