Pat Dawson - Donegal's surving border fox
Published: 19 April 2007
Coming as he did from a such strong background of Republicanism, it might have been no surprise that one of the five I.R.A. men stopped on the road between Lifford and Castlefin with five machine guns, 800 rounds of ammunition and a quantity of gelignite in their possession was Letterkenny man Pat Dawson.
The Garda patrol that hailed down their vehicle comprised of just two members of the force and while all of Dawson's fellow Republicans were from outside Donegal, there was probably enough of a finger of suspicion pointing in the direction of the local representative even without the horde of hardware on board.
"They took all our names and asked us to escort them to Lifford Garda Station. It would have been very easy for us to overpower them, no problem whatsoever, but there were very strict orders. There was to be no action on this side of the border, neither Gardai or Army were to be interferred with so we stuck strictly to that but we would have got away if we had wanted to," remembers Pat who was born in the Rosemount area of Letterkenny and raised in Mount Southwell.
It was April 13th, 1957, five months into the I.R.A. border campaign of 1956-1962 and actions were continuing against the British occupying forces. Pat and his colleagues, including Gerry McCarthy, Vincent Conlon, Larry Batson and a man called Lynch from Dublin, were on route to Letterkenny when they were stopped and questioned.
Army and Garda personnel had arrived in Lifford when the five suspects were brought to the local Garda Station. Among them were Superintendent Tom Kelly and Detective Sergeant Patrick McLaughlin from Malin who was later to become Commissioner of the Gardai.
"Pat was interrogating me and he said "we're two Donegal men, I'll ask you questions and you'll only tell me lies." And I said, no, I'll not tell you anything because I'm not going to speak to you. He said he was interested in the detection of crime and the solving of crime. He wasn't interested in this border trouble. So we shook hands and had a smoke."
Later, Pat Dawson attempted to burn a little piece of paper in the fire in one of the rooms at Lifford Station. "As I made for the fire, two Gardai pounced on me and flattened me to the ground. One of them, I think, put a revolver to the back of my head. And Tom Kelly, the Superintendent, roared: "get up of that man and leave him alone".
Eventually the five I.R.A. men were taken to Letterkenny Garda Station where Dawson came in contact with another familiar face. "Sergeant McDaid said to me he knew me well and the family. 'Come on up to the wife and come down again in the morning, he said to me. And I said, 'if I get out that door, I'm not coming back again. 'Ah, Christ, you can't do that', he said. And I said, 'look if I can escape from here, I will. I'm not giving my word on anything else.' So he apologised then, and said he'd have to lock us up. So they threw mattresses in one of the day rooms and we stayed there for the night. Sgt. McDaid said, I'm gonna have to put a Guard on this door but everything was very friendly, there was no animosity between us at all."
Pat and his I.R.A. colleagues spent a couple of nights in Mountjoy before returning for the trial. "Gerry McCarthy made a very fiery speech and a very good one and pointed out very clearly that the fight was against the British occupation forces and the weapons were for use against the British occupation forces, not against any power of the State. We were, he said, fighting for our children and our childrens' children. The whole court erupted, clapping and cheering, so Judge Larkin said, 'anymore and I'll clear this courthouse.'
"There was a massive crowd outside with people cheering us and throwing cigarettes and sweets into the patrol car. On the way from the Garda barracks to the court, I wasn't handcuffed because I was the local fellow. But on the way from the courthouse to Dublin, I was handcuffed and I remember they were tearing my wrists at the time.
"I remember too at the Garda barracks, these two men arrived who were involving in building the Letterkenny hospital armed with massive boxes full of sweets, fruit and cigarettes. All the boys working at the building of the hospital had gathered up some money and that's what they bought us."
The court handed down a three months prison sentence and on the way to Mountjoy, Detective Sergeant McLaughlin stopped the convoy in Longford and bought the jail bound five fish and chips.'Take this now, boys, because you'll get nothing in the 'Joy,' he told us.
Upon arriving at the jail, Pat left his small bundle of personal belongings on the floor and was immediately ordered by a Prison Warden to pick it up. "Do you realise you're in prison, turn your back on that and it'll be gone!', " he said to me.
The entire D Wing at the 'Joy was confined to the eighty or so Republican prisoners. Dawson's colleague, McCarthy, was elected O.C. with the result that the Letterkenny man was privy to the information that others may not have been.
