“AG COINNEÁIL Daoine Slán” (keeping people safe) is the motto of An Garda Síochána. In his 30 years on the force, Cathal O’Neill knows all about that.
The retiring Garda Sergeant showed he has the stuff of heroes in him many times over in a career spent mostly in Limerick. Never more so than when he was chasing down and helping bring evil and violent leaders to justice in the drugs war in the city.
He was the recipient of a ‘Just In Time’ Water Safety Ireland Award when he pulled a drowning woman from the River Maigue in Croom in August 2019.
“I saw her going past me and I ran to a spot where I could wade in. I lost my footing but I was able to paddle and grab her as she went past. She was unconscious but they got her help and got her to hospital.”
He made headlines again locally and nationally when ran into a burning building and saved a teenager in February 2003.
Cathal spoke to this reporter 20 years ago and described how he had to battle his way blind through billowing black smoke to find and rescue 14-year-old Jason McNamara after a house had been firebombed.
He was based in Henry Street and on patrol with the emergency response unit a when “we saw smoke coming out of the house and saw flames coming out the window” of the house in Fairgreen Road in Moyross.
Cathal and two other Gardaí rushed into the house and saw the lad standing at the window.
“His brother had forced the door but he couldn’t get in because of the smoke and flames. I crawled up the stairs just trying to feel my way. I had a fair idea where the bedroom was but the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see an inch in front of my face,” he recalled.
The brave Garda reached the terrified lad and lowered him out through a back window, where his colleagues helped get him down before helping Garda O’Neill himself down to safety.
All three then braved the flames to help the boy’s mother out of the building, where the firebomb had landed in the front hall and flames were engulfing the stairs.
In his early career, Garda O’Neill was stationed on border duty before coming to Henry Street in the city, where he served as a detective during the height of the bloody gang warfare.
“They were tough times in the city. The way it reflected on the ordinary people of Limerick at the time was terrible but we came through it in the end.”
Cathal plays down any of his own involvement in winning the streets back from the gangs and says only that there were good members of the force who had the support of the decent people of Limerick.
A further promotion in 2010 saw him take up position as Sergeant in Roxboro Road Garda Station, before later moving to the county to become Sergeant in Charge in Croom.
A Cork man by birth, his love of his adopted city is evident.
“I’d happily sit down in a pub in Limerick and have a pint. It’s a lovely city now and I’ve met some fantastic people working here,” he said.
Still a young man, Cathal is taking his leave of the force with a view to some hard earned down time “to get a bit of winter sun” and to spend time with his wife, Mairead, and adult children Roisin and Cliona.
“And I’m looking forward to my first full Christmas off in the 30 years,” he added.