One of the most respected and popular members of the Garda Siochana in Donegal is all set to finally hand in his familiar blue shirt, his cap and one set of handcuffs as he serves his last day in office as a member of the Garda Siochana.
Martin O’Malley, believed to be the longest serving garda int he country, who has spent practically all his working life in the village of Ballintra where he has become an integral part of the community where he is known by both his peers and the community in south Donegal as “the Community policeman.
On the 3rd February in 1974, when the Euro was a Pound and pounds were very scarce, a young, fresh-faced Garda, Martin O Malley arrived for his first days work to Ballintra from Mayo after spending 6 months in Ballyshannon to familiarise himself with that soft Donegal accent.
Thirty eight years on, next Friday 3rd February and still based in Ballintra, the legendary Garda is calling it a day and looking forward to starting the rest of his life.
Speaking to Martin in Ballintra Garda Station with the open fire blazing in the dayroom, Martin spoke of his time from joining An Garda Siochana in 1973 with the country in an earlier recession, through the boom of the late 90’s and the bust that we have yet again today.
Martin grew up in Ballinrobe in Mayo and on his 20th birthday he joined An Garda Siochana.
On leaving the Garda College in Templemore, Martin and was first transferred to Ballyshannon for 6 months and then onto Ballintra - it was well accepted in those days that most new recruits spent their initiation period in Donegal.
We are now in the era of e money transfers, in those days Gardai were paid once monthly and in cash, Weekly rent was 3 pounds per week, transport was a bicycle, not the Fiesta, and the conflict in the North raged on. A proud Mayo man, he took his bride Rene from Balla, Co. Mayo and they set up home in the Main Street in Ballintra. Three kids followed, two girls and a boy and so the adopted Donegal Man was never to leave.
Martin recalled, “The Ballintra of today may be perceived as a quiet quaint village but back in those days it was on the main road to Sligo and indeed the primary access to Rossnowlagh - as you can imagine it was an exceptionally busy place.
“I was always kept busy with the corner at the top end of the town - it was a hairpin bend and there was rarely a week went buy that there wasn’t an accident of one form or another.
“People wouldn’t be aware that it is actually the third biggest sub - district in the country stretching from Rossnowlagh up to near Castlederg and at one stage in time we had a total of 5 Gardai in the town.
“It was a very busy station because of it’s proximity to the border - we had to contend with ‘the troubles’, Foot and Mouth and BSE which are now all thankfully distant memories.”
Despite the Red and Green blood of Mayo running through his veins Martin became involved with Donegal GAA almost the day he arrived and was one of the founding members of Bord na Nog in the Naomh Brid GAA club.
He has held virtually every position within the club and is currently the chairman of the club. He has had many proud days watching the club and its young members progress, highlighted this year by one of his former under 10’s David Walsh, reach the pinnacle in football, in a man of the match performance in Croke Park for Donegal.
Martin also spoke of his sadness at the deaths over the years of many fine Guards that served in the force with him and had died saying, “I was privileged to work with some great man throughout the years - many have passed on now but they provided a great service to this country.
We also discussed the current economic climate “This will mean a reduction in the numbers of Gardai especially in rural areas with the possibility of many stations closing .
“Community alerts, and the help of the people could bridge the gap left void so that we can have a safe community.
“I am proud to have been a member of An Garda Siochana for so many years and I tried as best I could to serve as I swore to serve the public ‘without fear, favour, malice or ill will.’
Many people are now talking about the loss of many of our young people to emigration but as a West of Ireland man Martin is no stranger to emigration.
“My daughter Maeve is in Canada forging a new life for herself. Jenny, mother to my grandson Noah ,is working and married in Mayo and David followed in my own footsteps and is now a Garda in Monaghan,
“Half of this area must be in Australia at this stage but most seem to be very happy which is the best any parent can hope for “.
It is difficult for anyone not present to imagine how busy these small rural Garda Stations are, but as we spoke, the phone never stopped, nor did the callers to the station.
I overheard a phrase that I have never heard in any other state body. Martin took a phone call and he explained that “I’m finished at 5 o’clock and the station will be closed but take the form down to the house later and I will sign it for you.”
On asking him did he get paid for his out of hours work, he laughed saying “ Not at all, but my wife Rene would deserve it for all the calls and messages that she takes.
“This is very much a community station and you get all sorts of requests - I remember years ago a well know lady ringing the station to report that she was having awful trouble with her new washing machine and I told her that I would drop down to see if it could sort out the problem.
“It turned out that we had a similar machine at home but after over an hour working at it I was just getting nowhere. As I turned to go I just happened to notice something and turned to the woman and said, ‘Did you ever think of plugging it in?’ There are just so many stories you could tell but I’m afraid it would nearly need a supplement in the Democrat.
“Many people automatically assume that when you see the Gardai calling to a house it always means bad news - in my nearly 40 years in Ballintra I’ve called to many houses, enjoyed many cups of tea and some great breakfasts and hopefully have given some good sound advice in return.”
How does a man so dedicated to his job just walk away ?
“With a bit of difficulty” he joked, “but I have planned it well - more time in the garden, maybe a little bit of travel, the odd flutter on the horses and getting a neighbourhood watch set up in the area.
“I am only retiring - I am staying in my adopted home of nearly 40 years and only a phonecall away.”
“My dream would be to be sitting in the Hogan Stand on a fine September evening and see the boys in red and green lifting the Sam Maguire - if that doesn’t happen, then I suppose I would willingly accept the boys in green and gold of Donegal!
Leaving the station together, his days work done ( except for the afterhours caller to his home ), Martin lit the old pipe that he took from his pocket. I watched as the smoke drifted upwards in the night sky as Martin O Malley, a credit to his family, his people and his profession walked away home.
A community based function is being organised at Ballintra Community Centre on next Friday, (3rd February) to celebrate Martin’s time in Ballintra where a massive crowd is expected. Tickets are available locally.