From Ireland to Newfoundland: The Irish Boxer becomes a Mountie, The James Prendergast Story
There are a lot of similarities between Newfoundland and Ireland: the rugged coastline, the ability to speak at the speed of lightning, the quick humour and the need to dance every time we hear a tune played on a fiddle. Many Newfoundlanders proudly trace their roots back to the home country. So, it was an obvious choice for Jim Prendergast, an Irishman from the small village of Accony, Louisburgh, County Mayo to pick Newfoundland as a posting in 1958.
Now eighty-seven years old, he is still the quick-witted Irishman he always was and still loves a chance to make you laugh. He started our conversation by saying, “Let me tell you a funny story.” Then with a smile and a twinkle in his eye he continued. “My uncle was an archdeacon (senior clergy) in the Catholic Church, and he used to come and visit our humble homestead in our village. He was a very domineering gentleman who would ask in a booming voice, ‘And how is everybody here now.’ This particular day he came to visit, and he asked, ‘Now James you bear the name of your father, who is a great man and I can see you’re going to school, so what are you best at in school?’” And just like that Jim answered, “Fighting, Father.” After a talk with his father he realized that it was not the expected answer, but maybe it foreshadowed his short career as a boxer.
In 1950, at the age of 18, he moved to England where he worked in construction before spending three years working with London Transport. A natural athlete, he spent his spare time as a middle-weight boxer with the CAV Boxing Club, a Gaelic football player with the Shannon Rangers, and a member of the Firestone Tire Tug-of-war team that took 2nd place in the British national Championship. He was an accomplished and well-trained boxer. He recalls one-night boxing in London when he felt he had won his match but it was awarded to his opponent. He asked his coach why he lost and was told, “Paddy, (many of the English at the time referred to all Irishmen as Paddy), look around you at the parents of all those competitors. You’re boxing an Englishman in England. You don’t expect to win, do you?” True to that lesson, his greatest boxing success didn’t come until a few years later, after his return to Ireland where he joined the Phoenix Boxing Club and became runner-up in the Irish Junior National Championships.
He was still in London when he heard that the Irish police force, the Garda Siochana, was actively recruiting and he jumped at the opportunity. “I loved the idea of becoming a policeman and I loved Ireland,” he reminisces. “I wanted to go home.” He passed the exam and became an Irish Garda in November 1955 where he served in Dublin for three years.
The Garda Siochana (the Garda) had been formed by the government in February 1922 to take over the responsibility of policing the fledgling Irish Free State, taking over from the Royal Irish Constabulary. It was 1955 and Ireland was still recovering from the three-year Irish War of Independence between the forces of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and British Crown forces. The Irish people were still weary from World War II.
Jim started his policing career just as the Resistance Campaign began. It was a guerrilla warfare campaign carried out by the IRA with the aim of overthrowing British rule and creating a united Ireland, and Gardai were expected to prevent Irish rebels from joining the IRA. He didn’t see a lot of gunfire though. On night shift they would be issued a revolver which had to be locked up in the vehicle together with a cloth pouch with five bullets in it. They were never used. As one supervisor cautioned, “Be careful with those bullets because they were issued in 1921.”
Jim estimates that his pay in those days was approximately four pounds per week. Government refused to increase the wages and benefits of the Garda and they were not allowed to form a union or association. The older members of the Garda believed that as long as there was a trained backlog of police officers ready to join, they would have no bargaining chip with government. They encouraged younger members to join police forces in such places as Africa, Australia, the United States and Canada as well as the UN Peacekeepers, all of which were heavily recruiting in Ireland. They hoped that this would put pressure on the Irish government to improve the treatment and conditions of the Gardaí. Prendergast and a cousin, like so many others at that time, left the Garda; they were to join the Edmonton Police Force. Two years later, the pressure had the desired effect on the Garda - wages were raised to 25 pounds per week and conditions began to improve. Interestingly, fifty years after that, in 2009, Jim’s nephew, James Prendergast, retired from the Garda Síochána after enjoying a great career in a modern, progressive police force.
Upon arriving in Edmonton, Jim and his cousin were told it would be six months before the police force could hire them. They were offered a job washing cars and other tasks but Jim didn’t come to Canada to wash police cars, he wanted to drive them. A friend told him the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was hiring so he sought out the recruiting office. On June 23, 1958, he signed up and was sent to Depot in Regina.
From Depot his first posting was in Ottawa for six months. He laughs, “I worked very hard there”. He was posted as a guard at the Bank of Canada where he had to watch over the ladies who were counting the money. He was also assigned as a guard at the Governor General’s house and to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
He missed Ireland and longed to be close to the sea so he asked HR to move him to British Columbia or Newfoundland. In 1958, they sent him to Placentia, Newfoundland and he thought he was home. At that time, the Naval Station Argentia, a former base of the United States Navy, was in full swing and being a former boxer came in handy. “Sometimes saying ‘you’re under arrest’ wasn’t enough,” he chuckled, “Sometimes you had to push the point”.
