During the course of doing my research for the books I am about to write, I have been incredibly lucky to have had conversations with many people who were kind enough to share their time and recollections with me.
Mostly all these stories have had a profound effect on me, especially at the time of hearing them. It is so obvious that a lot of the individuals are still caught in those moments, in both their hearts and their heads. I often end these conversations feeling very humbled and amazed that anyone could survive to tell these tales.
One such chat was with a now-retired RUC officer who spent his security force years in and around the border areas. Places such as Crossmaglen, Ballygawley, Forkhill were all areas of intense activity during the conflict years in Northern Ireland. This meant that some of the areas, most notably those in South Armagh, became known as Bandit Country, such was the levels of subterfuge and violence at large.
Basically, what I’m saying is that while this man was a cop in some of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, he could never have been accused of having an easy watch.
He had made me a fine cup of tea and his wife had left home-baked scones for us both, and we were happily working our way through both as though we were discussing every day matters such as sport or the weather, when in fact what he was telling me about were the number of near death experiences he had encountered.
One really struck me. He had finished his week of shifts on a Saturday afternoon, and instead of going home, he was convinced that a few weekend beers were in order. The few beers turned into a few more and a few more and realising that he wouldn’t be fit to drive home, he ended up sleeping on a colleague’s sofa that night.
At the time he was a young copper, still living at home with his elderly mother, deep in the heart of the community he was policing.
She was watching prime time Saturday night TV when there was a knock at her door. She thought nothing of answering it, presuming it was a neighbour or perhaps her son who might have forgotten his keys.
At this point in the telling, my scone was now left half eaten, as I noticed that his face was still avuncular and alive with his memory, but his hands told a different story. His left hand had started to rub the back of his right hand, as though he was applying some cream to a scratch or moisturiser to cracked skin. This didn’t stop until he finished the story.
I’ll never forget how he referred to the people knocking on his mother’s front door: “ye know…a couple of Saturday Night Heroes…looking for me.”
Needless to say, his elderly mum got the absolute shock of her life. Two men, in balaclavas demanding that she fetch her son to the front door. Talk about a near miss? All because he had decided to go on the razz, he had avoided an assassination attempt. And of course, being in the days before mobile phones and so on, he didn’t discover his mother’s ordeal until he arrived home the next morning. Shortly after he and his mother moved to a new house.
What offended him the most was not the fact that the “heroes” had come looking for him, nor that they had frightened his old Mum. What he struggled most with was the fact that he knew that the men who had come to try and kill him were people that he knew and lived in the same community as he did. They probably said hello to him in the street or the shop when off duty and most definitely would have been happy to call upon him for help when it was needed during the course of his working hours.
Still wringing his huge hands, he was laughing at the irony and brass balled cheek of the men. “Saturday night heroes, eh? Thank God I went out for a few pints.”