Thursday, October 21, 1999

Sergeant John P. Taaffe

It’s twenty-one years since my father died. It seems only like yesterday that I sat at his bedside in Naas Hospital when the time came for the fine spirit which was my fathers to pass into the other world. He was later buried as the February snow lay on the ground in the country town where he had pitched his final family tent some thirty three years earlier.

As I mentioned last week my father had been trained as a National Teacher in St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra before joining the Garda Siochana in 1925. On 23rd March, 1926 he was assigned to his first Garda Station at Tulsk, Co. Roscommon before moving on 20th April of the following year to Boyle in the same County. Before that year was out he was assigned to his third Station. This time, Cloonfad described in his service records as being in County Roscommon. My knowledge of the west of Ireland however confirms that Cloonfad is just over the border in County Mayo. He was to remain there until February 1933 and it was there that he met and married my mother Kathleen O’Regan, a farmer’s daughter. It was in Cloonfad that he acquired a motor bike and as I write this piece opposite me on the wall is a photograph of my father as a young man astride a motor bike, registration no. EI 1794, goggles perched on his forehead with a cigarette dangling in his mouth. No doubt the height of sophistication over 60 years ago!

My parents married on 8th September, 1932 and this necessitated a transfer for my father out of the Cloonfad area. The newly married couple found themselves initially in Sligo town, then in a succession of small stations in County Sligo, Easkey, then Bunninadden and finally Ballymote where my father was promoted Sergeant in November 1937.

The next transfer was out of the familiar surroundings of the North West and necessitated a long journey down to the South East of Ireland. Stradbally in County Waterford welcomed the growing Taaffe family in March 1938, the same place where a few years previously the missing postman saga had been played out. It was while stationed in Stradbally that my father thought he had solved the crime of the decade when the skeletal remains of a male was found in long grass near an old house. It wasn’t of course the remains of the unfortunate postman Griffin who was believed to have died during an after hours drinking session in a local pub in circumstances which have never been satisfactorily explained.

In December 1941 my father was transferred yet again, this time to Castlecomer in County Kilkenny, the home of legendary hurlers and the birthplace of one avowed Inner Relief Road critic! It was also there that the family numbers were completed with the birth of a fifth son, my brother Seamus. We were the second successive Taaffe family where there were five sons and no daughters. A growing family and the need to be near a secondary school where none existed in Castlecomer prompted the first request for a transfer to a town with second level education facilities. The new Sergeant arrived in Athy on 26th February, 1945 and a short while afterwards his young family were settled in a house rented from Myles Whelan at No. 6 Offaly Street. The two up and two down roomed accommodation seems nowadays somewhat inadequate but in those days few dreamed of aspiring to anything better.

The fact that my father was the local Sergeant in a way marked me out as a young fellow for special attention, not always welcome I can assure you. The threat of being caught and reported was a constant constraint on the activities of a full blooded young fellow whose horizons were curtailed only by the fear of retribution. Nowadays I marvel at the devilment we young fellows got up to, some of which in these politically correct days would land us in a Court of Law. Thankfully I was never caught and so I passed through my teenage years unscathed, even if my innocence was somewhat dented.

My father’s dedication to his job was, in family circles at least, well known. He patrolled the streets day and night, although I am sure he was not required to do so. He knew what moved in the town, who was where and had instant recall of any incident, no matter how trivial. He was also somewhat direct in the language used to describe some of his customers. I can recall the one and only time I was ever in the Courthouse as a young fellow during a Court session when Mattie Brennan, the caretaker, let Teddy Kelly and myself slip in the back door and briefly watch the proceedings. All I can recall is the Judge, whose demeanour struck fear into those appearing before him, enquiring of the local Sergeant what he had to say about a fellow who was up on some charge or other. I can still visualise my father in uniform moving towards the bench while telling the Judge “that fellow is the biggest bowsey in town”. We quickly left the Court for fear that our presence would give lie to my father’s forthright claim.

My father retired in 1967 after forty years service, only one and a half years after he had been called out to a traffic accident on the Dublin Road, not knowing that his youngest son Seamus was the victim. It was he who unwittingly identified the body at the scene. He himself died in February 1978 having enjoyed eleven years of his well earned retirement. When he retired he bought his first motor car, a black Morris Minor in which he learned to drive. However, he gave up driving after a journey with my mother to his old home in County Longford. He completed that journey after much tribulation but had to seek assistance from a bystander to drive the car over the humped backed bridge at Rathangan. A non-drinker all of his life he delighted in smoking a few cigarettes in his retirement, something he had not done during his working life.

He had a particular affection for the Dominicans in Athy and on his retirement served Mass there during the weekday mornings. Indeed I can still recall reading in the Nationalist Newspaper a report of an important criminal trial in the Circuit Court in Athy where the evidence of Sergeant Taaffe confirmed that the interrogation of the suspect arrested and lodged in the Garda Barracks was temporarily stopped when the Sergeant went to morning Mass in the Dominican Church.

When he died in 1978 he did so with enormous dignity. Admitted to Naas Hospital on a Wednesday he spoke to his family on Thursday knowing, although we did not, that his days were numbered. The next day his condition deteriorated and he died on the following Saturday. He was the twenty second Garda Sergeant to serve in the town of Athy.

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