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Me and the mob... how the American dream turned sour for a Donegal cop

Peter Daly flew the nest at 19, settling in New York as a policeman. Mingling with made men, he became entangled in the city's underworld and served 10 years for corruption. Darragh McManus tells his story.

"The ship (from Ireland) arrived in New York eight days later… gliding past the Statue of Liberty and the array of towering skyscrapers, dominated by the triumphant spire of the Empire State Building. It was a breathtaking sight. To me, there was no greater metropolis than New York City."

These are the words of Peter Daly, rhapsodising about the first view of the New York skyline in his just-released memoir, The 100 Kilo Case. A native of Ballyshannon in Co Donegal, he was just 19 when he left Ireland for a new life Stateside in September 1952.

By the time he returned to his native land, 39 years later, he'd lived a life so full of incident, high drama and outlandish cops 'n' robbers characters that it seemed like something straight out of The Sopranos or Goodfellas rather than reality.

The latter reference is doubly appropriate: in prison Peter became friends with Jimmy Burke, the real-life hood who inspired Robert De Niro's character Jimmy Conway in the classic 1990 gangster flick.

Peter Daley was born in 1933, the eldest of five.

His father was a doctor, who later worked with US forces based in Fermanagh during the Second World War; his mother was a distant relation of the legendary Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley.

She was also, rather aptly, the daughter of a Royal Irish Constabulary man.

Young Peter, bored and restless, couldn't get out of school, and Ireland, quickly enough; he wanted to "see the world".

At 19, he crossed the Atlantic by ship, living first with his uncle in the Bronx and taking big chunks out of the Big Apple: all that excitement, variety, energy, freedom, dancing, glamorous women… even the food, he found, was better.

The work wasn't so good, at least not at the start, as Peter did a succession of tough, unsatisfying manual jobs. He did find time, though, to kick some football for the Donegal Club in the city.

After volunteering for the army in 1953 - military service a fast-track to citizenship at that time - he saw action in the Korean War. Eventually, on returning to the US, he applied to join the New York Police Department in 1961.

In the meantime, he had married childhood sweetheart Rita Moore.

As a patrolman, Peter's beat was Manhattan's Lower East Side. Local ne'er-do-wells nicknamed him 'Dick Tracy' and 'The Hawk', for obvious reasons.

During this period, he made the acquaintance of some shady underworld figures; one of them went by the simultaneously brilliant and terrifying name of 'Mad Dog Frankie Falco'.

Ambitious and industrious, Daly made his way up the ranks; a series of arrests saw him promoted to detective.

Within a decade, he was working with the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

These guys were at the sexier, edgier end of NYC policing: they fought against organised crime, the narcotics trade, the big players. The unit was also suspected of being prone to corruption.

In April 1970, the SIU discovered an enormous stash of cocaine and heroin in an apartment on West 19th Street.

The total weight of the haul was at least 105kg (some later said that it was closer to 110kg) - but only 100kg was returned to the evidence lock-up. Peter Daly and some of his comrades had kept the "missing" five kilos, divided it and sold it.

The bust was initially praised by public and media, but the finger of suspicion started wagging in Peter's direction.

His problem was exacerbated by a campaign, led by future presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani, to stamp out corruption in the NYPD. Daly's own partner, Carl Aguillez, was an informer.

With the seriousness of his situation increasingly evident, and following a bad car accident in 1973, he fled to Ireland, which had no extradition to the US.

However - bringing us back to that prologue - a family visit to the UK during Christmas 1974 saw Peter arrested by British police and shipped back to America.

In May 1975, he faced a New York grand jury on 12 charges, ranging from robbery to drug dealing to attempting to bribe fellow officers - and he kept schtum.

The book features a quote from a former NYPD detective: "Part of being honourable is the capacity to fall, without taking others with you… (and) not repeat things that may be damaging to others."

Peter seems to have taken this to heart. To protect his colleagues in the SIU, he took the rap.

Others had co-operated with the investigation and avoided prison; Peter was offered the same deal but "pleaded the Fifth" and was sent down for 10 years for corruption.

He served five years in the Louisburgh Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

There he fell under the watchful eye, and life-saving protection, of Irish and Italian gangsters: he shared a cell with Brooklyn don Tommy di Bella and became pals with the aforementioned Jimmy Burke, Henry Hill and Paulie Vario, on whom the Goodfellas character 'Fat Paulie' was based. They nicknamed him The Quiet Man for refusing to snitch. He writes: "To the mobsters, I was a stand-up guy."

Released on parole in 1979, Peter first stayed in a halfway house - there he met two of the men who had pulled off the infamous Lufthansa robbery at JFK Airport the year before - then spent time in Minneapolis.

Following a messy divorce from Rita he resolved to move home to Donegal in 1981, though he would make occasional visits back to Manhattan. In 2013, a dinner was held in his honour by retired SIU and narcotics detectives. He settled in the coastal village of Rossnowlagh and kept his head down.

Over the years, Peter became involved in community issues, including the Come Back to Erin campaign for the diaspora, a sort of precursor to The Gathering.

The local people accepted him as a returned emigrant himself; they didn't ask about the rumours of corruption, and The Quiet Man wasn't telling.

Daly's life has also been the subject of an RTÉ radio documentary, Good Cop/Bad Cop. Now comes this memoir, based on notes he scribbled down in the early 1980s, essentially as a form of self-psychoanalysis - at the time Peter suffered from insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

At 83 years of age, his mind remains as sharp as ever.

While written in that vaguely flat style you find in many autobiographies, the story itself is bizarre, dramatic, often funny, and never less than compelling.

Peter Daly was a corrupt cop, who was disgraced and shamed... and also a man who paid a high price.

But in many important ways, he has redeemed himself, too.

  • The 100 Kilo Case by Peter Daly with James Durney is published by Hachette Books Ireland priced at £13.99

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