“Silver Fox” calls it a day
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
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.
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
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”.
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
"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
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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