Law-breakers to law-enforcers: The latest stage of Ireland's Oz adventure

Imagine what it’s like to go from being stationed in the Cork burbs to being stationed in the Australian outback. Jonathan de Burca Butler meets up with Irish gardai who are being snapped up in Western Australia because of their high level of training

Law-breakers to law-enforcers: The latest stage of Ireland's Oz adventure

IN YEARS gone by, Australia was synonymous with law-breakers. Many of them were of course Irish, sent to the penal colony for nothing more than robbing a few potatoes or bags of corn.

Now it seems some Irish law enforcers are being attracted down under and starting next week, a new six-part documentary series entitled Garda Down Under examines their stories.

Since 2005, some 30 former Gardaí have decided to pack their bags and head for the sunnier climes of Western Australia to work the largest single police beat in the world. One of those is 38-year-old Ciaran Cleary who left Ireland in 2008.

Ciaran Cleary worked the beat in Cork city from the Bridewell station but finds the work in Australia requires more paper work

“I was actually very happy in the Gardaí,” says the Laois native. “I just wanted a chance to travel and live overseas for a bit. I applied for a career break but I couldn’t get one which was disappointing. Then I made the call to put life before work and I resigned.” Having travelled and spent some time living in New Zealand, Cleary found himself ringing in the turn of the decade in Australia.

“I had applied for the Western Australian Police (WAPOL) as an afterthought really,” he says. “It was more of a back-up option, and a chance for employment and a longer visa if I was going to stay a bit longer. Being a police officer is not one of those professions where you can easily transfer your profession, it’s not like being a nurse or engineer, so the recruitment programme was a rare opportunity.”

In recent years, Western Australia has experienced a mining boom. This has lead to a rapid growth in population and as a result a need for more police. Due to the high quality of their training, Gardaí were among the programme’s prime targets.

Templemore can not ready you for everything you come up against down under however and according to Ciaran there are vast differences between policing the Greater Perth Area and working out of Cork’s Bridewell where he was stationed.

“I haven’t done much beat work since I left the Bridewell,” says Cleary. “Over here it’s all been mobile patrols in the suburbs. The basics of the job are the same but there definitely seems to be more paperwork and “red tape” here which took some getting used to. But a lot less cases go to trial here, offenders tend to plead guilty which is good and equipment-wise we don’t lack for much which is good for morale and makes the job a bit easier.”

Series producer, Jonathan Levy, spent six months in Australia shooting the documentary. “I suppose the brief I gave myself was to do something more than just make a cop show,” he says. “There are about 95,000 Irish people out there and 25,000 of those are in Western Australia so I wanted this to be their story of migration and life in Australia, an archive really.”

Levy spent a month in Kununurra, a small outback town, 3,000km north of Perth and home to 35-year-old Michael Henderson from Templemore in Tipperary. Michael, who was formerly stationed in Bishopstown, Cork has been in the outback since 2005.

“Back home, I mainly dealt with drunk college students and the many traffic crashes at roundabouts,” he says. “In Kununurra, there is a high rate of alcohol fuelled violence and there are a lot of domestic violence issues. I have dealt with a lot of stabbings and weapon related incidents.” Apart from differences in crime itself, Henderson says the environment and geography is a major factor. Dealing with situations in 40 degrees of heat in remote areas where there is little chance of immediate backup can be testing but on top of that are the resident fauna.

Michael Henderson and his fiancée, Sarah Wollersheim in Kununurra in the far north of Western Australia

“We cover a mixture of bush, rivers and lakes,” he explains, “and they all carry risks. The bush has lots of snakes, so I’m never happy when chasing criminals in there on foot. The waterways are full of crocodiles, especially salt water, so I get very nervous when I have to get close to the water.” For Levy, the outback was like “being on Mars”; a “beautiful” and “vast” place where “if you’re on your own, you’re really on your own”.

“In one episode, we go into the bush to rescue a fella’ who had driven out there,” he recalls. “He had been picked up by a cattle rancher, and when we got to him, he was in a really bad way. He was dehydrated because he had been drinking from a river. He was in hospital for three days. He was only a young guy just drifting along; you get a lot of guys like that who go from cattle ranch to cattle ranch picking up work. Thousands of people go missing every year in Australia. He was lucky.”

*Series One of Garda Down Under is being broadcast on RTÉ One on Wednesday at 8.30pm

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