I WAS contacted by a friend of mine a few weeks ago and he recalled a story I told him while we were serving in Cyprus together. He suggested that I should tell it to a wider audience but I had to think about it for a while because it’s a little bit personal.
It dates back to my time in An Garda Síochána and has to do with the discovery of the body of an 11-year-old boy, called Robert Holohan, who was found in thick undergrowth near Inch Strand in Midleton, Co. Cork, in January 2005. He had been missing since January 4.
A search had been ongoing for Robert from the time of his disappearance until his body was located more than a week later. An attempt had been made to conceal his body but he was discovered by members of a search party.
It was late in the afternoon that day, and I was sitting at home when I received a phone call from my boss, with instructions to gather a team together and head to Whitegate to preserve the scene for the night.
Roberts body had to remain where he was found until he could be examined by the State Pathologist. This procedure is essential for the collection of evidence and it was better to carry out the examination at first light instead of trying to do it in the dark with artificial light.
More than 20 of us arrived at the scene at 8pm. We had to establish an outer cordon to prevent any unauthorised access to the area and to protect the scene. Then, someone had to stay with the body for the same reasons. Myself and another guy took that job.
It was a bitterly cold night and frost settled on our jackets as the night wore on. We stayed there until we were relieved at 8am the following morning. I went home to bed but the cold was in my bones and it kept me awake.
I got up at some point to have a hot shower, made a hot whiskey and turned on the radio. There were many calls to a local radio station about the discovery of Robert’s body. Most of them were complaining about the body being left out in the elements all night. I knew that would be bothering the family.
Later in the day, I saw a news item on TV showing a priest leaving the Holohan family home. I rang Midleton Garda Station and got a phone number for the priest, Father O’Donovan, and I gave him a call.
I told Fr O’Donovan about my duty the previous evening. I told him that I was with the boy all night and that he was treated with as much care and respect as I would have treated my own child. I told him that Robert wasn’t alone at any stage and while I would have liked to have wrapped him in a blanket and brought him home to his parents, that just wasn’t possible.
I suggested to him that if he thought that information might bring some comfort to the family that he should feel free to pass it on. We chatted for a little while and then hung up.
As far as I was concerned, that was as much as I could do and if the parents got some consolation from it, that would be good. Nobody else knew that call was made and that’s how I wanted it.
I thought no more about the phone call until my wife rang me at work a few days later and asked me if I was watching Sky News. I turned on the TV and they were covering Robert’s funeral. There was a conversation taking place about a phone call made by a policeman to a priest. It took me a while to figure out what was going on.
Fr O’Donovan told the story during the service and the media had latched onto it. Initially, I was a little annoyed but then I realised that as my name wasn’t mentioned, it didn’t really matter.
Not long after that, I got a call from Fr O’Donovan who wanted to apologise. He was feeling guilty that the details of a private phone call had been released so publicly and he wanted to explain.
Earlier that morning, he got a phone call from then President Mary McAleese who asked him to read out a statement on her behalf at the service. The priest told the President about the call I had made to him and later, when he read the letter from Mrs McAleese, our conversation came into his head and he blurted it out.
This was now becoming part of the story and that was never the intention. It was simply a call made from a parent, who happened to be a policeman, to be passed on to other parents in the hope that they might get some comfort from it.
The phone call received international attention from the media but it shouldn’t have. This is the kind of thing that is done routinely by the men and women of An Garda Síochána. It’s done quietly and usually goes unnoticed.
Gardai regularly deal with difficult situations that you can’t be trained for.
You can be taught how to investigate a crime, preserve a scene and gather evidence but nobody can tell you how to react when you are alone with a body. Just the two of you and the silence.
Sergeant Liam Grimes is attached to the Garda Water Unit and he suggested that I should write this piece. He knows what it’s like. He has maintained many lonely vigils, on riverbanks and lakesides, with recovered human remains.
This is a not an unusual position for police officers to find themselves in, but you don’t often hear about it.