An Irishman’s Diary

President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh: a funny thing happened on the road to his house in Cahirciveen.

IT IS enormously embarrassing when you have to reverse back to a speed checkpoint. Such was the case as I headed west out of Portlaoise one fine Monday morning many years ago, writes Ronan Quinlan

My colleague and I were travelling to Caherciveen in a bold attempt to do a “cold call” interview with the recently resigned President of Ireland, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, me to do the pictures and he to write the words. My colleague was Gerry McMorrow, a steadfast Sligo man and a reporter of exceptional talent who, before very long, was to leave us forever at the untimely age of 32.

The best thing I could think to say after backtracking to the patiently waiting policeman was nothing, and that’s how I started. I wound down the window and murmured a timid salutation. The garda, a stout middle-aged man who had, to my youthful eye, the appearance of having always been that age, eyed me with a confident authority for what seemed like an age before opening his mouth. “Do you know what speed you were doing?” he enquired, evidently anticipating a full confession. I confessed immediately that I had no idea what speed I was doing.

“Sixty!” he barked, and followed it with another long silence. “The speed limit is thirty!” I knew this was tantamount to a capital offence, so I kept to my silent strategy, mainly because I did not know what I could say to spare me the consequences of my folly.

He stood, and I sat, me looking up, and him looking down, in silence, for about half a minute. It seemed like an hour.

Eventually, he crouched halfway to my level, frowned with authority and said: “Have you no story?”

“Story?” I ventured, weakly.

There was another long silence, longer than before. “Do you know what I love about this job?” he asked.

“No, Sergeant,” I replied, promoting him.

“The thing I love about this job,” he said, “is the stories. You hear great stories on this job.”

I slunk deeper into my misery, convinced now that I would surely perish because I had no entertainment for this guardian of the peace.

“You’re not going to a funeral, are you?” he ventured.

“No, Guard, no funeral,” I suggested, helpfully.

“You would be amazed at the number of people I stop that are going to funerals,” he said.

“No, not a funeral,” I repeated. “I’m not even in a hurry.”

Another long silence followed, another eternity. Gerry began to giggle aloud and this amplified my panic.

“Do you know what I’m going to tell you?” the garda said. “In all the days I have stood on this road doing this job, you’re the first fella I have ever pulled over that had no story at all for me.” Images of Flann O’Brien’s Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen flashed before me, and Gerry began to giggle even louder – this is a very bad idea when you are trying to get away with something and I struggled to keep a straight face.

Another long pause. Then he asked me where we were bound. I told him our destination.

“Caherciveen?” he said, as if I had just announced a trip to the moon. “Sure that’s an awful long way. You must be in a hurry,” he enticed.

“No, Guard. In fact, I’ll be in plenty of time if I’m there by tomorrow,” I said, desperately trying to reinforce our lethargic approach.

His curiosity led to more questions and he eventually wormed from me all the details of our business in Kerry. I thought it better not to mention that we were going to meet a man who did not know we were coming, who might not even be there, and whom we suspected would probably have us banished on sight from the Kingdom.

“Well, you must be in a hurry if you’re meeting a man like that,” he said, encouragingly. Again I stressed the laid-back nature of our timetable.

It was time to tempt fate so I ventured: “I suppose, eh, I’ll be seeing you in court so, Sergeant?”

“Could be,” he said, softly, “could be. But I think I might let you away this time. Far be it from me to be holding you from a meeting with an important man like that.”

I could not believe my luck, but I quickly thanked him and nearly made the mistake of burning rubber in my haste to get away.

They don’t make speed checks like that anymore.

By the way, we arrived in Caherciveen around teatime, and as we considered our approach strategy, the former president himself walked out of a shop in front of us, newspaper in hand, heading towards his Triumph Vitesse.

We gingerly approached and introduced ourselves. Ó Dálaigh had not spoken at any length to the media since his dramatic resignation from the highest post in the land. He said straight away he didn’t have time to meet us, but could we come to the house at eleven the next morning?

And we did go to his house, and we had tea and scones served to us by his charming wife, and we got the grand tour of his beloved library. And we got our story. It was a good story, but not on a par with “Sergeant Pluck”.

This article first appeared in the Irish Times 5th May 2008

© Ronan Quinlan 2008

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.