Colourful and controversial career of Ireland’s first Garda

Garda Jim Herlihy details the extraordinary life and times of Patrick Joseph ‘PJ’ Kerrigan, an ex-RIC member, soldier in two armies, and bigamist, who became the first Civic Guard of the Irish Free State

IN Sept 1995, I mentioned the matter of researching the early history of the Gardaí to a colleague.

He remembered meeting James Francis Kerrigan, a man who claimed to be related to the first Civic Guard.

Shortly afterwards I traced Mr Kerrigan. He showed me a photo of his father taken in 1918 while serving with the British Army.

The last he heard of his father was when he left home in 1926 and vanished.

He said that he would die happy if he could ever find out where his father ended up. He died recently knowing the truth.

I discovered PJ Kerrigan was born on Sept 12, 1892, in Westport, Co Mayo. He had three brothers and two sisters. Two of his brothers worked as policemen in the US, both killed on duty.

In 1913, PJ Kerrigan enlisted in the RIC.

Following the outbreak of the First World War, he resigned from the RIC and enlisted in the Irish Guards.

At the end of the war, PJ married Molly Finnegan from Drogheda, Co Louth. They had four children, one of whom was James Francis Kerrigan.

PJ Kerrigan made his way to the Royal Dublin Society Showgrounds on Feb 21, 1922 — the first day of recruitment of the Civic Guards. He was the first to enlist. Five weeks later, he became a sergeant.

However, on Aug 7, his Civic Guard career came to an abrupt end when he was dismissed for allegedly striking a prisoner. His defence was that he had been called a ‘Black and Tan’ by the prisoner, who went on to say that Michael Collins “had sold out the country”. He appealed this decision to Commissioner Michael Staines, but was unsuccessful.

On Mar 8, 1923, he joined the National Army, but his first love was police work and on Sept 30, 1924, he joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

Sickness befell PJ early in 1925, resulting in his absence from work and causing him to run up some debts. His debtors notified his authorities. He was charged with breaches of the disciplinary code.

By now the DMP had amalgamated with the Garda Síochána, and therefore PJ was back in the job of a Civic Guard. He wrote a letter urging leniency, but then resigned.

He emigrated to Liverpool and onto the US via Canada, without telling his family. At home, his wife Molly ran a grocery shop in Dublin. In 1929, tragedy struck the family when the youngest girl died of a burst appendix.

James Francis, PJ’s youngest son, married in 1950 and emigrated to England. From there he went to Rhodesia in 1978. He was a member of the British South African Police for 10 years.

PJ’s daughter Eileen lived in Ireland. One day in 1979 she had a visit from a couple from the USA. The man introduced himself as Michael Kerrigan. He was another son of the first Guard and Eileen’s half-brother. Eileen died in 1995 and all that remained of that visit was a photo.

This photo was passed on to James Francis Kerrigan. He had no further details on his father’s USA family.

The day after I met James Francis Kerrigan, I searched the 70m Households Phone Book and I found a phone number for a Thomas Kerrigan in New York.

I gave the number to James Francis, who dialled it and found himself talking for the first time to the son of Thomas Kerrigan, PJ’s brother. He found out from him that his father died in 1946, and was buried in Albany.

On Mar 6, 1996, James Francis met his half-brother, exactly 50 years after the death of PJ. The true story of James Francis’ father’s secret past was also revealed.

PJ Kerrigan settled in New York, where he went by the name Joseph Kerrigan. In 1933, he illegally married Minnie Kleinberger while his first wife, Molly, was still alive.

In 2003 I paid a visit to PJ Kerrigan’s grave. I also found the grave of his brother, Michael, who was also a police officer and had been killed on duty on Aug 2, 1924,

Force foundations

* This year marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the country’s police force.

The Civic Guards, later called An Garda Síochána, were formed following a meeting in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, on Feb 8, 1922, convened by Michael Collins.

Recruitment began on Feb 21, 1922, at the Royal Dublin Society Showgrounds in Ballsbridge.

The force was established to replace the Royal Irish Constabulary in the 26 counties of the then Irish Free State.

Patrick Joseph Kerrigan from Westport, Co Mayo, had the distinction of being the first to enlist in the force. His family were close friends with Michael Stanes, from nearby Newport, who was appointed the first Commissioner of the Civic Guards on Mar 1, 1922.

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