The Ideal Guard: An interview with author Cyril Meehan
Now retired from an Garda Síochána, Cyril Meehan joined the Force in 1983, beginning a rich 30-year career, which saw him stationed across the country in village, town, city, and island. Complimenting this national diversity, Cyril was involved in every type of policing, from border-policing during ‘the Troubles’, to policing the beat in villages and cities, to his eventual retirement as Detective Sergeant in 2013.
Coming from a strong Garda family, Cyril recalls the time his father was interviewed by a local radio programme after his retirement. Asked for a funny story, he was caught off guard, and temporarily stumped. This inspired Cyril to begin keeping a shorthand record of the many funny incidents and experiences he encountered on the beat – his stories, and those which had been passed on him from his father’s generation. The result of this copious note-taking is Cyril’s book The Ideal Guard, an entertaining and highly readable collection of anecdotes that span the weird and humorous side of the Westport man’s long career.
Cyril believes that while we are inundated with documentaries and books reflecting the dark, gritty side of policing, it is important to show the humorous, human side of police-work, because it builds a bridge with the public, and presents Guards as people rather than merely uniforms in the public eye.
Was there a very strong Garda tradition in your family?
My grandfather, my father and my uncle were in it before me, and we a had a continuous line since 1923 when the Guards were actually first called an Garda Síochána. So my grandfather would have been in it from the very beginning, and followed by father and an uncle on my mother’s side. My grandfather ironically was from Burtonport in Donegal, and he ran away from the possibility of running his father and mother’s pub to join the Guards. Years later, when I got promoted, I got sent to Burtonport. So, where as he ran away from Burtonport, his grandson ended up going back there as a Guard. And I ended up working in stations my father worked in which is strange too.
So was it inevitable that you were going to join as well?
Well, it wasn’t a case that I knew nothing else because I was in a local pharmaceutical firm as a trainee tablet maker before that, and I did psychiatric nursing before I joined the Guards, so I had tried other things. But I knew what the Guards were about, and I believed that I could do well in it because I had good feel for what it entailed. So, it was probably inevitable enough that I gave it a go, but I always considered myself lucky in the sense that there were so many hurdles that you had to get over, in terms of your height, your education, your eyesight, there was chest measurements that time! So there were a lot of rules in that time, so I felt lucky that my first choice of what I wanted to do, I managed to get into it despite all those additional hurdles.
Did you hear a lot of Garda history as you were growing up?
Well, my father would have been very much into Irish history. The stories I have relate to my personal experiences directly, or else some-one I knew was involved so I knew it happened. So, the stories going back to my father’s time, they would have been relayed first-hand as well. So the people who were involved, I knew them or my father knew them. I was born in Monaghan but I came to Westport when my father was transferred from another station, and I was 2 years old at the time, so I’m technically a Covie or a Westport man.
You joined in 1983?
Yes, it was July 83, and I came out in December. The book is in part dedicated to poor Gary Sheehan – he was colleague of mine who got killed in Derrada Wood in December of that year. We used to study together and had a similar background.
So that introduced you to the starker realities of policing early on?
Well, it was very maturing experience for a twenty year old – you always felt that people of that age were invincible, and all of sudden, before you even left the training centre, you were faced with the reality that there is a serious side, a risk side, to this job. Some one peripherally known to you had died. It was a shock and I carried his coffin and I was in the morgue when his own relations came in, and it was a very sad and a very emotional time for the whole college.
How did that affect how you felt about policing? Did it strengthen your resolve?
I ended up when I began by going to Buncrana in Donegal, and there was subversion up there, there were a lot of terrorists on the run in Derry at the time, and it certainly made me very focused and proactive on keeping an eye on them. Border policing is a different type of policing from other kind of policing. It’s unusual to have unarmed policemen doing border security. A lot of what was going on in our time and before I joined, it was unarmed policemen dealing with armed terrorism and confronted with all sorts of very serious situations. It was a very challenging time and a different type of policing than the normal policing down the country or the city.
We really didn’t know what we were facing. Nowadays, you would be briefed on the two different communities, the historical background, the cultural differences. We were literally just faced with situations that we had to learn from. Everybody had a perception of you, based on their history: they were either Catholic or Protestant, anti-south or anti-north, and you’re in the middle of it, you’re in the buffer zone, you’re 19 – 20 years of age, coming from well down in the south, you had no gripe with anybody by virtue of their religion or whatever, and you were taken aback by the attitude initially I suppose.
