FULL INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MCKENNA (01/06/21)
JOHNO’BRIEN (INTERVIEWER): It is 1st June 2021 and I am speaking with retired Superintendent Michael McKenna, 17132 H. Today we are particularly speaking about the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, but in Michael’s case the Dublin bombings on 17th May 1974 and his experience of that. I have also explained to Michael that in connection with the oral history project of the GSRMA any information that is exchanged today will not be used until such time as Michael has had an opportunity of reviewing what was said and making sure that he is happy with that. Now we know from our previous conversation that Michael joined the Guards in December 1967 and following training went to Fitzgibbon Street, which is in North Dublin Inner City. I think, Michael, you did beat duty. Of course you also did something that nobody sees in Dublin or on the streets any more, you were doing point duty as well at the Parnell Monument –
MICHAEL MCKENNA: That is right, yeah.
MR. O’BRIEN: At the top of O’Connell Street. Maybe talk to us a bit about what it was like to be working in Dublin around that time, you know, 1974, what was happening on the streets, and then we can move on to the bombing in Parnell Street.
MR. McKENNA: In 1974 Dublin was a busy city but not that much crime, not that many incidents occurring. In ’74 itself there had been loads of bomb explosions in Northern Ireland and when you come down to the South of Ireland then there were people ringing up with bomb-scares. Around O’Connell Street where I would have been doing the traffic points there would have been lots of bomb scares for various hotels in cars, and things like that, and on occasion I would have to close off the whole street. For that purpose I had a load of barriers at the junction of Parnell Street/O’Connell Street and whenever I would get a call on the radio I would just pull them across and redirect the traffic away from wherever the bomb scare was. [Short break in recording]
Prior to the bomb detonation
The Monument, I had taken up duty at 2 o’clock, I had been appointed as a traffic points manager a year previous to that and I directed the traffic out of Parnell Street and I directed traffic down Parnell Square at 5.30pm.
MR. O’BRIEN: The streets would have been busy at that stage, Michael, do you know, it was the end of the
MR. McKENNA: There was loads of people, yeah, there would have been loads of people around. There had been a bus strike so most people were walking, there wasn’t that many getting buses. When I was directing the traffic there I directed the traffic out of Parnell Square and stopped it. Then I turned to direct traffic from Parnell Street. I looked at my watch and it was 5.30pm and just as I directed the traffic out of Parnell Street a massive explosion took place up near the Welcome Inn. I saw the explosion burst out with flames from the top of it, kind of blue or white smoke, and the whole place went quiet for just a few seconds, a second, and then the whole devastation of glass breaking and people falling and injured.
The bomb scene
I saw a gentlemen just up the road from me, he had been talking to people in the Venetian Cafe and he fell, I saw him fall, and the family came running out to help him. I pulled the barriers across to block off any traffic from coming in to the street and I made my way up Parnell Street to see if could help people. The area was covered with glass from all of the windows in the area. I directed the traffic out of Parnell Street to get rid of it all. Then I met people who were injured, not too badly, mostly suffering from shock and cuts, I directed them to wait at the Parnell Street/O’Connell Street junction so maybe an ambulance would arrive to take them to hospital. I then saw a man lying beside the Fiat car, this was the chap who was chatting to the people in the Venetian Cafe, I think it was his family, there was an injury to the back of his head, he was assisted by a man who had first aid knowledge so I moved further up the street. I found two men lying on their own near the footpath beside the Volkswagen car, one had a head injury and appeared to be unconscious, the other man was conscious, he had a hand wound and appeared to be bleeding from the neck. I used my armlets to try and stop the flow of blood and he was suffering from shock and complained of a pain in his leg. There were also two bodies
MR. O’BRIEN: Michael, just so that people will know, the armlets you were referring to were the white armlets that you wore.
MR. McKENNA: They were white armlets and gloves, yeah, white gloves and armlets that you wore to direct the traffic.
MR. O’BRIEN: Sure.
MR. McKENNA: There were also two bodies lying on the footpath near the garage door and they appeared to be dead. The ambulance and fire brigade arrived reasonably quickly and I saw a body inside in the garage and then all of the injured and all the people were taken away.
Prior to the ambulances and things arriving, people on the street itself were very good, they all rushed out to help people who were injured and try and help people who were lying on the ground. The whole place, as I say, was in chaos and turmoil.
MR. O’BRIEN: Michael, if I may interrupt, you would have known some of the people who had businesses on the street and some of the restaurant owners from your familiarity with the streets?
Casualties Personally know to Mr McKenna.
MR. McKENNA: Yeah, I would have known people more to see than to talk to but most people knew who I was and I knew who they were and where their businesses were. As I say there was a [short break in recording] and his two young sons were seriously injured in the Parnell Street bombing and I met one of the sons after at the inquest many years later and he was able to tell me, he said: ‘My uncle nearly knocked you down, he drove like a lunatic with myself and me brother’ they were both badly injured ‘to the Jervis Street Hospital’ and he ‘he nearly knocked you down.’ I did remember a red van flying by me, all right, but I knew it hadn’t come that close to me but the chap thought it had. They were taken off to hospital. They recovered but they were still suffering from injuries many, many years later.
