Belfast Telegraph

Former RUC man's 80,000 mile pilgrimage to honour 303 fallen comrades

It was while visiting the grave of his murdered father that retired RUC officer Ian Forbes decided to pay homage to him and his fallen colleagues, writes Mark Bain

Former RUC officer Ian Forbes, who has been presented with the RUC George Cross certificate of Appreciation
Former RUC officer Ian Forbes, who has been presented with the RUC George Cross certificate of Appreciation
Ian Forbes MBE
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Every summer, Ian Forbes MBE and his late wife Carrie would make the trip to Co Cavan to visit the grave of his father. Proud of his father TJ (Thomas) Forbes, an RUC officer murdered in Dungannon in 1942, Ian, like so many in his family, followed his footsteps into the police.

The Donaghadee man served proudly for 30 years before retiring in 1988, but the RUC still runs in his blood.

His 'marriage' to the service is lifelong and now, even at 86-years-old, the pride shines through.

So much so, that since 2010 Ian has been travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, visiting, photographing and documenting the graves of every RUC officer murdered in the line of duty.

"I didn't want any of them to be forgotten," he says simply.

And 80,000 miles later, 303 graves visited and photographed, Ian has paid tribute to his fallen colleagues in the best way he knows how - by making sure their names will live on.

"My father joined the RIC in 1921, then transferred to the newly-formed RUC in 1922, so my family have been involved from the very start," he says.

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"He was stationed in Rosslea and met my mother at a gospel meeting. My mum and her girlfriend used to cycle across the border to meet him and another officer.

"One night the IRA stopped them on the road and told them if they were caught seeing the police they'd be tarred and feathered. My mum knew her way through the fields and still went over - and eventually they married."

In 1942, Thomas was stationed in Dungannon when he became the fourth RUC officer to be murdered, leaving Ian's mother on her own to bring up 10 children.

"My father was shot and wounded on Good Friday 1942, April 4. He died four days later. I was nine-years-old," Ian recalls.

"My younger brother and me had to stay in a police officer's house for the funeral, but we escaped and stood in Irish Street, Dungannon to watch his coffin pass."

Like most families, the grave in Cavan was well tended and every summer Ian and his wife made the pilgrimage to visit.

Ian pausing to look at his father’s name as one the police officers killed during the Troubles while visiting the RUC memorial garden
Ian pausing to look at his father’s name as one the police officers killed during the Troubles while visiting the RUC memorial garden

And it was in that peaceful Co Cavan churchyard that Ian hatched the plan which has seen him visit all the graves of the RUC officers murdered in service.

"I felt my father had been forgotten by everyone apart from his family and I realised that all the murdered officers had also been largely forgotten," he says.

That was in 2010, and so began a personal crusade to honour each and every one of his murdered colleagues.

The result is a testament to Ian's dedication to the RUC family which shows no sign of ending.

"I've driven about 80,000 miles," says Ian, the pride in his achievement again shining through.

"I'm not afraid to say I cried at quite a few gravesides."

As he flicks through four volumes of photographs and information gathered over the years, he casually stops at names. Ask Ian about the officer and he'll tell you the individual story.

"Sergeant David Dorsett, an ex-royal navy officer, stationed in Ardglass when I was in Downpatrick," he says. "We used to go out fishing at weekends.

"David and a young constable were coming out of Victoria barracks in Londonderry, blown to smithereens.

Ian being presented with the RUC George Cross Certificate of Appreciation by Stephen White, the chairman of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC Foundation
Ian being presented with the RUC George Cross Certificate of Appreciation by Stephen White, the chairman of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC Foundation

"That one took a lot out of me.

"I didn't want anyone to forget him. I would like people to know what officers like David did for us.

"The first policeman to be murdered, John Ryan from Thurles, Tipperary, was the last one I visited. One of only two my wife didn't come with me to.

"She had bad problems with her back. I didn't want her to go on such a long journey.

"The other grave was in Bellaghy, a young reserve constable, Clifford Evans.

"I knew Dominic McGlinchey and his family were from Bellaghy and he had been one of the top gunners in the IRA. I didn't want Carrie in danger."

But Ian and his family had faced danger before - and in January 1973 they had been lucky to escape with their lives.

"I was off work at the time through anxiety," he recalls. "I'd been to an incident at Downpatrick racecourse, where the IRA had planted a bomb at the stand, a tonne of explosives. The two IRA boys were killed, and we had to go through everything with bare hands. That affected me. I finished up in hospital with chest pains, stress and anxiety and I was off for a few months.

"My wife said I could do with a night out, so we got my mother-in-law to babysit our two girls and went to Newcastle for the evening.

"I remember feeling that I'd been followed. I saw a chap I thought I knew from Downpatrick while we were out. He walked across the road to a phone box, but Carrie thought I was seeing things.

"We headed home and after I'd put the car in the garage at our bungalow in Downpatrick the shooting started.

"I was shot twice, once in the hip and once just past the heart.

"My young daughters were sleeping in a room at the front of the house and the youngest, Wendy, was hit twice. She was nine-years-old and I was 40, the same age as me and my father when he was murdered.

"My wife ran out into the line of fire. Two bullets passed through her dress before the shooting stopped. The house was hit 26 times."

It was during the court case against the men who had attempted to murder him that Ian realised why the face of one of the men was so familiar.

"The judge asked me to bring my daughter in so he could see who this man had shot. He looked at Wendy and nodded his head sadly, couldn't get over it.

"The boy who did it was in the dock, smirking and smiling. I know that when the case was over and he was walking out over to the prison, he was crying his eyes out.

"I remembered him - I know he was the young man who I managed to get off a stealing charge with a caution. I remember telling my chief inspector he wasn't a bad lad," he says.

"I got him off with that, yet he was the boy trying to shoot me in the head. My poor late wife never got over it. She was a very strong person, you had to be, but that was one thing that got to her."

That brush with death only served to strengthen Ian's bond with his RUC family - and when they turned 18, both his daughters joined.

"To see both Wendy and her older sister Jean join the RUC made me the proudest father," he says.

"In my years, I reckon 15-16 members of the family have been in the RUC.

"Two of my brothers, three of my sisters, lots of nephews and nieces. We were that sort of family. Proud to serve. Proud to do our duty for the community.

"Looking back at all the names, all the graves, I do wonder what was it all for?

"There are so many sad stories, so many families who suffered terribly, yet the RUC is still getting a bad name, called the 'bully boys'. That saddens me.

"I met so many good people, so many good friends and lost so many good friends too."

Yesterday, Ian was back at police HQ, accepting the thanks of the RUC George Cross Foundation for his efforts in remembering fallen colleagues, wearing his medals with pride as he was presented with a certificate by former ACC Stephen White.

"I served when you weren't able to tell your children you were in the police. You were a civil servant and that was it. Sad times, but times and good people I did not want to be forgotten," he says.

"I was turned down twice by the RUC for not having the proper chest measurements.

"But I did my exercises and finally joined on July 21, 1958 and I'll be an RUC man to the day I go to my grave."

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