Garda Inspector Michael Harrison retires tomorrow after 36 years in uniform across Donegal. It’s not a bad record for a man whose early years were spent in the kitchen and not in the courts.
Retiring Garda Inspector Michael Harrison recently made an appeal on RTE television’s Crimecall.
He asked motorists not to risk their lives on Irish roads by driving with defective tyres.
He has knelt at the wreckage of too many such cars to know that the outcome is rarely a good one.
It was a straight-forward appeal stating the facts, something he has done many times over the years.
Having mistakenly thought he had retired I shot him off a text asking him was he not out playing golf or doing crosswords?
“One take Maguire. The last guy took four,” he replied with delight.
Michael Harrison has no regrets.
Inspector Michael Harrison, may have a few after 36 years as a member of An Garda Siochana with all of them based in Co Donegal.
During that time he has seen probably the worst and the best of humanity.
Was a caution the right thing to do on that occasion, did he go overboard on that occasion? You can live your life wondering if you did the right thing.
But come 5pm on Thursday, November 12th, the uniform will be removed and any regrets will wash off him like the many opinions the general public may or may not have had of him.
He’ll leave Letterkenny Garda station on Newline Road and drive to his home near the border with his mind full of giddy excitement and wonder.
Glowing tributes were paid in court last week to a man who admits that he never had any notion of ever becoming a guard.
He doesn’t have a real plan as such but knows that the time is right to hand in his Garda identification.
Policing is changing and just a couple of paycheques short of his 60th birthday, he’s going to write a new chapter of a life which began in Sligo in 1961 .
He could have been a Donegal man had his late father John, who passed away in January this year, not decided to leave his teaching post in Ballyshannon and move back to Sligo Town three weeks before he was born.
Looking and sounding like a man, well a man about to retire, Harrison says he was never a ‘career Garda.’
In fact, only for his late grandmother Lilly Hughes he may never have even thought about applying for the guards.
“She told me I should get a good, pensionable job and join the guards and before I knew it I was in Templemore,” laughed Harrison.
Before that he trained to be a chef for five years, spending a year in a hotel in Switzerland in 1981 before returning to work in the Sligo Park Hotel.
Cooking is still something he loves doing saying it changes all the time but he knew he didn’t want to do it for the rest of his life.
“The last thing I did as a chef was to pluck pheasants in the Sligo Park, I took three days off then and I was away to Templemore for training then.”
After failing his first medical because he was too thin, he was planning to move to Germany but then got accepted to the guards.
His first posting in Donegal was to Carrigans and St Johnston in June 1984 and his first day coincided with the discovery of a 1,000Ib bomb near the old railway track.
“It was all a bit manic and they didn’t even have accommodation for us and I remember sharing a bed with another lad when we arrived in a house in St Johnston.
“I remember walking in and it was a lovely summer’s day and there was some kind of grain or barley growing in the field I hadn’t a clue what it was and the guy with me was from Roscommon and he definitely didn’t know what it was.
“From day one I fell in love with the place and I still love looking at the Foyle and walking along it.’
He moved into a flat but that ended up infested with rats and he knew a butcher in St Johnston was offering digs and he moved in there a short time later.
Love works in mysterious ways and Michael ended up dating and then marrying the butcher’s wife’s sister.
Today (November 12th) should have been Michael and Ann’s wedding anniversary.
Sadly, despite a brave battle with cancer, Ann passed away five years ago aged just 60 leaving Michael a single parent with the couple’s two sons, Dermot and Jack, then aged just 17 and 15.
His love for Ann is evident in how he recalls all the happy times they spent together.
He has also chosen today, November 12th, as a nod to Ann to sign off on a career during which she always had his back.
Despite rising to the rank of Sergeant and then to Inspector, Michael says that himself and Ann had an unspoken rule that work would never be brought home and he never discussed the job once he passed the front door of the family home in the evening.
And with stints in Burnfoot, Raphoe, Lifford, Burtonport, Bunbeg and Letterkenny, there could have been plenty to chat about over tea.
He claims it took him five years to find out exactly what policing was because all he did was border patrols because “there was very little crime being committed then because it was the height of the Troubles.”
He points to early mentors in Burnfoot including the former Garda Sergeant Jim Moore and Alan Cunningham for giving him a better understanding of what the life of a Garda should entail.
“Those two said to me there was more I could be doing than just checkpoints. Suddenly the penny dropped with me what policing is about,” he said.
He spent 14 years stationed in Lifford, a period of time he said he really enjoyed mainly because of the community there.
“I became involved with the communities there and became involved with the setting up of the neighbourhood watch scheme in Croaghan Heights and that was a fantastic experience.
“This was at the height of the Troubles and there was no money in the area at all but absolutely fantastic people in that estate and I would still know some of them to this day.
“It was a fantastic time and getting the council to invest money in the estate. You went down to the council and you be told that it wasn’t your job but it was the only way we were going to get it done.”
After a few months in Bunbeg, a Sergeant’s position became available in Raphoe and with the Morris Tribunal in full flow it was understandably difficult to get somebody to relocate there.