MR. O’BRIEN: You knew some Italian families there as well I think, Michael?
MR. McKENNA: The Italian chap was Antonio Magliocco and he was hit with debris from the bomb and he fell to the ground and his family, or parents, I think his brother might have owned the Venetian Cafe.
MR. O’BRIEN: He was killed obviously, Antonio was killed, yeah.
MR. McKENNA: Yeah. He died in the thing as well. I would say he was still alive for a short time. He was a native of a place in Italy and he was killed more or less instantly, I would say, he was with his brother in the restaurant, his wife and family moved back to Italy years after his death but his brother and sisters remained in Ireland. It was an horrific event. I never experienced anything ever like it since and I wouldn’t ever like to see it again. I know on occasions when I hear of bombs exploding anywhere in the world or even here in Ireland when they were exploding in Ireland I could still remember, I could still see the Parnell Street bomb explode. I think there were over ten people killed in Parnell Street and many were injured. Then of course there was a lot of people killed and injured in Talbot Street and South Leinster Street and in Monaghan. The loss to the families was terrible because people went out that day to do shopping, or whatever they were going to do, going about their business and suddenly 33 people never came home, and that was horrific for the families of those people.
MR. O’BRIEN: You were so close, Michael, yourself to the seat of the explosion. Most of us, most Gardaí would arrive in response to something like that but you were physically almost present where that car exploded?
MR. McKENNA: That is right. I got a ferocious shock when it went off and the ground shook under me. As I said there earlier there was a silence for what I thought was, it obviously wasn’t, I thought there was a dead silence for a second when the bomb exploded and then there was devastation and carnage, windows and people falling and the injuries to everybody that followed the explosion with no warning given to anybody. It was a terrible event and really horrific for the families of the people and for anybody that was in the street that day. I know myself I was shocked by the whole thing, it took me a long time to get over it you know. I suppose we were probably lucky that there was a bus strike that day because if there hadn’t been a bus strike Parnell Street would have been jammed with people, a lot of people would have been heading out towards Glasnevin and Finglas at that time and the street used to be crowded at 5.30pm but because of the bus strike it wasn’t as full as it would be. I mean the explosion of that bomb was totally unjustified, you know, it actually targeted innocent civilians and innocent people passing by.
MR. O’BRIEN: Absolutely. In the days following, Michael, were you involved in any way in the follow up to the bomb explosions?
MR. McKENNA: Other than that I just noted the damage in the area to all of the buildings around Parnell Street and Parnell Square and the different side streets. When I had done all of that then I was able to go home. That would have been a couple of hours after the explosion.
Lack of psychological support in the aftermath.
I know that the only two people who ever asked me was I okay were two sergeants, that was Sergeant Michael Brennan and PJ McDermott. No senior officer ever asked me was I okay or did I have any problems. Of course at that time there was no peer supporters or welfare officers, or anything, you just got on with the job and that was it. The only thanks I ever received for my help with the victims that day came at the inquest in 2004 when the Justice For the Forgotten counsel thanked me for my assistance to the people who were injured and some of them who had died on that day.
MR. O’BRIEN: That, I am afraid, is a familiar tale as well, as you say there was no peer support then and, okay, two sergeants who obviously had enough understanding to talk to you was important? I also understand that your wife was working in Dublin at the time, surely that must have been a worry as well?
MR. McKENNA: That is right. She had been working in Dublin and of course I was hoping that she wasn’t involved in anything. She had been I think down somewhere around O’Connell Street when somebody came running down saying there was a bomb in Parnell Street. She got an awful shock because she knew I was directing traffic at the Parnell Monument. She was with her friend so they both made their way home to Swords, where we lived, in Swords they went in to the Garda Station in Swords because she was worried about me and they asked the guard there and he was able to say that as far as he was aware there was no guard injured or killed in the explosion. So it took a little bit [short break in recording]. She was originally from Thurles and she moved to Dublin and she was killed in the Parnell Street explosion as well. She worked in the Income Tax Office. As I say it was another shock then to find out that you knew someone who was killed you know.
The O’Brien family victims and personal sorrow.
What really hurt me the most, and I feel terrible sorrow for all the people who were killed in all of the explosions, but I feel a great affinity to the O’Brien family who were just walking by the car when it exploded, it was John O’Brien, who was only 24, Anna, was only 22, and their two daughters, Jacqueline I think was 16/17 months and Ann Marie was four months. To think that they had a lovely afternoon and walking down towards O’Connell Street and they were just killed in an instant when that bomb exploded. I think the only, what would I call it, sorrow, it is not sympathy, but the only
MR. O’BRIEN: Satisfaction?
MR. McKENNA: feeling some of the families had was the fact that they feel that they don’t think they ever knew what hit them, you know that they didn’t suffer, they were there one minute and they were gone the next.
MR. O’BRIEN: As you say, Michael, that poor family were wiped out in the blink of an eye, in the blink of an eye.
