IRA bombed gardaí bravery honoured after four decades

The sacrifice made by Gardaí Michael Clerkin, Tom Peters, Ben Thornton, Jim Cannon and Gerry Bohan

Sacrifice made by Laois Offaly Gardaí Michael Clerkin, Tom Peters, Ben Thornton, Jim Cannon and Gerry Bohan honoured

“On that night in 1976, five men went out and only four came home. The lives of all those affected, the men and their families, were changed irrevocably by the bomb.”

Those are the words of Elma Peters who was just a child when her father Tom was nearly killed in an IRA bomb on the Laois Offaly border.

Just over 41 years later, with her father still suffering with the injuries sustained, the bravery of Tom, Jim Cannon, Ben Thornton, Gerry Bohan, and the ultimate sacrifice paid by Michael Clerkin was finally honoured with Scott Gold bravery medals.

“My father said he was honoured to receive the Scott medal. It's important that they have all finally got the recognition for their bravery that night,” Elma told the Leinster Express.

The four retired gardaí, their families and the family of Garda Michael Clerkin made the journey to the Garda Training College in Templemore last Friday, November 8 to be presented with Gold Medals for bravery in the line of duty in October 1976.

They were victims of a booby trap bomb set by an active IRA unit. The gang lured the gardaí into a trap after calling Portlaoise Garda Station with a threat to kill Oliver J Flanagan.

There was an immediate standing ovation in Templemore when Garda Chief Superintendent John Scanlon stood up to read the citation for the five men.

The first to their feet were trainee gardaí. Also in the crowd were serving Laois Offaly gardaí, and about 50 retired officers.

Tom Peters was the first in line to receive his medal linked by his wife Betty. Tom lost his sight in the bombing. There was sustained applause as the medal was pinned to his jacket by the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan and Deputy Garda Commissioner, John Twomey.

Each of the recipients was greeted with the same outpouring of appreciation of their sacrifice and bravery.

Retired Portarlington Sergeant Jim Cannon has been to the fore over the years in campaigning to ensure that the event was not airbrushed out of history.

He celebrated with his family, friends and colleagues afterwards. He told the Leinster Express it was a unique, historic and happy occasion.

“We are all over the moon to have received the Scott Medal after 41 years. I want to say here and now that the Scott Medal is very important to us, the survivors and to the Clerkin family.

“I said in the past to the Leinster Express that if Tom Peters had a Scott Medal in his hand it would mean something. Well today he has,” said Jim.

Former Portlaoise detective Ben Thornton attended with his wife and family.

“It is a wonderful day. It will help a lot and was really and truly worth waiting for. It was a hugely well organised day,” said Ben who praised Chief Supt. Scanlon and Minister Flanagan.

Peter Clerkin travelled from Monaghan with his sisters Assumpta, Dolores and Margaret to Templemore to accept Michael's medal. He thanked the Chief Supt. and his late brother Michael's former colleagues for treating them very well.

“It is a form or closure,” said Peter. His sister Dolores said it was a “very emotional and moving day.” They said their brother would never be forgotten.

Gerry Bohan travelled from Longford with his family. He said official recognition was important. He also praised Chief Supt Scanlon for resurrecting the case.

“It's an emotional day. It changed the lives of five families - everyone. But it is also a day for gratitude and we are very thankful for his efforts and I would also say a prayer for the good people in Garryhinch. They saved lives,” he said.

Chief Supt Scanlon said that the awarding of the Scott Medals was long overdue.

“It is long overdue and richly deserved. It is a hugely emotional occasion not only for the men themselves but for all who served with them. I want to thank the people of Garryhinch also who came out on the night to help the men,” he said.

James Phelan, Secretary of the Garda Síochana Retired Members Association Laois Branch said,

“It is with sadness and joy that over 50 members of An Garda Síochána from Portlaoise travelled to Templemore to witness the bravery of our fellow colleagues who suffered serious injuries at Garryhinch in 1976.

“It was with pleasure and joy that we witnessed the presentation of the Scott medals,” he noted.

Scott Garda Medal citation delivered by Laois Offaly Chief Supt. John Scanlon

On Friday 15th October 1976, at 11.30pm, an anonymous telephone call was received at Portlaoise Garda Station.

The caller stated armed men would be staying at Galvin’s vacant house in Garryhinch and were plotting to assassinate a local politician. The detail of the telephone call was conveyed by radio to Sergeant James Cannon, Garda Michael Clerkin and Garda Gerry Bohan who were on duty in the Portarlington patrol car.

Sergeant Cannon, Garda Clerkin and Garda Bohan met with Detective Garda Ben Thornton and Detective Garda Thomas Peters who were in the Detective car and travelled to Garryhinch to inspect the vacant house. At this time all five Garda members were aware of the potential danger approaching this house and that it could involve a risk to life.

The vacant house was located on a quiet laneway, about half a mile from the main road and was situated in a thick wooded area. Upon arrival, there was no light in the house and no sign of activity. The five Garda members carried out a search of the outside area before moving to check the inside of the house. However, the front door was locked but entry could be gained via a rear open window.

Sergeant Cannon, Garda Clerkin, Garda Bohan and Detective Garda Thornton went to the rear of the house while Detective Garda Peters remained at the front. Garda Clerkin entered the house through the open window while Detective Garda Thornton returned to the front of the house. Sergeant Cannon and Garda Bohan took up position outside the open rear window. Garda Clerkin opened the front door from the inside and let Detective Garda Thornton inside when, without warning, a large explosion took place. The house was destroyed, Sergeant Cannon and Garda Bohan were buried under the debris and rubble of the explosion. Garda Bohan managed to free himself from the rubble and went to summon assistance.

Sergeant Cannon while initially trapped, freed himself from the debris and heard noise coming from under the wreckage. Sergeant Cannon located Detective Garda Peters who was badly injured and trapped beneath a considerable amount of rubble. Sergeant Cannon heard additional noise coming from the wreckage in the house. Sergeant Cannon went to the patrol car to call for assistance but the explosion had damaged the car, consequently he went on foot to summon assistance.

On his return, Sergeant Cannon located the spot in the wreckage where the noise was coming from and with the assistance of Garda Bohan and some local men who had arrived, Detective Garda Thornton was located but badly stunned, dazed and shaken. After another hour of searching, the remains of Garda Michael Clerkin was located, buried under the rubble.

For exceptional courage and bravery, involving personal risk to life in the execution of duty, the Gold Scott Medal is awarded to Detective Garda Thomas F. Peters, to Detective Garda Ben Thornton, Garda Gerry Bohan, Sergeant James Cannon.

For exceptional courage and bravery, involving the loss of his life in the execution of duty, the Gold Scott Medal is awarded to the late Garda Michael Clerkin. Rest in Peace.

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