As retired local Garda Mick Toner turns 70, the Dundalk man talks to Alison Comyn about his poignant career in the traffic corp, mingling with the stars and of course his passion for soccer and Christmas lights!
Three hours into a conversation with Mick Toner, it’s clear he should be writing a book about his adventures as a Garda, as a newspaper interview is not going to begin to do it justice.
From rubbing shoulders with Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Freddie Mercury, to comforting hundreds of grieving families or delivering babies in the back of cars, his dedication to his job is only matched by the love of his beloved Drogheda Town FC and his own family.
“I was nearly 40 years a guard, and it’s only when I start talking about it, I realise what a huge part of my life it was,” says Mick. “I can never imagine having done anything else, but I very nearly didn’t join up at all.”
Born in Daisy Hill hospital, Newry on Easter Sunday 1952, Michael was the oldest of five children (along with Anne, Tony, James and Tom) to Eddie and Anna (Larney), and spent his early years in Mount Pleasant, outside Dundalk.
“The year I was born, Easter Sunday was April 13th, and it hasn’t fallen on that day since,” says Mick, who has an uncanny memory for dates. “It won’t happen again until 2031!”
Mick grew up in the Cooley mountains, where his father’s family had farmed for generations.
“We had a 30-acre farm, and Dad was Louth Ploughing Championship three times over with the horse and plough,” he says proudly. “It was very tough, so dad gave up the farming to work for CIE, which meant a move closer to Dundalk.”
A former pupil of St Brigid’s NS, Faughert, he attended St Mary’s College in Dundalk in 1965.
“I was the first person in my family to get second level education and my parents had to pay fees which was very hard for them,” he explains. “When I left five years later, I got a summer job working in Macardle Moore brewery, which, like Harp or Carroll’s cigarettes, if you were lucky could be a job for life. In fact, most people thought I was mad when after five years, a week after I was made permanent, I announced I wanted to become a guard!”
He said there had never been Gardai in their family, but after his younger brother Tony signed up at just 19 in 1973, it raised a few eyebrows when Mick left the well-paid, secure job in the brewery.
“'I was a very outgoing person, and I couldn't see myself indoors in a factory setting for the rest of my life. I wanted the diversity that I hoped the new occupation would bring me,' he said.
In May of 1975, young Mick left his family home and started his training in Templemore.
'It certainly was a culture shock, and on that first night away from home, I questioned my sanity,' he laughed. 'It was emotional leaving home, and I remember my dad shaking my hand, and saying that I was never to forget where I came from, and when I put on that uniform, I was to have no airs and graces, and if I did a turn for anyone, make sure it was a good one.
It was around that time that his love of sport - in particular GAA and soccer - came to the fore.
'My dad let the local clubs use his field when we were growing up, although he committed the crime of playing a game of football on it once!
'I was always fascinated by GAA though, as there is no other organisation on the planet that has such a parochial ethos, and is such an amazing role model,' he says.
'I hope I have lived by that throughout my life.'
Mick says the six months training felt like six years at times, but he made amazing friends.
' The legend that is Paidi O'Se started the same day as me, and I marveled at watching him train in the depot,' he recalls.
'He brought the Sam Maguire to Templemore one night, and I sent a photo of me holding the cup in my uniform to dad, saying 'the last Louth man to hold Sam'!
Eventually the young recruit received word of his first posting.
"I was sent to Monaghan in 1975, which was a town of around 7,000 people, who were still getting over the horrific bombings the year before,” he recalls. “It was small but had a huge garda presence and was a very volatile place to be, with very active paramilitary and a big security situation.”
In fact, 15 gardai lost their lives in the violence that took place in the country around that time, and Mick says he thanked the man above everytime he returned from a day's duty.
“When you went out, you never knew if you would come back, as there could be booby traps and we had many close calls,” says Mick. “I lost friends that I had grown up with and it was always on my mind.”
It was around that time, Mick met his future wife Margaret (nee McKenna), and shortly after in November 1978, they were moved to Drogheda, where he was to remain for the rest of his career.
'I didn’t want to leave Monaghan, but we bought a house in Stameen and the fact we’re still here 44 years late makes me more of a Drogheda man as it's the longest I ever lived anywhere,” he says with a laugh.
The Drogheda of 1978 was a very different place from today.
