Programme 4: Garda Michael Clerkin
Monday 9th February 2009
1976 saw one of the most dramatic attacks ever on members of an Garda Síochána. On the night of the 16th Oct Gardaí were deliberately lured to an isolated abandoned farmhouse in Co. Laois. The house had been booby trapped. The amount of explosives involved made sure that, once triggered, the house and anyone in it would be blown to smithereens.
In this cruel trap Garda Michael Clerkin, from Monaghan and only 4 years in the force, lost his life. Detective Tom Peters was seriously injured and left both deaf and blind and colleagues Jim Cannon, Ben Thornton and Gerry Bohan managed to survive the attack.
The bomb blast was extraordinary but 1976 had been a turbulent year in the south, with subversive activity commonplace, and the coalition government led by Liam Cosgrave was under pressure to stamp out the acts of violence. The killing of British Ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs in a bomb blast in July 1976 was the catalyst which led to the Government proposing an Emergency Powers Bill which would increase the period of detention without charge from two to seven days. This Bill passed all stages in the Oireachtas and was sent to be signed into law by President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh. The President refused to sign, instead he exercised his constitutional powers to refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, a move which irked Cosgrave's Cabinet. Once the Supreme Court confirmed the bill's constitutionality, Ó Dálaigh signed the Emergency Powers Bill into law, just after midnight on the 16th of October 1976.
Only 40 minutes after the Bill had been signed the Gardaí in Portlaoise received an anonymous phone call reporting subversive activity at a disused house at Garryhinch and that there was a plot to kill local Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan. Portlaoise got in touch with the local Portarlington Station - only 3 miles from Garryhinch. Sergeant Jim Cannon was advised to make his way to the disused house. Sergeant Cannon brought 2 uniformed Gardaí with him, Gerry Bohan and Michael Clerkin, and they joined forces with Detectives Tom Peters and Ben Thornton en route. The 5 men headed for Garryhinch. The proceeded to check out the abandoned house - and Garda Michael Clerkin, who was 24 years old, used an open rear window to gain access. He opened the front door from inside to let the others in to search the property. The booby trap was triggered and he was killed instantly. His 4 companions were badly injured. The house was demolished. The bomb was the IRA's answer to the newly signed Emergency Powers Bill.
The following day the Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan TD, angered at the death of Garda Clerkin, called the President a 'thundering disgrace' due to his actions regarding the Emergency Powers Bill. This caused uproar and subsequently led to President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigning. Although there were many arrests, nobody was ever convicted of the murder of Garda Michael Clerkin. Jim Cannon, Ben Thornton and Gerry Bohan were eventually able to go back to work, but Detective Tom Peters was left deaf and almost completely blind by the blast. The bomb blast has had a lasting devastating effect on five families. The men were never awarded "Scott Medals" for their ordeal at Garryhinch, and this lack of recognition still angers them. The survivors were however presented with the "Liddy Medal" by the Garda Síochána Retired Members Association, a special medal for bravery awarded to retired Gardaí who never received Scott Medals. A special commemorative plaque was also presented to the Clerkin family.
In this episode of Garda ar Lár Jim Cannon, one of the survivors remembers the fateful night as if it was yesterday. A colleague of Garda Clerkin from Portarlington station Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire recalls swapping shifts with him the day before the attack and later being a pallbearer at Michael's funeral. Peter and Margaret Clerkin talk about their brother Michael and the shock of hearing of his death. His brother-in-law Paddy Duffy remembers going to Portlaoise Hospital Mortuary and talks about how angry he was at the fact that a man so young in the prime of his life was taken from the family.
Other contributors include journalist Tomás Ó Ceallaigh and the General Secretary of the Garda Síochána Retired Members Association Gerard Lovett.
Presenter / Reporter Garry Mac Donncha
Producer / Director Seán Ó Méalóid