Garda to posthumously receive Scott Medal almost 40 years after being shot by Provisional IRA

Detective Gda Donal Kelleher seriously injured during rescue of Don Tidey at Derrada Woods in 1983

The Irish security forces came face-to-face with the ruthlessness of the Provisional IRA at an isolated wood outside Ballinamore, Co Leitrim in December 1983.

A gang, which had kidnapped the Quinnsworth chief executive Don Tidey 23 days earlier from near his home in Woodtown, Co Dublin, responded to the discovery of their hideout in Derrada Wood by shooting dead without warning Recruit Garda Gary Sheehan and Private Patrick Kelly.

They then took seven soldiers and gardaí hostage and marched them across a field out of the area, before doubling back and picking up, at a nearby farmyard, a blue Opel Kadett car with the keys in the ignition.

Det Gda Donal Kelleher was standing on a laneway near a ditch with Mr Tidey, who had made his own escape, alongside Det Insp Bill Somers and Det Sgt Nacie Rice. They could hear the car coming at them at speed. Initially they thought it might be an unmarked garda car. In an instant one of the gunmen opened up with a rifle from the back left-hand passenger window.


Det Gda Kelleher was hit by a bullet in both legs which passed through his left into his right and lodged in his thigh. It was millimetres away from a main artery.

The gang continued to spray the gardaí with gunfire narrowly avoiding Mr Tidey. They abandoned their car at a garda checkpoint and made off on foot, firing at gardaí as they fled. When Detective Superintendent Somers went home that evening he found five separate bullet tears in his jacket.

Nobody was prosecuted for the murders of Recruit Garda Sheehan or Private Kelly. Their funerals were national occasions attended by the Taoiseach and president of the day and there was a ferocious backlash against the Provisional IRA in the Republic. The organisation had sought a ransom of IR£5 million from Mr Tidey’s employer Associated British Foods (ABF), the owners of Quinnsworth, but neither the British nor Irish governments would allow a ransom to be paid.

The Government contemplated banning Sinn Féin as a result of Derrada Wood, but decided that such a move might be counterproductive.

Det Gda Kelleher was 29 when he was shot. His youngest child Lesley had been born just five weeks previously. A long and painful rehabilitation began at the Mater hospital before returning to duty, but the psychological trauma took longer to heal. He resumed a long and rewarding career, rising to the rank of sergeant, before eventually retiring in 2009. In 2016 he developed a rare form of male breast cancer, but recovered and became an assiduous fundraiser for cancer charities.

On September 24th, 2021 14 gardaí, who had been involved in the events of Derrada Wood, were finally awarded Scott Medals at a ceremony in Dublin Castle. Gary Sheehan was posthumously awarded a gold medal, the highest honour.

Conspicuous by his absence from the medal ceremony was Mr Kelleher. After 38 years since the events of Derrada Wood, he had not expected nor sought a medal for his actions. It came as a profound shock though that he had been excluded despite being seriously wounded by the Provisional IRA.

“The huge media attention surrounding the medal ceremony brought back so many memories that had been suppressed since the event. For the first time he began to share those memories with those closest to him,” his widow Caroline recalled.

“He would dearly have loved to have had the opportunity to celebrate with those same colleagues and friends with whom he shared the experience, to relieve those memories in much happier circumstances and finally get closure on those events.

“Over the years Donal had also kept in contact with many of the classmates of the late Garda Gary Sheehan and again would have loved the opportunity to meet and congratulate Gary’s mother and commemorate her son on that occasion.”

Following the ceremony Mr Kelleher contacted Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and asked him to outline why his actions on the day of December 16th, 1983 did not merit consideration for inclusion in the ceremony along with his other colleagues.

The response from the commissioner’s office at the time was non-committal. It gave a history of the Scott Medal, the reasons for awarding it, but not the reasons why he had been excluded.

Mr Kelleher was also aggrieved not to have been invited to the award ceremony. He found out about it through Mr Tidey. Over the years they had developed a close bond. They last spoke by phone on the 39th anniversary of the events of that bloody day in Derrada Wood and planned to meet up early in the new year.

Unfortunately in early January the cancer returned aggressively and Mr Kelleher died on February 4th this year. He was 68.

Mr Kelleher’s family maintain it has never been about the medal, but, in excluding him while including 14 colleagues, it was tantamount to blaming him for his own injuries and suggesting he had not discharged his duties properly.

This Friday he will receive a posthumous bronze Scott Medal at a ceremony in Walter Scott House in Dublin. A garda spokesman said an internal review of his case had been undertaken and a decision to finally award him a Scott Medal was made before Mr Kelleher died, but unfortunately was not conveyed to him in time.

Caroline Kelleher will accept it on behalf of her late husband. It was a tough decision for her given what he had been through, but she feels it is the right thing to do for her and for her family.

On Friday Caroline will attend along with the couple’s two children, Daniel and Lesley, their daughter-in-law Nikkie, son-in-law Mark, grandchildren Mae, Billy and Danny and Mr Kelleher’s brother James and sisters Margaret and Marie.

Caroline Kelleher admits it will be a “bittersweet” day for all of them as they are still grieving since his death in February. “Donal was indeed immensely proud to be a member of An Garda Síochána – it is therefore such a pity that he did not live long enough to see An Garda Síochána was equally as proud and to finally honour him.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times