Tuesday 19 November 2019

Zozimus: 'Two armies, three police forces, two families- the chaotic life of Garda No 1'

PJ Kerrigan in his Irish Guards uniform
PJ Kerrigan in his Irish Guards uniform
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Should you be lucky enough to find the Garda Museum in Dublin Castle open, you won't find much attention paid to one Patrick Joseph (PJ) Kerrigan, born on September 12, 1892 in Fair Green, Westport, Co Mayo.

Who he, you might well ask?

PJ Kerrigan has the distinction of being Garda No 1, the first member of the newly established Civic Guards, as they then were then called, to be registered by the Free State government. He was selected at a public recruitment process in the RDS in Dublin on February 21, 1922, when the first men were enlisted into the new police force.

Garda No 2 was Patrick McAvinia from Co Cavan and the third member recruited that day was Charles Clarke, from Co Westmeath.

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As it happens, all three were policemen by vocation and had served in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

But the reason you will find little by way of mention of Garda No 1 in the official records is that he had a colourful and at times chaotic life that didn't sit well with the image of the new unarmed police force.

"PJ Kerrigan (1892-1946) the first registered Civic Guard of the Irish Free State, survived the Great War, the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War, immigration to Liverpool, Canada and the United States, was employed in two armies and three police forces, married twice, had two families, which in the end through his human faults and failing, caused both of his estranged sons to make transatlantic flights to be reunited," says police historian Garda Jim Herlihy in his fascinating research into Garda No 1.

The reasons Herlihy had to research the origins of the first Civic Guard is that PJ Kerrigan's life and career displayed the vagaries of human frailty rather than the idealism expected of a role model by the new state.

According to Herlihy's meticulous research, PJ Kerrigan joined the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1914 but resigned less than a year later to join the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army. He distinguished himself as a soldier before returning to Ireland in 1919 at the end of World War I, where he married Molly Finnegan from Drogheda.

They settled in Dublin and had four children.

But the distinction of being recruited as Garda No 1 in 1922 didn't last for long. Less than six months later, Kerrigan was dismissed from the force for striking a prisoner who, he claimed, had called him "a Black and Tan" and added that Michael Collins had "sold out the country".

But Kerrigan was a resourceful type and quickly enlisted in the Irish Army in his native Westport before switching again and some months later joining the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), then a separate force from the Civic Guards. He was posted to Kevin Street station in Dublin where he played the clarinet in the DMP band.

Misfortune had a friend in Kerrigan. As a result of illness, he missed work and borrowed money to keep his family in the style to which they had become accustomed. His debtors closed in, notifying the authorities of his failure to repay his borrowings. As it happened, the DMP had lately been amalgamated with the Civic Guards into the newly named An Garda Siochana and PJ found himself briefly back with his old force by default.

Under pressure from his bosses, he resigned from the Garda in 1926 and emigrated first to Liverpool and then to Canada and on to the United States, where he settled in the New York state capital, Albany. After a little bit of skulduggery, like changing his name to Joseph Kerrigan and cutting six years from his age he got a job as a driver for the local hospital.

His wife Molly, an abandoned mother of four, ran a grocery shop in High Street, Dublin to make a living. In 1929, tragedy struck when her youngest daughter, seven-year-old Doreen died from a burst appendix.

In 1933, while his wife was still alive, PJ, now Joseph Kerrigan, met and married 25-year-old Minnie Kleinberger, and they had two children. While his Irish wife Molly died in Dublin in 1939 at the age of 52, Joseph Kerrigan lived through the war, before dying in 1946. He was buried in St Agnes Cemetery, Albany.

Jim O'Herlihy's research into the life and times of Garda No 1 is fascinating because through his brilliant detective work and a fair bit of luck, he uncovered his subject's extraordinary double life.

Members of PJ's American family had made contact with some of his Irish family previously, but Herlihy went one step further when he reunited members of the two families from Ireland and the United States, who were unaware of each other's existence.

PJ Kerrigan's son, also PJ, who lived in Cork, but only had an old photograph of his father, had heard he was Garda No 1, but knew nothing of his life after he left home in 1926 and vanished. He told Jim Herlihy that he would die happy if he found out where his father ended up.

In March 1996, he was able to visit his father's grave in St Agnes Cemetery, Albany.

"I asked him what was going through his mind as he stood over his father's grave" Jim Herlihy writes. "He said, 'All I thought was, I've caught up with you, Dad'. Then I said the Rosary for him."

After unravelling the complicated history of Garda No 1, Jim Herlihy paid his own tribute to the first policeman of the new State.

"In 2003, I paid a visit to PJ Kerrigan's grave in St Agnes Cemetery in Albany. I placed a Garda cap badge on his grave," he says.

Life is a messy business, as PJ Kerrigan's career and personal difficulty proves, but the story of Garda No. 1 is one worth com memorating as, as Jim Herlihy has shown, truth is often more fascinating then fiction.

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