“I knew everybody in Raphoe and I knew the story. I knew what happened. I knew the people involved and I had no axe to grind with them and I had good time for all involved when I went to Raphoe. It was an enjoyable and memorable experience.”
He has his own thoughts on the Morris Tribunal but ultimately sees it as a missed opportunity to modernise An Garda Siochana.
“The Morris Tribunal was very stressful, and I was disappointed with the way the Government responded. I honestly believe that if they implemented the changes and recommendations the Morris Report recommended to modernise Policing in Ireland that then a lot of the other tribunals would not have been necessary.
“I honestly believe that. There were very good recommendations made in the Morris Tribunal with regards the modernisation of the force but it became literally that it was something that happened in Donegal and that it was never going to happen anywhere else in this country which was nonsense.
“If the checks and balances which had been recommended in the Morris Report, if they had been implemented in full then I don’t think we would have had a lot of the subsequent tribunals.
“The investment required was massive but they are doing that now and it’s not going to come cheap but you either want a modern and professional police force or you don’t.”
He decided he would like to better himself once again and decided to study to become an Inspector which involved four papers and a lot of intense study.
And he admits that he almost gave up but for a rare occasion when his wife Ann decided to intervene.
He recalled “I had a complete lack of confidence and I said to Ann that I was not doing the exam. About ten minutes later she came out of the bathroom and I got absolutely eaten.
“To cut a long story short I did the exam and I passed it but I wouldn’t have done the exam only for Ann and that’s why I’m retiring on the twelfth of November because that is my wedding anniversary and that was that last bit of respect to her because without her “motivating” that morning I would not have sat those exams.
All the transfers worked in his favour because he could have been transferred anywhere in the country as an Inspector but in 2011 found himself in Letterkenny.
He was given the Road Policing, TUSLA liaison inspector and the CYPSC portfolio, both of which he enjoyed immensely.
He says the multi-agency approach in Donegal to solving problems is a credit to all involved including the setting up of Jigsaw to look after young people’s mental health.
After finding himself as the unofficial head of Road Traffic for Donegal, he worked closely with Donegal County Council and says he has nothing but admiration for road safety officer Brian O’Donnell and road safety engineers’ he worked with. He expressed a desire that this cooperation would continue.
Not surprisingly among his three saddest experiences in his time as a Garda are road traffic deaths.
One involved a young student who was burned alive outside Lifford following a car accident with the Leaving Certificate results still in the car beside him.
Michael and Ann had just had their first child Dermot that year and it struck him how fragile life was.
“This was a family down the country who had educated their son who had got a fairly decent Leaving Cert and he had gone to the IT and was only there a couple of months.
“For some reason, he wanted to get home and the car overturns and he gets burned to death and his mum and dad would never see him again. Being a young father at the time hit me so, so hard.”
Another was another young man who was killed outside Castlefin in 2004 in a car Michael said should never have been one road.
Having to go up and tell his parents that their son was dead is something he says will never leave him.
He shakes his head when he mentions the third most difficult incident in his life and that was the loss of Manus Kelly whom Michael knew on a personal basis.
He had been talking to him just a few hours earlier and then to see him dead in his car is something that he says he still struggles to reconcile in his head and how it could happen.
On the flip side of so much death and destruction on Donegal’s roads, Michael said one of his proudest achievements was to help set up the Pro-Social Drivers Course along with
Judge Paul Kelly and probation officer Tim Coughlan.
The course sees people who have broken the law while behind the law behind the wheel given a chance to better understand how their driving impacts on other road users.
The course has been hugely successful and the rate of reoffending for those who have broken the law be it for reckless or dangerous driving is low.
So after 36 years as a member of the force, would he recommend it as a career for a young person leaving school?
Before he answers he admits that the conditions, pension and pay structures are less attractive these days than they were when he joined the force.
Nonetheless, he has nothing but praise for the young staff coming through the ranks in Letterkenny and across Donegal.
“I simply cannot say enough about them. They are smart intelligent and so dedicated. These young men and women are so focused and it’s not the easiest of jobs.
“You can see it on a daily basis when they come in to go through files or whatever – on their days off. I simply can’t say enough about them,” he said.
On a personal basis, he says there are simply too many people to thank but namechecks a couple including recently promoted Rathmullan native Goretti Sheridan who is the Superintendent in Buncrana, Siobhan Monaghan who is now an Inspector in Letterkenny and his old school friend Michael Finan who is Superintendent in Letterkenny.
For the immediate future, he will continue to study having undertaken a Masters in Cyber Crime and Forensic Computing through UCD which he find fascinating and which may open doors for him in the next chapter of his life.
Amazingly for a boy who was brought up in the shadow of the Showgrounds in Sligo, he finds the Bit O Red are now his second favourite team behind a certain Finn Harps thanks to youngest son Jack.
He has nothing but praise for all involved with the club from their underage structure up to heroic efforts of Ollie Horgan and company in staying in the Premier Division.
With son Dermot now living and teaching in China, he’s hoping than a COVID-19 vaccine will prove effective and allow him to travel.
“There’s no big plan but I never had a plan anyway. We’ll just see where we go,” he says.Tags: