‘A garda and soldier killed in a shoot-out. Heroes, but not anyone I knew. Then the phone rang’

An Irishman’s Diary: Frank McNally on a sombre visit to McGahern Country

In the opening chapter of John McGahern's The Barracks, Garda Sergeant John Reegan returns home from a bicycle tour of duty, drenched and moody, on "a night not fit for a dog to be out in". Asked by his wife where he has been, he reluctantly volunteers the information: "Round be Derrada."

Derrada is McGahern country. His family were one of several in the area who originally lived in Northern Ireland, as weavers, but were driven south by sectarian violence, to scrape a living on the slopes of Sliabh an Iarainn, the "Iron Mountain", instead. The writer's parents married in Corraleehan Church, mentioned here yesterday.

The Barracks is largely autobiographical. McGahern's father was also a sergeant, although the real-life barracks they occupied was in Roscommon. Like the fictional schoolboy Willie Reegan, John McGahern probably grew up listening to the cynical banter of policemen warning him to stick to the books lest he too end up in "the Force".

My friend Gary Sheehan did not grow up in a barracks, but his father Jim was a Garda detective and as a child Gary must have imagined being one too. But by the time we left school, certainly, that was not the plan.


He worked for a while with the Wrangler jeans company in Galway, then the Western Health Board, and I think his longer-term hope was the banks. But in early 1980s Ireland, employment prospects were not good, and when the gardaí advertised for recruits, it was the obvious fall-back.

I was in a similar predicament. My prospects of going to university, which would have been a family first, had somehow evaporated. It wasn’t the norm then, anyway: not in our school. Instead, I stumbled into a civil service clerkship and quickly hated it.

The only visible escape options were the guards or internal promotion via something called the “Adult Executive Officer” (so called because you had to be 21).

So I applied for both and one morning in early 1983, renewed lost acquaintance with Gary when we found ourselves doing the Garda medical the same day.

I was amused to find him worried about the physical aspect of the six-months training ahead.

This was funny, because in school he had been the nearest thing we had to a Greek god: tall, athletic, good-looking, and already assured of local immortality for scoring two goals in a Monaghan county minor final, when Carrick Emmets (unusually) won.

If either of us was to struggle with training, it wouldn’t be him. In any case, we parted company that day with a cheerful “See you in Templemore”.

I never did see him in Templemore: the E.O. came through first, reconciling me to bureaucratic life for a while. In the meantime, I didn’t realise Gary had already been called up.

Instead, one evening 38 years ago today, I watched the TV news like the rest of Ireland, and learned of the sensational developments in Leitrim.

Don Tidey rescued alive. A young garda and soldier, both unnamed, killed in a shoot-out. Heroes, I thought, but not anyone I knew. Then the phone rang. It was my sister Pauline asking if I'd heard who the garda was. When a flatmate inquired what was wrong, I tried to explain but no words came out. My voice had disappeared.

At a ceremony in Dublin Castle last September, four decades later, Gary was posthumously awarded his gold medal for bravery.

The citation noted that although not fully trained, he was part of a joint Garda-Army team, alongside the equally ill-fated Private Paddy Kelly, that entered Dromcroman Wood on December 16th, 1983.

They “proceeded to search very difficult terrain made up of dense undergrowth […] impenetrable except from crawling on their hands and knees”. Gary was unfortunate enough to find the dug-out.

Last week, with some difficulty, I finally retraced the footsteps that brought him to McGahern country that day. There is no sign announcing Drumcroman wood, nor does Google Maps seem to be aware of its existence. I only found it through detailed directions from a female jogger.

I was also unsure there if this was Coillte-owned property or private. Even so, at the only obvious entrance, I climbed over a locked gate. Darkness was falling, but it’s not a big forest, so I followed the gravelled path in.

I had no idea where the site of the dug-out was, but it hardly mattered. Generations of pine trees had come and gone in the intervening years. I just stopped in the middle of the woods for a moment, in a silence disturbed only by birdsong, and remembered my friend. Then I offered up an agnostic’s prayer and hoped somebody somewhere was listening.

(Concluded tomorrow).