Through Irish Eyes Cousin Remembers Timoney's Dublin Days

Posted: August 28, 2000

DUBLIN, Ireland — Frank Timoney wants to get a few things straight about his cousin, John, the Philadelphia police commissioner.

First, his real name is Sean.

"Over here, we call him by his Irish name," said Frank, a retired Dublin cop who spent 36 years on the force.

Sean it is.

As for this thing in Esquire magazine about John - er, Sean - being the best cop in the country?

"Well, he's not the best cop in Ireland," Frank quipped. "The best cop in Ireland just retired."

This is going to be good.

A few months back, I told Commissioner Timoney I was going to Ireland for a story on its booming economy. He recommended I call his cousin Frank. Said he's tough, but thoughtful. A street-savvy cop with a deep sense of Irish history.

Frank will give you the straight scoop. At the very least, he's good for a pint, Timoney said.

I called Frank from my Dublin hotel on a Tuesday around 4 p.m. He said he would love to meet. Frank lives in County Kildare, about 25 miles west of Dublin. He was at the hotel by 7 p.m.

Standing in the lobby, Frank did not look like a cop. He was fit and distinguished, wearing a suit and tie.

Frank is taller than his cousin and has a more pointy face. He also has a white shock of hair that makes him look a little like Frank McCourt, the author of "Angela's Ashes."

Don't tell Frank Timoney that.

Like most Irish natives, he is no fan of McCourt's popular novel about death, drink and despair in Ireland.

He thinks McCourt mixed a lot of fiction with fact. Times were tough in Ireland. But it was nowhere near the hell McCourt describes.

"There's a heap of bull---- in it," Frank said.

Forget McCourt. Let's go for a ride.

Frank wheeled the car through the narrow streets of Dublin to a gritty neighborhood known as the Liberties. This is where he and Sean grew up.

Their fathers were brothers. Because of their age difference - Frank is eight years older than Sean - the cousins did not hang out as kids, but they talk almost weekly now.

Liberties was jammed with tenements when they grew up. Sean Timoney's house has been torn down, but it's still a tough neighborhood - though not as gritty as it was when he lived there. The kids playing in the streets had holes in their shoes, but no one felt poor because everyone was broke.

Liberties got its name after residents refused to pay taxes to Great Britain.

"That's where Sean was christened," Frank said, pointing toward St. Audeon's Church up a hill a few blocks away.

Here's a parking spot. O'Shea's Pub is just around the corner. The tour is over.

It's dark inside. A few men are sitting at the bar. We grab a table. Frank orders a Guinness. I have the same.

"I can tell you categorically that there are 98 pints of Guinness in every barrel," he said.

How do you know?

"My father was a tailor," he said. "Then he won the Irish Sweepstakes in 1929. He invested the winnings in a pub. We all lived upstairs and helped out in the pub."

Then the Depression hit. No one had money for a pint. Frank's father extended credit to the regulars. Such liberal bookkeeping drove him out of the pub business.

No work and lots of Guinness had a huge impact on the country's population, Frank recalled.

"The drink made all the men prolific breeders," he said. "They would spend the day at the pub, drink 10 pints and come home looking for their conjugal rights."

With no work and no hope, thousands moved away. Sean moved to New York in 1963. He was 13. His father, Kieran, had gone three years earlier, working as a doorman in the States, trying to give his three kids a better life.

Kieran returned to Ireland in 1966. Sick with cancer, he went home to see his family. To see the green hills again.

Frank drove Sean's father to his home town of Sligo. On the drive back to Dublin, Kieran gave Frank his wedding ring. A few days later, Kieran died.

Years later, Frank gave the ring to Sean. They were both grown by then. Both had become cops. They lived and worked 6,000 miles apart, but their Liberties roots shaped their policing tactics.

"Be firm but fair," Frank said. "Never use brutality. Use your mouth instead of the nightstick."

And the only thing better than the adrenaline rush of a bust is a conviction in the Dublin court known as the Four Corners.

Sean is the same way, Frank said.

"He never forgot that he was a cop and not one of the guys at the top," Frank said. "He's not afraid to kick some ass when he has to. But he's not afraid to say, 'Well done.' "

An insightful comment, given the chief's adroit, tough-but-fair handling of protesters during the recent GOP convention.

News of the Thomas Jones incident - in which cops were videotaped beating a suspect on a Philly street just days before the Republicans' arrival - reached Ireland. Frank figured his cousin would have his hands full during the convention. He was happy to hear Commissioner Timoney came through a hero.

It's safe to say Timoney's activities are the talk of the pubs. It was big news in Dublin when Timoney became the youngest No. 2 cop in New York history. Then he became Philadelphia's top cop.

But despite Timoney's rising star in the States, Dubliners don't act impressed when he's around.

"When the lads heard the news, they said, 'Well, a Dublin man has made it,' " Frank said, flashing an impish grin.

"He doesn't deserve it."

Classic Irish. Proud and humble. Sarcastic and devilish.

"How's Sean getting on in Philadelphia?" Frank asked at one point.

He's the best thing that's happened to the city in a long time, I told him. He could be mayor someday, but the smart money says he will end up back in New York.

Frank seemed surprised. Sean has never talked about his plans, he said.

"He said he likes Philadelphia and is having a lot of fun," Frank said.

Unlike his cousin, Frank had no desire to climb the police ranks. He turned down promotions and spent 22 years on the street.

One day, some fellow cops talked Frank into taking the exam to become a sergeant. He received a $400 bonus for passing the test. Frank used the money to buy his pals drinks all night.

"That's how I became sergeant," he said.

It was getting late. The music stopped. The bar was closing.

On the way back to the hotel, Frank stopped the car in front of the Custom House, perhaps the most famous landmark in Dublin.

The Custom House stores historical documents such as birth, wedding and death certificates. The building was bathed in yellow light, its reflection glistening off the River Liffey.

Frank has spent a lot of time at the Custom House lately, researching his family roots. He is the last male Timoney in Ireland. Everyone else is dead or moved away.

Leaving was never an option for Frank.

"My father always said, 'Too many Timoneys have already left,' " he said. "We're staying."

Send e-mail to daviesp@phillynews.com

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