His next posting was Harbour Grace in 1961 where he met his wife Patricia (Mackey) who was a nurse. It was in Harbour Grace that his life changed forever. On February 28, 1964 Jim and his partner, Cst. Ron MacIsaac were on patrol during a raging blizzard. They were on their way to investigate a car accident in Salmon Cove where a car had run a stop sign and hit a wall. They found the accident and gave the driver a ticket. The driver asked the young Mounties for a ride back to town and they told him to jump in the back seat.
Returning from the call, they were driving uphill, the blizzard was blowing hard, and snowbanks seemed to come out of nowhere. The drifts were as high as the patrol car and they became stuck in the heavy snow. Jim was the driver and he struggled to get the car free. The three men tried everything they could to get the car out, but it would not move, and they were quickly overcome by whiteouts. They called for backup and there were two attempts to reach them – a police car and a tow truck – but in both cases the weather prevented rescue. They put down the car windows enough to let air in and left the engine running so they wouldn’t freeze to death. Eventually the three men drifted off to sleep unaware that the snow was burying the patrol car on all sides and blocking the oxygen from getting in through the open windows. They were stuck in the snowdrift from approximately 6 pm to 6 am. The next morning a snowplough sent to rescue them found them buried in a car that had run out of gas.
The three men were transferred to hospital where it was determined they had been exposed to severe carbon monoxide poisoning. The passenger died from the exposure and Jim and Ron ended up with long-term brain damage caused by the poisonous gas. It is now known that carbon monoxide poisoning causes intellectual deterioration, memory impairment, and changes in emotional stability. Nobody fully understood that back then. Jim and Ron were approximately minutes away from having their names engraved on the RCMP’s Honour Roll, perhaps saved by the empty gas tank.
Jim’s wife, Patricia, was the nurse on duty when they were brought to Carbonear hospital. While on first appearance they seemed healthy and fine, she soon realized that in fact both were confused and disoriented and had no recollection of their overnight plight. For example, as she watched the ambulance attendants bring in their passenger on a stretcher, she asked Jim who it was. He responded with, “I don’t know. Must be somebody they picked up on the road.” Then she brought Jim into the nurse’s station and gave him a cup of coffee and asked, “Where’s Ron?” Jim didn’t know so she went looking for him and found him curled up in a bed on the men’s ward, thinking he was home. The doctor on duty asked Jim where he spent the night and Jim answered, “Well I was home. I just came on duty now.” At this point the doctor knew something was wrong.
The medical staff had not seen anyone who lived through severe carbon monoxide poisoning before. Both constables were put in oxygen tents for two nights. Afterward, Patricia took Jim home to her mother’s house and warned her mother, “Don’t be surprised if Jim acts a bit strange.” When they arrived at the house Jim looked out the kitchen and asked, “Where did all that snow come from?” Her mother said, “We had an awful storm.” He had no recollection of the storm, the dead passenger, or being in hospital.
Three days later, he and Ron reported for duty in Harbour Grace and put on office duty. His supervisor realized there was a problem when he received complaints from the public saying they had called the RCMP for help, but no one responded. He asked Jim if he took the calls and Jim responded, “No, the phones haven’t rung.” This happened a number of times until the supervisor took a look at Jim’s notepad and realized he had written down every complaint word for word but forgot about it as soon as he hung up the phone. The supervisor had also received a call from MacIsaac’s mother saying Ron had called her three times in a half an hour and told her the exact same thing. The supervisor recognized that this wasn’t like Jim and Ron. He had them sent into St. John’s for more medical testing, where they stayed for almost two weeks.
Even in the St. John’s hospital they were not showing any signs of getting better. Although they were walking around and talking as normal as could be, their memories were not improving. Patricia would call daily and ask Jim how he was, and he would respond with “I am in the hospital. Did you know that?” Finally, she called one day and he told her, “The strangest thing happened to me today, Patricia. I had the crowning of thorns.” Patricia thought he had completely gone over the edge and asked to speak to the nurse. When she relayed the conversation, the nurse was excited and told her it was the best news she’d heard. She explained that he had an EEG test done that morning with electrodes attached to his head. It was the first time he showed signs of remembering something.
Neither Jim nor Ron ever fully recovered. They had both suffered irreversible brain damage caused by carbon monoxide poisoning while on duty. They were lucky enough to live but would suffer the long term affects for the rest of their lives.
Through hard work, and with Patricia’s help, Jim learned to live with his injury. Both he and Ron returned to policing, but it wasn’t easy. This was 1964, long before the Force had committed to accommodating the injury and work-related needs of its employees. The policies we have in place today are built because of the experiences of members like Jim Prendergast and Ron MacIsaac.
