An Irishman's Diary

 

IF MY Leaving Cert class had had a “boy most likely to succeed” award, it would probably have gone to Gary Sheehan. Certainly he was the nearest thing I had to a role model. He was a year or more older than me, which made a big difference then. But he was also made of leadership material, the obvious choice always for class prefect.

He was an athlete as well, famously scoring two goals in the 1978 Monaghan minor county final in which Carrick Emmets lowered the colours of the mighty ’Blayney Faughs, an event sadly rare in the annals. Most importantly of all, to me, he was popular with women. He seemed to have everything girls wanted. And for those of us who had none of it, he was a man to watch and copy.

We were never best friends or anything. Although our homes were barely a mile apart on the same side of Carrickmacross, he was a townie and I was from the country. There was a subtle social divide, a farmer/cowboy thing. Even so, we got on well and for various reasons he was present at several key moments of my life.

The only team sport medal I ever won was in a five-a-side soccer tournament, playing alongside Gary. We were also members of an Irish debating team (God knows why – my Irish was terrible even then) that represented our school against the local, vastly superior, St Louis girls, who duly handed us our rhetorical arses on a plate. The humiliation still burns.

Crucially too, Gary was in the near vicinity – I’ll spare the details – on the occasion that I first kissed a girl. For readers under 30, I should explain that this was an earth-shattering event back then: a bit like losing your virginity now. Anyway, Gary was my corner-man. And, as in the soccer tournament, he provided important advice on tactics and positioning.

I was a clueless 16-year-old when I did the Leaving and so repeated, not picking up many clues in the process. Gary repeated too, but then got a job and left mid-year. The job was in Galway, where months later he would host an unforgettable party on the weekend of the Pope’s visit. After that, I didn’t see him again for a few years.

I drifted out of school eventually and into a lowly civil service job (my Irish didn’t allow anything better), spending my first summer in a Dublin office rather than a hay-field, and hating it. Journalism was an impossible dream: I knew nobody who moved in those circles. But anything would have been better that where I was, so I applied for various other jobs: equally low paid but with less of the feeling of a life sentence about them.

Unfortunately, it was the 1980s now. Jobs of any kind were scarce and getting scarcer. Sensible civil servants were staying where they were. And I stayed too, for a while. So that I was an even more bored civil servant when, one day, I saw an ad for Garda recruits and thought: why not? In retrospect, I don’t know which is us had a luckier escape, me or the Garda Síochána. We would have been very wrong for each other, I fear. But those were desperate times for both of us, clearly. So, to my own surprise, I made it through the exam and interviews and the informal chat with the home-town superintendent who vouches for you not being a known corner-boy.

Then, in the spring of 1983, I was called for a medical in the Phoenix Park. And who should I meet there but the bould Gary. As it happened, his father was a Garda detective, so maybe this had always been the plan. I suspect otherwise, somehow.

My feeling was that he had wanted to be something else in life. I may be wrong.

Anyway, we greeted each other like lost brothers and compared notes about football and women. I was running a lot at the time and fit as a whippet. Whereas – amusingly for me – Gary was worried that his fitness levels had fallen below what was needed for training college. It was the last secret he ever confided in me, before we said “see you in Templemore, maybe” and went our separate ways.

I never did see him in Templemore. Soon afterwards, I sat an open civil service exam called the Adult EO. It seemed designed for my special needs, being a combination of short English essays and an aptitude test based on ability to process useless information. Irish was secondary. So I aced it and got a promotion that made civil service life bearable for a while. By the time the guards called me up – many months later – I was no longer available.

Gary had been called much earlier – being a patently better candidate – although I didn’t know this at the time. Then one dark December evening, 28 years ago today, I watched the evening news on RTÉ, which led with the sensational freeing in a Leitrim woods of the kidnapped supermarket executive Don Tidey, after a search that had gripped Ireland for weeks.

Two men had died in the shoot-out, however – a Garda and a soldier. And as I watched, rapt, I heard the newsreader say that their bodies could not be recovered until morning, because the IRA gang was still in the area and the woods were surrounded.

In fact, the kidnappers were already gone. But I remember being struck by the awful heroism of two young men giving their lives for somebody they didn’t know, somebody deemed by society to be more strategically important than them. And then I remember thinking about the bodies lying in the forest overnight, and the loneliness – on top of grief – that the parents must have felt for their dead boys.

That was before I realised I knew one of them too. When my family rang me with the news, it was the first time I realised Gary had even made it to Templemore. He was still in the middle of the training that had worried him (the award for best recruit is named after him now) when pressed into the countrywide man-hunt.

Unfortunately for him, he was the one who found the hide-out in the woods. And I learned later that, by pure coincidence, our home-town superintendent – the man who had interviewed me months earlier – was close by him. He was the man who knelt and whispered an act of contrition in Gary’s ear.

I know my friend was just one of more that 3,700 people killed during the Troubles (Private Patrick Kelly was the soldier who lost his life that day). But even though we grew up in a Border town, he was the only one of those thousands I knew well.

Every year around this time, I wonder what he would be doing now were he still alive. And of course I think about how, but for a twist of fate, it could have been me.