Day I joined the guards... I felt like a prisoner in Templemore!

Trevor Laffan recalls his first night at Templemore
Day I joined the guards... I felt like a prisoner in Templemore!

A drone image of new gardaí at an attestation ceremony at the Training College in Templemore in 2020. Mark Condren/PA Wire

LAST Monday, An Garda Siochana tweeted, ‘On this day in 1922, the very first recruits joined An Garda Síochána and made their way to Dublin’s RDS to begin their formal training. 100 years on, over 14,000 Gardaí nationwide are dedicated to protecting communities and keeping the people of Ireland safe’.

As I read that, it brought me back to when I started as a guard in 1979, a mere 57 years after those guys.

Arriving at the gates of the Garda College in Templemore, Co. Tipperary, on a cold December day was a shock to the system. There was a security barrier at the entrance with a guard room just inside and it looked anything but welcoming.

There were about 90 of us standing there, suitcases in hand, wondering what the next move was going to be. This strange-looking barracks was going to be our home for the next six months.

It looked large and imposing and, according to John Reynolds, a garda historian, the Garda College was originally constructed as Richmond barracks in 1815 on a 57-acre site.

When completed, it was one of the largest barracks in Ireland, with accommodation for “54 officers, 1,500 men and 30 horses, a hospital for 80 patients; a bridewell; a fever hospital and a dispensary, ball, news and reading rooms, and a public billiard table”.

By 1909, Richmond barracks had been vacated, and Templemore town council was informed by the War Office that there was ‘no prospect of troops being quartered there in the near future’.

However, the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914, brought a reversal of this policy, and between October, 1914, and March, 1915, Richmond became a prisoner of war camp, holding more than 2,300 German soldiers who had been captured on the Western Front.

The two barrack squares were divided into four huge cages, complete with searchlights, barbed wire and sentry towers. I didn’t know that at the time, but it does explain why I felt like a prisoner as soon as I went under the barrier.

We were herded into a large hall where different people took it in turns to shout at us. We got lots of instructions, orders and insults and at some stage in the proceedings, we were attested.

We stood together and took an oath to serve and protect, and signed on with the State for the next 30 years. I was now part of something big and these people were my new colleagues.

We were then shown to our accommodation, a large room with a high ceiling, divided down the middle by a timber partition with three beds on each side. It reminded me of an old hospital ward.

The partition was about 7ft high and didn’t reach the ceiling, so it was easy to have a conversation with the guys next door. Easy to throw things over too, and not always in a helpful way.

The first night was quiet. We kept to ourselves as we adjusted to the new surroundings and sussed each other out.

At 11pm, I was startled when a bugle sounded over the intercom system. This was our signal to turn out the lights and get to bed. 

I hadn’t been told to go to bed since my early childhood, but this was my new life.

I didn’t sleep much that first night. There were too many strange sounds and I remember thinking at one point that I might have made a terrible mistake. I was doubting whether I would stick it out for six months, but thankfully that feeling didn’t last long.

There was another surprise in store for us the next morning when the bugle sounded again over the speaker. It was only 7am, but time to get up.

The tannoy was operated by the guys in the guard room. Their function was to ensure the security of the facility and monitor who came and went, so there was always someone there.

One guy in particular must have thought he was working for a pirate radio station. He often played music in the early hours of the morning over the tannoy and in between songs he would tell stories about his life.

When we were more established, it wasn’t unusual for speakers to be broken by flying boots trying to shut him up.

After a shower, it was time to head to the mess hall for breakfast. Queueing for food was another new experience and we soon realised there were advantages to being near the top of the queue. The sooner you got to the food, the better.

Some got up as soon as the bugle sounded and went straight for the grub to get the best of it. Others, who left it to the last minute, got the concrete eggs and porridge that resembled wallpaper paste.

After breakfast, we got into our uniforms and lined up outside the classrooms for a quick inspection - making sure the shoes were polished, the uniform was clean, and hair was neat and tidy.

Then it was time for lectures, including police studies, self-defence, swimming, and life-saving lessons, drill and gym work.

In the evening, there were supervised study periods and after that we were free to leave the centre and go down-town.

We had to sign out in the guardroom and sign back in no later than 11pm.

A trip to the Templemore Arms for a pint or two was a welcome taste of freedom, as long as you weren’t late getting back. Tricky sometimes too, with the sergeant in the guard room on the look-out for cases of insobriety.

On Sunday mornings, we marched to 10am mass in the town in full uniform, whether we liked it or not. The metal studs on our boots let everyone know we were coming.

Vivid memories still after all these years...

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