'My first memory was of the cement buckets going across the North Road. It was like a fairground ride in slow motion, and I also always loved the landmark viaduct, and the way people would throw money off it. If that section of the Boyne was dredged, we'd solve the national debt.'
He says the first thing that struck him in Drogheda was the involvement with sport, something he was happy to throw himself into also.
'Newtown Blues was synonymous with the town, and I'm blessed that people I worshiped in Louth – Blackie Judge, Liam Leech, Seamus Kirk, Benny Corcoran, Danny Nugent, Ja Clarke, and hundreds of others - became close friends.
But it was soccer where Mick was to make his mark and is still involved to this day.
“With a couple of lads in the station, I started West End United FC in 1980, and we trained first on Boyne Road, with Garda games against Dundalk or Monaghan,” recalls Mick. “I had divided loyalties at times – I had to fly the black and white for obvious reasons – but I always wanted Drogheda United to do well!”
An amalgamation of Drogheda Celtic (Mosney CIE) and West End morphed into Drogheda Town FC in 2001 and has grown from strength to strength ever since.
“We made Marian Park our home, and at the time there were no municipal pitches, and our goal was to get the best facilities we could,” says Mick, who has been either chairman or vice chairman for 21 years. “Over the past two decades, I’m so proud we have improved the pitch, got floodlights, a state-of-the-art community centre, and now have schoolboys and girls, as well as a ladies’ team, and have to thank everyone who works so hard.”
Another highlight of Mick’s career happened in Drogheda, and that was the Pope's visit to the town in 1979.
“As well as looking after the Pope Mobile, I will never to this day forget the sight of 250,000 people converging for such a great day,” he says. “We haven’t seen the likes again until the Fleadh came to town and there was a wonderful community atmosphere.”
Sadly, he says the low points of his career also happened in the town.
'I joined the traffic corps in June 1984, and at the time, Louth and Meath had the worst track record of road fatalities in the country,' he says sadly.
'It was the main corridor from Belfast to Dublin, and at one stage, there were four accidents where six people were killed – September 1982, February 1983, July 1989 and July 1997 - not to mention the countless others.”
Mick says he still remembers each and every family he ever had to break the shattering news of a death to.
“When you walk from the patrol car to the front door to tell them their nearest and dearest isn’t coming home, it’s the loneliest walk in this world,” he says poignantly. 'The houses I had to visit, and give the worst possible news to, I still hold those people in high regard and count them as friends. “It showed the fragility of life, and every day, their loss is a burden they will always carry and of course, you took it all home with you.”
One memory was to ultimately lead him to a change of path within the service.
“I came across a crash on patrol, where a car had collided with a lorry and there were two young children in the back,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’m not a doctor, but I could see the driver was deceased, and the child was standing behind the seat with their arms wrapped around it, shouting ‘Dad, Dad, wake up”, and I can still hear their little voice.”
With counselling not offered in the gardai at the time, it was time for a break from harrowing frontline duties and Mick's driving skills were to take him to his final phase of his career, where he got to meet some of his other heroes.
'Moving to the Ministerial driving pool in 2000 was an honour, and none more so when I was selected to drive my former school mate in St Mary's Minister Dermot Ahern, who is one of the finest parliamentarians the country has ever seen,” says Mick proudly.
'I attended all the Slane concerts and got to meet the Rolling Stones, Robbie Williams and Creedence Clearwater Revival, although I'm still most impressed by local sportsmen like Des Smyth and Robbie McGrath who are down to earth as well as being dedicated and talented individuals.'
Retired after 36 years in the gardai since 2011, Mick and Margaret have three children Josie (married to a garda!), Eamon and Rosanna and now have six grandchildren Esme, Holly, Tommy, Reuben, Molly and Lily Rose.
The family home in Drybridge has gained local and national notoriety in the past 20 years, where they have festooned the inside and outside with stunning Christmas lights for charity.
"It started with a reindeer in the front garden for Rosie, and took on a life of its own after that,” he laughs. “It used to take two full months to decorate, and we raised thousands over the year for charities like the Gary Kelly Centre and others, and has been on RTE and TV3, which we’re very proud of.
"We still do the outside, and people are welcome to collect with buckets and if it brings a bit of pleasure to children, my work is done, and I hope I lived my life like my father said, treating people with as much dignity and respect as possible.'