Saturday 17 February 2018

Coming up for air... life in the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit

Eilis O'Hanlon on what is at times a rather grisly account of one man's life spent working in the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit

Grim testimony: The Garda Sub-Aqua Unit, at work in the River Liffey. Photo: Mark Condren
Grim testimony: The Garda Sub-Aqua Unit, at work in the River Liffey. Photo: Mark Condren
'Tosh' by Tosh Lavery

The likely visit of Prince Charles later this month to Mullaghmore in Co Sligo will be a poignant reminder of the murder in August 1979 of his great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, by an IRA bomb planted on his boat.

Tosh Lavery was sent there the following day. As part of the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit, it was his job to recover the ruined vessel, Shadow V, together with "fishing rods, bits of picnic baskets, personal belongings", and other scraps of evidence that were later used to convict the bomber.

On one dive, he found a finger, lodged in the links of an anchor chain. On another, a camera, which, when the film was developed, contained the last pictures of the victims, including two teenage boys.

He also salvaged a pair of boots which he dried out and wore before another guard pointed out the letters MMB, for 'Mountbatten of Burma', imprinted on them. "I had been wearing Lord Mountbatten's boots".

This is just one of the anecdotes which Lavery tells in his memoir. In 30 years as a police diver, Tosh has seen and done it all. "I saw the bodies of fishermen lost at sea in some of Ireland's biggest maritime disasters. The bodies of children pulled from the icy depths. Murder victims, some hacked into pieces and packed into shopping bags. Suicides."

Still, he kept getting back into the water.

The Waterford man's story begins in the early 70s, when the Troubles prompted an urgent need for extra gardai, and justice minister Des O'Malley reduced the height requirement. The new recruits were known in the media as "O'Malley's Midgets". (Those were less politically correct times).

Lavery's first posting was along the border in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan. In his own words, he was "a gobshite from down South who hadn't a clue what was going on". IRA gun-running was rife in the area. Tosh was badly beaten by local Provos. Nothing deterred him from doing his job.

"It wasn't that I was brave. It was simply that I hadn't got a clue what was going on." Two years later, he responded to an ad seeking volunteers for the new Garda Sub-Aqua Unit, then being set up in response to political pressure after an incident in which vital evidence was thrown overboard from a ship smuggling in weapons for the IRA.

His instructor wasn't confident that he'd cut the mustard. "You won't make it in this unit, Lavery. You're mad."

By the time he retired, 30 years later, Tosh was head of the sub-aqua team and the last remaining member of that original group.

In the intervening decades, he took part in many dramatic operations, often in "sub-standard clothing and using sub-standard equipment, usually used for leisure diving rather than searching the sea for dead bodies".

He was involved in the search of Lough Inagh for the body of Mary Duffy, murdered by two English serial killers. He helped find the motorbike used by the killers of Veronica Guerin and later dumped in the Strawberry Beds in Dublin. Once, searching for a missing man in a canal in Galway, he and a colleague were nearly drowned themselves when sucked through a lock "as if we were being flushed down a toilet".

He also ruffled feathers when, incensed by Garda Jerry McCabe's death, he called Liveline and said murderers were "laughing at us" because of the leniency of the justice system. Expecting to be reprimanded, a superior merely told him that he was a "cheeky little prick", adding: "Everything you said was correct but we're in the guards. We can't say that! Now get out of here!" He never heard another word about it.

Tired of "red tape and unnecessary bullshit", and with camaraderie not what it was, he decided to retire in 2004. Sadly, the Garda Water Unit, as it's now known, remains understaffed and poorly resourced.

Lavery is the classic maverick copper, breaking the rules, cutting corners, but always with his heart in the right place. At work, at any rate. His story, though, is juxtaposed with that of his alcoholism, a shadow life that stretches right back to his early days. He drinks too much. He regrets it. He promises to stop. He doesn't. There are gruesome details, such as how he learned to vomit underwater to cover his tracks when he was hungover, but ultimately, the stories of drunks are all depressingly alike.

Eventually, he found the strength to stop, but one can only pity his long-suffering wife. Lavery admits himself that, for much of their life together, he lived like a single man, missing numerous Christmases and birthdays because he was at another dive.

He never turned down a call for help, and, whilst his stamina and bravery are not in doubt, it meant she had to bring up their children largely alone for much of the time. They've since separated, but his tribute to her in this book is warm and fulsome.

Tosh is a grim testimony to the dangers lurking in Irish waters - so many shipwrecks; so many accidents - as well as a fascinating insight into an aspect of police work that we all see regularly on the news without giving nearly enough thought to the people behind the diving masks.

Memoir: Tosh: An Amazing True Story of Life, Death and Drama in the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit

Tosh Lavery

Penguin Ireland, pbk, 288 pages

Available with free P&P on

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