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“Silver Fox” calls it a day 09.09.08

AS landmark years go, 2008 will be one to remember for Buncrana Garda Sergeant John O'Keeffe. He has just turned 50, he celebrates his 25th wedding anniversary, his only daughter is starting university and then there's the small matter of him retiring from the force after 30 years.
"It's a big year for me alright," said the affable sergeant, as he reflects on his professional and personal life.
A Dubliner by birth, he has lived the majority of his life and completed his entire career with the Garda Siochana in Donegal.
Brought up in Raheny, he graduated as a Garda in 1977 and the following year got his first posting to Ballyshannon where he worked for three months mainly on checkpoint duty on the Donegal-Fermanagh border.
He was then transferred for a year to Killybegs where he got a “great early grounding in the job”.
Next up was a move to Ballintra where he met his wife Marie (nee Walsh) who was a telephonist at the local post office. Given that the year was mobile phone-free 1979, there was a good deal of interaction between the Garda station and the post office exchange and the young couple hit it off. With not a ring-tone within earshot, 1970s Donegal it seems, was also good for the waistline.
"I was in Ballintra for three-and-a-half years and I was on a bicycle the whole time. I was as thin as a rake," he laughs. "It was a busy place but there was no patrol car so you cycled to everything. At night though, you could get the patrol car from Ballyshannon to pick you up if you needed it." The young Garda's diligence on the job didn't go unnoticed and after just four-and-a-half years in uniform, he became one of the youngest Gardai to be promoted to detective.
Garda Sergeant John O'Keeffe
He joined the Divisional Task Force and was transferred to Burnfoot in 1982. When the task force integrated, John soon found himself in the Special Branch working out of Buncrana. This saw him operating at the coalface of pre-peace process Ireland where his duties mainly involved the investigation of paramilitary activity.
The measured 50-year old was the least likely candidate to wallow in the perceived mystique and intrigue of undercover detective work – more Morse than Miami Vice.
He was 16 years with Special Branch during which time the ‘on-the-runs’ trying to dodge him around Inishowen, dubbed him “Silver Fox”.
Garda Sergeant John O'Keeffe Promotion came knocking again and he was sent back to Burnfoot as unit sergeant from 1998 to 2002. He admits disliking the return to uniform despite the upward career move. He took yet another step up the career ladder in 2004 when he returned to his hometown of Buncrana as sergeant-in-charge. But his career has not been without its own tragedy.
He was not long in his new position when his daughter Lizanne, then 16, was seriously injured in an horrific crash near the Illies on July 8, 2004, that claimed the lives of her 17 year old cousin from Dublin, Aine O'Leary and their pals Owen Doherty and Shane Cuffe.
"That was the worst thing that has ever happened to us as a family. No other incident compares to it. You get used to dealing with tragedies in the course of your job but when it hits home it's a different story. It's very hard to deal with."
He also describes the protracted Morris Tribunal as a "harrowing" time for Buncrana Gardai despite, he himself, being described by Mr Justice Frederick Morris as a
"most conscientious and dedicated member of the force". There was a change in the way people reacted to them. "People under arrest would bring it (tribunal) up and would use it as a stick to beat us with but we just got on with the job as best we could," he said.
John officially retires on September 23 and as a relatively young man is looking forward to a completely new phase in his life. He doesn't golf but loves swimming, six-a-side soccer and walking by the sea. He intends to spend plenty of family time with his wife, his daughter and his son Declan, 23, who works locally as a plumber. And he hasn't ruled out forging another part-time career in "something completely different", like computers or IT. Of Buncrana and Inishowen he says: "I met some of the best people in the world here and I thank them for all their help to me". He is also grateful to the local council for their assistance with road closures and other emergency measures over the years.
Professionally, he is delighted that under his stewardship as sergeant-in-charge, his colleagues have finally vacated the decrepit conditions of the old Buncrana station and are now housed in great temporary headquarters in Lisfannon. When built, their new station at Ardaravan Square "will be the finest in the country and will be the template for all new Garda stations in Ireland in the future".
However, both professionally and personally he is highly concerned at the state of Cockhill Bridge and fears a fatality will happen soon if something is not done urgently. After 26 years working alongside the emergency services including the "best part-time fire service in Ireland", he also feels Donegal's second largest town should have its own ambulance. Meanwhile, as he prepares to hang up his Garda hat for the last time, he laughs to think what his final epitaph might be. "'Arrest in Peace' would be okay wouldn't it?"
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