You were stationed in quite a few different places throughout the country?
Yeah, unusually in fact, Guards normally end up in one or two places, or try to get back to where they’re from. I went from Donegal to Waterford, I was all over Donegal in stations like initially you would go to the border, and then if you’re lucky you get into a district station. I wanted to get in to a busy station, so I went to Letterkenny. I got promoted and I went to Burtonport and then closer back to Burnfoot, and I went down to Waterford city, then Wexford, then back again to Donegal, and then by virtue of being in a regional Detective Branch, I covered a lot of the North West for the last three years of my service.
Did you find that each of these communities had their own customs and particular ways of doing things?
There would definitely be a difference in different areas. For example, in rural policing, there might be more respect for the Guard than in the city or big town. On the border, they might be distrustful until they had taken the measure of you – they might be very cautious not to be seen to be too friendly initially. In island policing, they are very closely-knit communities and they might not want you to be too proactive about it – not too active as regards closing pubs or arresting some of their own people! Even if you arrested somebody for a crime, they might be glad he was caught, though at the same time nobody would report anything locally because they wouldn’t want to be seen to be letting down one of their own. You have to adapt different types of policing in different areas.
Did you prefer rural policing to city policing in general?
It’s hard to say because there are benefits and pitfalls to both. In city-policing, if you get into difficulty, you have a large amount of back-up that will arrive within seconds or minutes; if your working on an island, that ferry is gone, and you’re on your own. If you’re working out in a small station down on the border, or in a rural area, and you encounter a difficulty, you’re on your own as well. Down the country, though, the positive is that you can really make a difference in the community, whereas sometimes you feel in the city that you’re only a fire-brigade response to things, and you’re rushing around, and there’s no cohesive sort of end-result.
As well as travelling around the country, you’ve also done just about every aspect of police work in your 30 year service?
Well, I have, I was very much operational at different times, and then I did a time at in-service training, I was the Chief Superintendent’s personal secretary, and then of course I was in plain clothes, so I’d say its quite unusual for a member to have worked in village policing, island policing, town, and city – administration, education, and detective work – right across the spectrum, really.
Having done so many different types of police work, which did you find most challenging, and which most rewarding?
Well, I suppose you’re more regularly in contact with the public when you’re an ordinary beat cop, you’re interaction is more regular, especially in the busier big stations, whereas in detective work you’re dealing specifically with victims or criminals in a more sterile sort of situation. I feel that having done both, that most of the risk I’d been involved in personally was when I was a uniformed guard not knowing from minute to minute what the next call was going to entail.
Some of the most rewarding work I did was in my last few years in the job when I was in Detective Branch in areas which I can’t really talk about, but there were cases that definitely had a big impact in terms of fighting crime. Nothing is more rewarding than saving life, and I was lucky enough to have been in the position where I was able to do that on six occasions. So, when you come the rewards or satisfactions of the job, nothing is more rewarding than when you save someone’s life – it’s more rewarding than if you’ve been made Commissioner, or rose up the ranks.
You’d have to write at least one book after all that?
Well, this is it, maybe there’s another one in me. I tried to keep the stories light-hearted or funny for different reasons. There are loads of documentaries and fly-on-the-wall programmes on television that show the serious side of policing. I just thought it was nice to cover it from a different angle. Also, you’re so shackled when your serving by the limits of what you can say and do in the media. It’s quite liberating to be free that I can actually, within limits obviously, talk about my career.
How did the book actually come about initially?
The first thing that really made me think about was when my father retired in Westport, and he was asked to go on the local radio station, and they asked him about his career and the serious side of the Guards and all that, but they hit him with a question: Can you tell us a funny story? Now, my father had loads of funny stories but he was somewhat bamboozled because he was hit on the spot. You couldn’t think of one. So I said to myself, I make sure to remember stories, so I took quick bullet points to records different stories. I would write down literally one key word, and that would be enough for me to remember the story. Most members will only remember a story when they’re talking, and somebody else is telling a story. It’s a bit like telling a joke – one joke leads to another joke, and reminds you of another joke.
Are the stories in the book ones that you would have told yourself before they were ever in the book?