"It wasn't exactly a picnic. The food was terrible - "I saw better given to pigs" - and the conditions were desperate. The beds were very poor and there was a spot in the corner where you did what you had to do. You slopped out in the morning and washed your utensils in cold water. McCarthy kicked up a row and said we needed boiling water.
"One fellow had a nervous breakdown so two of us were asked to volunteer to stay with him and the only cell that held three people was the condemned cell. Me and a fellow called Nolan from Dublin volunteered to stay in the condemned cell."
Knowledge is power, however, and the fact that a warder from Clare knew Pat's uncle Jim Dawson who was Superintendent there helped to fill hungry bellies. "He smuggled sausages and bacon into us and we fried them in this tin lid and we sat in the dark eating them. We could hear a fellow in the cell next to us shouting: 'Whose frying the bloody sausages?"
Another warder on duty Joe Sweeney from Burtonport said he knew Pat's father, Mick, and subsequently provided the Letterkenny prisoner with a welcome cup of tea in a real cup.
Eventually Interment came in and all of the Republican prisoners were taken to the glass house, visitors prison, in the Curragh and stopped for one or two nights there.
After they were bound for the Curragh interment camp. "Thomas McCurtain, son of the murdered Lord Mayor of Cork, was our OC. We were asked to work by kneeling to wash the floor and holding our feet up off the ground. So Thomas said we are political prisoners, we're not going to work."
A batch of military policemen were sent in but in the end a solution was worked out.
They were hard times but they were also times of good humour. "The 180 fellows I was with in the Curragh were the best bunch of fellows I was ever with. You might have seen an argument but you never saw a fight. If a fellow was in bother, you went to help him out. Republicans weren't anti-church or anti-religion by no manner of means." Pat himself was part of the Legion of Mary and they sold little religious goods to the men in the camps, crosses, rosary beads and prayer books, bought in by the spiritual director, Fr. McGurk. "A number of us were refused absolution because the priest said we were members of an illegal organisation. I said I was never a member of an illegal organisation. I said, I didn't know being a political prisoner was a sin.
"Fr. McGurk was told to have no association with us and he got out as spiritual director and I understand he went to Africa.
A new priest came in and didn't have any association with us at all. It turned a lot of fellows in the Republican movement against the church."
There was always, of course, thoughts of getting out before the scheduled time. One section of the camp organised football matches and it was arranged there was going to be an escape. "Two grass mats were made and Rory O Bradaigh and Dave O'Connell were covered with them. There was no defence around the pitch, just barbed wire. We all went backways and forwards and they couldn't keep account of us and the two fellas escaped.
"Shortly after that I got paroled because there was a problem at home with a site on the High Road and people interfering with it.
Then I was questioned by the branch, was it Rory O Bradaigh and Dave O'Connell I was talking to in my aunt's house in Castle Street? No, it wasn't," I said.
Pat recalls been given a paper to sign by his uncle Jim Dawson which demanded that the prisoner have nothing more to do with the Republican movement. "If you signed it you got released. I stood up to leave and he said sit down, you bad tempered little so and so. Years later, he said to me, as a policeman I had to ask you to sign it but I was equally as proud of you that you didn't because you knew what you were doing"
The Letterkenny man fell victim to the infamous flu in 1957. "I remember waking up in the hospital ward but I didn't remember getting there. The humour did help us but the conditions were bad. There was 80 in a hut lying on boards, at arms length from one another. There were two toilets for 80 men in the camp."
On the I.R.A.'s border campaign which ran until 1962, Pat admitted to experiencing some measure of tension on any of the operations he embarked on. "But once you got there to do what had to be done, the fear left you."
He came close on one or two occasions but says: "Thank God, I never had to shoot anybody. We were told if anybody stops you, you shoot him. Bombing operations were different. Somebody might get hurt in them but you weren't out to kill anybody. But to shoot anyone in cold blood, it's a very hard thing to do."
So was he active after his release from the Curragh at the end of November, 1959? "The rules were, when a man goes to prison and when he's released, he has to report to the OC and say I'm now available for active service. And if you didn't go back, it was assumed you weren't going to be an active person."
The I.R.A. of the time were fighting a gentlemanly war, insisted Pat. "We weren't a true guerrilla force but we did what we had to do. You didn't agree with everything that happened but in war things do happen.
"I never agreed with going into a man's house and shooting him dead. I didn't agree with a man being shot in front of his family. If a man was shot in an ambush or in setting a booby trap that was different and you were entitled to defend yourself. But I don't think anybody with a conscious could agree with everything that happens in a war situation."