Miriam Lord: Blinking back tears, Charlestown bids farewell to its much-loved Garda Colm

Family, friends and colleagues give community stalwart a loving State funeral

“It seems when God takes the young he takes only the best.” The coffin of  Det  Garda Colm Horkan is carried in Charlestown, Co Mayo. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

“It seems when God takes the young he takes only the best.” The coffin of Det Garda Colm Horkan is carried in Charlestown, Co Mayo. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

 

Det Garda Colm Horkan was at home watching The Late Late Show when Hozier came on and performed a stunning version of The Parting Glass.

“I want that song played at my funeral,” he told his friends.

Ten weeks later, on an achingly sad Sunday in Mayo, a fellow officer sings it at his graveside. And Colm’s father holds the flag which draped his son’s coffin minutes earlier in the little church beside it.

People in Charlestown still can’t believe it. Can’t believe he’s gone. Before Mass, they stand silently around Market Square and across the bridge and up Chapel Street to the Church of St James.

The funeral will be at midday in the place where he was baptised and where he received his First Communion and made his Confirmation. For a time, he was a Minister of the Word.

“Now he is here for the final farewell,” said parish priest Tommy Johnson, welcoming him in for the last time.

Their Garda Colm was killed at midnight last Wednesday while going about his duty in the nearby town of Castlerea. He was 49.

Nobody in Charlestown could quite believe it.

They spoke in hushed tones as they waited for the cortege to arrive, standing at the edge of the footpaths. Between them, on both sides of the road, were Colm Horkan’s divisional colleagues.

They held out their arms to space themselves and then stood in line for over an hour, hands by their sides, as rain poured and sun shone in fitful bursts.

On the bridge over the river Mullaghanoe – or the Blackwater, as the locals call it – the Casey family had taken up position. Grandmother Angela, her daughter Sinéad and children.

They point across the road to The Dew Drop Inn, the pub once owned by Colm’s parents and where he was born. Further up, if you take a right at the chemist, is Colm’s house.

A single rose

“We’re all absolutely in bits. We were the closest all our lives,” says Angela of the Casey and Horkan families.

Sineád is holding a single rose from her garden.

“My brother Declan is his best friend. We all grew up together, across the road from each other.”

Declan is also a garda.

“He led the escort on his motorbike when Colm was brought home on Friday night,” she says. “The Caseys and Horkans – we were joined at the hip.”

She shakes her head.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) marks the minute’s silence for late Garda Colm Horkan at Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park. Photograph: Tom Honan
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) marks the minute’s silence for late Garda Colm Horkan at Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park. Photograph: Tom Honan

“Poor ladeen.”

Caimin (8) says he was like an uncle to them. And the presents he used to bring – they were great.

A few yards away, the green and white jerseys of Charlestown Sarsfields GAA club are out in force. It’s the lads from the under-21s. Colm used to coach them.

An older woman, who doesn’t want to give her name, tells of her son in Boston. “He’s gone there now 20, maybe 25 years. And he was on the phone the other night telling me that Colm was the special one in the town. He was the one that he always remembers.”

It’s nearly time. “Fall-in!” The gardaí straighten up and snap to attention. So too do the eight representatives from the Mayo branch of the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen, rows of medals on their green blazers.

This is going to be a State funeral like no other. A virtual State funeral, as one senior garda puts it. It must be conducted with due observance of Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. Close marching ranks of uniformed gardaí from all over the country will not fill the streets this time. The Garda Band will not be at the head of the cortege.

Slowly, slowly, the procession makes its way up Chapel Street flanked by officers from the Divisional Ceremonial Unit in slow march. Their stoic colleagues blink back tears, standing with heads high and arms tightly by their sides, fists clenched.

Colm’s father Marty, his brothers Brendan, Aidan, Padraig and Dermot and sister Deirdre follow.

Tarmac crunch

There is silence, save for the sound of clicking cameras. The cortege stops at the church railings and the officers remove the coffin from the hearse and shoulder it the rest of the way, boots crunching loudly on the tarmac.

Colm Horkan’s colleagues from Sarsfields, wearing black trousers, white shirts and club ties, march too. Behind them, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

The Casey family watch from outside the gates.

As the small funeral party goes inside, nearly a thousand people continue walking up the road towards the GAA club as Panis Angelicus rings out over the town on the public address system. They watch the Mass on a big screen from the stand in Fr O’Hara Park.

“Scene of some of his greatest performances,” said his brother Brendan during his eulogy.

“He never let the jersey down.”

It’s the strangest thing inside the church – a big funeral, no, the State funeral, of a highly respected and hugely popular garda and a community stalwart. But the casket is borne to the altar past row after row of unoccupied pews. The sound of footsteps echoes loudly in the empty space.

A State ceremony and minute’s silence is held to mark the funeral of Detective Garda Colm Horkan outside the Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan
A State ceremony and minute’s silence is held to mark the funeral of Detective Garda Colm Horkan outside the Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

Before the obsequies begin, a minute’s silence is observed for the fallen officer by his colleagues – serving and retired – at stations around the country. In the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, President Michael D Higgins and his wife stand by the Peace Bell. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is with Garda officers outside headquarters in the Phoenix Park.

The television pictures cut from venue to venue. It’s a moving scene, with members of all the emergency services in every corner of the country paying their respects. When this is counted up, perhaps we will find that Colm Horkan’s funeral was, in fact, the biggest of all.

It was no more than he deserved. “A man cut down in his prime doing the job he loved,” said his brother Brendan.

Guardian of the peace

For 21 years of his 26 years of service, Det Garda Horkan worked for the people he loved, with the people he loved. “Long may we be blessed by men and women of true dedication and service, true guardians of the peace. Men like Colm Horkan” said Msgr Tommy.

The hundred of officers listening in the rain-soaked church grounds bowed their heads as the Garda Commissioner spoke of their comrade. “He epitomises what all of us as members should strive to be.”

In the church, Padraig Horkan read familiar words from the Book of Ecclesiastes. “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under the heaven.

A time for giving birth, a time for dying . . .”

And further in that verse is the line: “A time for embracing, a time to refrain from embracing.”

Unusually for an Irish funeral, because of the pandemic, this was a time to refrain from embracing. Or at least, it was supposed to be. In truth, in the streets and around the side of the church and up at the GAA grounds, all notion of social distancing went out the window.

People couldn’t help but hug and embrace at this awful tragedy. “The gunshots that rang out in the early hours of Wednesday morning echoed not just in the town of Castlerea but right across the country,” Msgr Johnson told his scattered congregation.

People will wonder why Colm had to die in such a random, horrific way.

“I cannot answer those questions, but it seems when God takes the young he takes only the best,” said the priest.

But the manner of his death should not eclipse Colm’s life, he added. He was good man, a decent man, doing his duty. And he was loved.

The Last Post is sounded and for many officers, it is too much.

Then Garda Alan McGinty, a Mayoman based in Ballyfermot, sings him his song as swifts darted in the afternoon air and sunlight pierced the stained glass windows of the old church where his club jersey lay on the altar beside a cherished family photograph.

But since it fell into my lot

That I should rise and you should not

I’ll gently rise and softly call

Good night and joy be to you all . . .

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