The Sergeant who earned his stripes

It was almost inevitable that Christy Galligan’s career as a member of the Garda Siochana would draw to a close when he turned the key in Carrigart Garda Station last Wednesday evening. For pride of place in his possessions is a photograph of his late father, Mick, also a serving Garda, standing under the familiar crest in 1970 where he was based.

It was almost inevitable that Christy Galligan’s career as a member of the Garda Siochana would draw to a close when he turned the key in Carrigart Garda Station last Wednesday evening. For pride of place in his possessions is a photograph of his late father, Mick, also a serving Garda, standing under the familiar crest in 1970 where he was based.

“It was very emotional alright,” Christy reflects on his departure from the force and the significance of that paternal link.

The young Galligan took his first steps - too early to call it a beat - on the streets and roadways around Carrigart, remembering it as a “fun place to grow up in and great people to grow up with.”

He was schooled in Gortnabrade, Devlinreagh and Carrick N.S. and in Glenties and Carrick - being the son of a Garda doesn’t guarantee long term stays anywhere - and from 1970 to 1978 the fanily resided in Glencolmcille. Christy’s first foray into life after education came when he took up a job as a supervisor in the Ballymoon factory in Kilcar before he headed to Dublin to work as a trainee manager in Dunnes Stores on Henry Street.

But something outside a normal nine to five was calling and he joined the Navy before finally applying for and being accepted to the Garda Training College in Templemore. “I suppose at the back of my mind it was always what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a difference, to put the baddies away and keep the public safe.”

To that extent he has succeeded and while some members of the communities where Christy has served may have considered he occasionally stepped over the thin blue line, he was simply doing what his instructors at Templemore had taught him - applying the law, no more and no less.

The measure of satisfaction he has derived from his role as a Garda and later detective Sergeant, has been tempered over the years by events and brutalities that brought him into contact with death and showed him what he and his colleagues must confront in exercising their duty.

In his first year at the training college he has shared a study room with Garda Gary Sheehan, the young man gunned down along with soldier Patrick Kelly by the I.R.A. in Derrada Woods in County Leitrim as they searched for the kidnapped supermarket executive Don Tidey.

Had it not been for examinations, Christy’s own class would have been dispatched to participate in the search.

“It could have been any one of us who got shot - a case of there but for the grace of God. But Gary’s death shook us all - young men being sent out to these woods with no proper training. It was very upsetting for all his colleagues.”

Christy took up his first serving post in Union Quay in Cork - the only Donegal Garda there at the time. “I stood out like a sore thumb especially with the accent.”

During his four years there, Air India flight 182 crashed off the Cork coast after the Boeing 747 was blown up 31,000 feet up on June 23rd, 1985. A total of 329 people were killed and the 25 year old Christy was on duty when he got the phone call from the Marine Rescue Services. Along with colleagues he was at the Cork Regional Hospital when 121 of the bodies were brought in. “Men, women and children, it was absolutely heartbreaking and remember this was a time when there was no counselling available for Gardai. You just had to try and deal with it and put it behind you.”

Those graphic images of the dead of Air India survive to this day but death wasn’t finished with its intrusion into Christy Galligan’s professional, and by natural extension, personal life.

On October 24th, 1990, he was living in a house close to Burnfoot Garda Station when the dwelling shook with the force of a bomb at the Coshquin checkpoint. 42 year old Derryman, Patsy Gillespie, had been strapped into a car containing 1,000 pounds of explosives and forced by the I.R.A. to drive to the border patrol point on the Buncrana Road. A remote control device blew him and five British soldiers to eternity.

“I used to see him and his wife in the Blackthorn pub in Bridgend. That incident again summed up for me man’s inhumanity to man and the barbarity and cruelty that can be inflicted on people.”

The toll mounted up with the death of Sgt. Paul Reid in the notorious Sniper’s Alley in Sarajevo where the Donegalman was serving on peacekeeping duties with the U.N. in May 1995.

And in 2009 the tragic death of Garda Robbie McCallion in Letterkenny when he and colleagues went to investigate an incident in the early hours at the Tara Court estate in March of that year. Two weeks later the 29 year old passed away from his injuries sustained after he was struck by a car. His Sergeant at the time was Christy Galligan.

“It was one of the most difficult times those of us who were close to Robbie have ever experienced. I went to the scene and there was this young man who should have been in the prime of his life still alive and breathing but struggling to stay that way. I met his parents, Nan and Bobby, lovely people, but what could you say to them?”.

But out of the darkness, some measure of hope. “I’ll always remember the wonderful support to the McCallion family and to the Gardai here in Donegal. It made me so proud to be a Donegalman and it was a time when the force and the community got together to condemn the acts of lawlessness that had helped end the life of a young man doing his duty.#

“I’ve lost a lot of former colleagues to death, either through illness or violence and it never gets any easier. Gardai are human and it’s a very tough job to do and perhaps that’s not always appreciated,” Christy maintains.

“I had a job to do and I would like to think I did it fairly and evenly. We’re all subject to human mistakes and we’re crying out for more resources all the time.”

There has invariably been a knock-on effect as far as the families of serving Gardai are concerned. “I’ve had phone calls at home and have been threatened and attacked off duty and I’ve the scars to prove it.”

During an attempted arrest he was bitten in the arms by a woman and spent six worrying months wondering if he had contracted AIDS.

Galligan’s involvement with the newly established Drugs Unit, set up in 2000, brought him immense job satisfaction and he recalls working alongside the likes of Sylvie Henry, Mick Jennings, Hugh Smyth, Mick Keane, Alfie McHale, James Frain and Mick Carroll - “great guys who knew what was going on.” His colleagues in Carrigart, Seamus Marley and Sean Sharkey he’ll also miss among many others he worked with down the years, both surviving and deceased.

His time on the beat in places like Dunfanaghy he recalls with equal fulfilment and is adamant that more on-street policing is needed to bring the members of the force into contact with the community. “The first thing I did as Sergeant was to bring the new uniformed recruits down to meet the people. It’s so important, after all we are a public service though sometimes I believe the senior people forget that.”

His decision to retire was not an easy one but he felt it was an appropriate time to make it. “I’m very grateful to the Donegal public for their support over the years. It has been tremendous.”

Married to Caroline, the couple have four children, Tom, whose based in Kilkenny, Emma in Cork, Martin who graduated in the School of Music in Cork last week, and Rebecca who will be sitting her Junior Certificate this year. Not to mention his mother, Anna, and enough siblings to fill the Orchard Inn in Letterkenny where a special retirement function was held last Friday night, also attended by colleagues and friends.

On Sunday Christy turned 52 - last Wednesday evening he turned the key in Carrigart Garda Station for the final time, a door closing on a career that undoubtedly helped make communities safer.