MR. McKENNA: It was totally horrific. How anybody could justify setting off a bomb to do that to anybody, to wipe out that little family how they could even feel joy or anything like that after their successful operation it was horrific. There could be no excuse for killing a little family like that or any of the other victims either. Lots of people I know, from talking to some of the people, mothers and fathers that never got over the killing of their children, wives that never got over the death of their husband or the husband that never got over the death of a wife. I know some died fairly soon after when their wife was killed.
MR. O’BRIEN: Michael, just because I think you alluded to it there, in subsequent years you were in contact with the survivors and with their families and you developed a relationship with them?
Relationship with survivors and families
MR. McKENNA: That’s right. I used to go every year, they used to have a mass in the Pro-Cathedral and then they built the memorial in Talbot Street so they would have a memorial service at the memorial in Talbot Street and then they would have a mass in the Pro-Cathedral and on occasions they had it in Gardiner Street. I used to go to all of those masses whenever I could when I was working, I wouldn’t have been able to go every year. Since I have retired I have gone every year and I have met with the people who are part of the Justice For the Forgotten, who want to find out what happened and why it happened and who was involved. I got to know them and I found them to be lovely people. All they want to know is what happened to their loved ones, who caused it and was there any State involvement. People seem to think that the loyalists at the time didn’t have the capacity to build those type of bombs because apparently every bomb that exploded every bit of them exploded, they think that there may have been collusion with State forces, British State forces. We don’t know. We never got to the bottom of that. The British Government have never released papers or documents in relation to it.
They have been trying to get them to release documents all right but they still haven’t done so.
MR. O’BRIEN: Michael, in terms of your own kind of personal recollections of it obviously you think of it every May but I am sure you think of it at other times as well?
MR. McKENNA: Oh I do indeed, yeah. I would say a prayer for the victims every day, I always keep them in my mind. As I say every year I would go to the memorial service. I know at that time I used to go in to Fortes Cafe for my tea at the break time when I would be relieved and when they looked out after the bomb exploded, they looked out and they thought I was killed in the explosion and they couldn’t believe it when I walked in after a couple of hours in to the cafe. The lady in charge put out a big meal in front of me but having seen what I saw, the injuries of people I couldn’t eat it, I just had a cup of tea and a slice of toast. People were very good, you know, they were really kind to each other. It brought out the kindness in people, people rushed to help people who were injured, people rushed to help people who were bleeding. I suppose it was great the comfort that people gave to one another on that occasion.
MR. O’BRIEN: Michael, listen, thank you for sharing those memories, and they are the tough memories of a black day and black events because we know there was two other bomb explosions in Dublin and also one in Monaghan on that same day.
MR. McKENNA: As I said the only people who ever thanked me for my help on the day was the counsel for Justice for the Forgotten, and that was at an inquest, and it was over 30 years later when they held the inquest. I think they were obliged at that stage, they had to hold an inquest. It kept being put off. You know yourself the Guards would look for an adjournment but I think there was some change in the law anyway and they held the inquest. Out of a lot of the investigations into the thing I think the best information they got from all of the various, how would I call it, the Barron Report and the Commission of Investigation, most of the best information they got was from the inquest, the statements from the inquest because a lot of the Garda files, apparently, were lost or missing or somebody might have them but nobody knows where they are.
MR. O’BRIEN: That is correct, Michael, and can I tell you also in connection with this project you share an experience with colleagues that I have already spoken to and their accounts of what they experienced on the day is very similar to yours, although you are the only one of the Garda organisation who was literally at the seat of the bomb explosion.
MR. McKENNA: It was horrific like. I have never seen anything ever and I never want to see anything like it ever again either you know. It brought home to me the suffering that people went through in the North when bombs explode and all about that.
MR. O’BRIEN: Absolutely.
MR. McKENNA: Prior to that it was somewhere else but now this has brought it home and to life you know.
MR. O’BRIEN: Yes, in a direct way. Listen, I want to thank you for sharing your memories of that black day with us. As I said it is important that they record it. It is also noteworthy that the support for yourself and indeed for other Gardaí was not forthcoming at the time other than colleagues understanding.
MR. McKENNA: They are much better now. Back then if you said you weren’t well at that time then you probably would have been let go, you weren’t suffering from stress.
MR. O’BRIEN: A different time thankfully. The other thing that might be good to mention, Michael, is you weren’t actually a stranger to the Guards when you joined the Guards way back in 1967?
Garda Family Background
MR. McKENNA: That is right. My father was a member of An Garda Síochána and he was stationed in Clare first, in Doonbeg, and then he came to Moate. All of my brothers and sisters were born in Doonbeg and I was born in Moate in County Westmeath. My father was a guard there for a good few years. He was a serving Member while I was a serving Member in Fitzgibbon Street before he retired. I could say that I served in the Guards with my father. My son is a guard now as well.
MR. O’BRIEN: So that is three generations, Michael?
MR. McKENNA: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
MR. O’BRIEN: That is a fantastic story and one I am sure that makes you very, very proud. Listen, again to thank you so much and we will be supplying with you a record of our conversation today and you will have an opportunity to look at it and make any comments.
MR. McKENNA: That is great, John, and if anything comes up that you want.