No, some of them I wouldn’t have, and others I would have. Some of them I did tell, and fellas would say “There’s no way that happened!” You would have to say to them Look, you get on to such-and-such, and he’ll tell ya, he was there with me when it happened!” That has happened to me a few times. Some of the stories are related to city-policing, island-policing, border-policing, there’s a cross section there, although quite a lot of them would be rural. Quite a few have to with pubs, because when Guards are working at night-time, you’re dealing with people that are on a cocktail of drink or drugs or both, and they’ll do stupid things they wouldn’t do when they’re sober.
Can you tell us one of your favourite pub stories?
Well, there’s so many, but the one that comes to mind straight-away was this pub that we tried to get into one night. We could see the crowds inside through the curtains, and they were very reluctant to open the doors, and eventually when they did there was nobody inside only the smoke from cigarettes and ash and pints on the counter, and you could see through the silhouette in the glass that the patrons were in another area out the back, which of course the publican didn’t have a key for. The situation was turning into a farce, and I just said ‘Look, there’s no need to open up that door, I know there’s people in here, I could see them through the window a few minutes ago with my own two eyes.’ And with that, the publican plucked out his eye and said ‘At least you have two eyes!’ He put his prosthetic eye on the counter in front of me. So that was one of the more bizarre situations I was faced with all.
It must have been completely unexpected at the time. You said in the book that you weren’t sure if he was genuinely offended, or just trying to throw you off balance a little bit.
Oh, yeah, it could have been one or the other. Maybe he thought that I knew he was missing one of his eyes, I don’t know, but I did say in the book that because he’d gotten so aggressive, I felt like saying “I’ll have to keep an eye on this place!” to him before I left!
You also have an interesting story in the book about he time when you were guarding Ronald Reagan.
That was in Ashford Castle in Mayo here. Of course, I pulled the short straw, myself and a colleague, and we got sent out on to one of the little islands right beside the castle. The fist thing that happened was we were attacked by midgets – insects. Then it rained, and I got out our two uniform waterproof coats – they were big long things at the time, so I made a tent out of them. When I went to the toilet behind a tree I realized that the tree was pure soft like it was made of cork because it was rotten. I went back and I said to my colleague that we were going to have and I was going to knock the tree, and he thought I was gone mad. So I ran at the tree like Tarzan, and of course knocked it over in one go, and even in the twilight you could see the shock and disbelief on my colleague’s face as the tree collapsed. We ended up having a great fire after, and that’s how we spent the night looking after Ronald Reagan!
So it wasn’t the more glamorous side of protecting the president?
It wasn’t. Some of the guys had better security positions in the kitchen and they were fed, or close to a bar in the town, but we drew the short end of the stick!
What kind of reactions and responses have you getting to the book so far?
I’m getting great feedback from people on Facebook and people I know locally. People really seem to have enjoyed it and want to know when I’ll be doing another one. The proof is in the selling, and the first print was gone within three and half months. Since then, I’m in 15 new book shops besides the existing ones, along the whole West Coast and in the Midlands and up in Dublin and further south, so I’m hoping that the Christmas market will be good.
Do you think that presenting this more light- hearted side of things is good for building a bridge between the Garda and the public?
I’ll tell you by way of example. A young girl came up to me in Newport whom I’d never met before. She’d read the book and she came up and looked me in my eyes and said ‘I never thought that the Guards could be so human and funny. I really enjoyed it.’ She obviously looked at us more as people than uniforms as a result. And that’s one of the bridges that we can build across. As I say in my introduction, behind the uniform, there’s a person who is trying to do a difficult job, and they are as vulnerable, or as not infallible as anyone else. And the Guards are doing this very effectively with social media, and that’s the future definitely. We to do that because with the negative publicity that comes out, we need to put a balance across, that the vast majority of Guards are out there doing a hard job to the best of their abilities.
Now that you’re retired, do you miss the job much?
Well, I do, but I put 30 years into it, and 30 busy years, so I think I’ve done my time as it were. Retirement is individual thing for everybody, I suppose. I like cycling, kayaking, I love travel, and obviously I spent time writing this book. I go to the bog, and I do up an old house, so I’ve got lots to keep me busy. Life is short so it’s all about doing the things that you wanted to do – completing your bucket list is what I should be saying!
Cyril Meehan, author of The Ideal Guard.