Jim remembers Ron MacIsaac as a single, attractive, young, happy-go-lucky man, but he recognized his friend was suffering the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Doctors indicated that he was more affected by the gas than Jim was. Less than a year after the accident, MacIsaac was sent to Fogo Island, where he was alone in the detachment for a number of weeks. The effects of his condition, the lack of on-site personal supports, and the nature of the post proved to be an insurmountable challenge for Ron, who ended up leaving the Force. This once proud and promising Mountie went back to his home province of Nova Scotia where he had lifelong issues related to his memory and cognitive impairment. Back home he married, and he and his wife Mary had two daughters. They, and later his five grandchildren, were the light of his life. Mary tells stories about moments of confusion and forgetfulness but is quick to point out that Ron was steadfast in his commitment to doing the very best for his family. After Jim retired, he reconnected with Ron and made it his mission to ensure that Ron receive the same compensation and help from Veterans’ Affairs and the RCMP that he did. Jim gave Ron his file and helped him fight until eventually he received his medical and VAC pensions. Ron remained a staunch member of the RCMP Veteran’s Association and proudly was awarded his 15-year pin. Sadly, Ron passed away in 2017 from autoimmune hemolytic anemia, a rare blood disorder.
Around the same time as Ron went to Fogo, Jim was sent to a two-man detachment in St. Lawrence where he spent the next three years. Immediately upon Jim’s arrival, his supervisor left on vacation and Jim, like Ron, was left on his own. Both men often wondered if their postings were designed to fail in order to create cause for dismissal from the RCMP.
Of his first supervisor in St. Lawrence, Jim says, “I had an amazing NCO, Cpl Ray Zinck, who was very supportive of me.” The following year, Zinck was replaced with Cpl John Foster, an Englishman. Jim chuckles and says maybe management thought if they put an Englishman in charge of an Irish boxer, they would go to war with each other but they ended up being the best of friends.
Over the course of his career, Jim experienced empathy and sympathy from some supervisors with respect to his injuries. He thinks back sadly, “Most times, however, my condition was made light of, criticized, or ignored. Some supervisors seemed to conclude that my behavior and memory difficulty were deception - some did not appear to understand or try to understand the complexity of the diagnosis made by the psychologist and psychiatrist while others acted as if they knew better than the official diagnosis and built their expectations accordingly. That reaction was particularly disheartening.”
Thankfully there was some support along the way, including ongoing family efforts to build his memory capacity, and the good advice he received from the Association Representative Gerry Mills and others to apply for a disability pension and develop coping mechanisms to live with his disability.
Jim was transferred around the province to Placentia, Clarenville, Forteau, Roddickton, and finally to Corner Brook where he retired in 1982.
During his years in Corner Brook, his love of sports continued. There, he played and coached both squash and tennis, became president of the Corner Brook Tennis club, an built his own squash club. He was no longer boxing but he was still fighting for what he believed in.
In the late 1970’s there was much discussion among the rank and file in favour of forming a union or association. At that time the Commissioner of the RCMP came to Corner Brook to talk to members about issues affecting the front line. When asked about problems, several officers stood and brought up menial items like the colour of the shirts they wore at the time. Jim’s Irish temper came to the surface and he jumped up and asked, “Can I talk for a moment?” The Commissioner gave him the floor. Jim began, “I’m fed up talking about buttons and bows on our uniforms. Are you interested in what’s really affecting us?” To which the Commissioner responded, “Yes.” Jim continued, “I’m told I can’t talk about the Association. Am I to believe that you have no interest in an association that would help in the betterment of the members?” The Commissioner responded, “That’s what I’m here for”. The discussion then turned to more substantial matters like effective and respectful supervision, two-man patrols for increased safety, and receiving pay for overtime worked. Jim said “A lot of officers here want a leg up with you, so they don’t want to say what I’m saying, but you and I have something in common. We both have come as far in this Force as we’re going to go”. The Commissioner met him afterwards and thanked him for his honesty.
Neither Jim Prendergast nor Ron MacIsaac received any type of an apology or commendation for their disability or for being left in a snowbank twelve hours without help. Jim says, “Nor did I feel that one was due”. There’s not a bitter bone in his body. Both Jim and Patricia say it’s important to note that brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning was not easily understood, especially by non-medical personnel. In 1964 when this incident occurred, the medical specialists examining Ron MacIsaac and Jim Prendergast stated that their knowledge and experience with severe carbon monoxide poisoning to the extent of their exposure, was limited because the survival rate was so low. This was substantiated by the fact that their passenger had succumbed to the poison before their rescue.
Jim says, “The impact of my memory loss was apparent in many day-to-day incidents at home and at work, and I often wonder how different things could have been had the incident not occurred”. He calls the carbon monoxide incident, ‘a very unfortunate event’ that had consequences throughout his career, but he says it didn’t define his career and he is very proud of his 25 years of service. Despite the incident and its impacts on both his performance and some supervisors’ reactions, he says that it was a great career and he is thankful for the opportunity to have served with so many honourable men and women. Jim Prendergast retired a corporal in the Fall of 1982.
Jim and his wife Patricia (Mackey) live in Carbonear and enjoy winters in Sarasota, FL.
They also spend time in Ottawa and Conception Bay South visiting their children and grandchildren, and an annual visit home to Ireland to spend time with family and old friends there.
Read about this and other grand adventures in: In Search of Adventure - 70 Years of the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador available here.