A hero on the field and in life

Living

AUTHOR Willie McGee at his desk at the AXA Special Investigations Unit, which he set up following his retirement from An Garda Síochána.

Willie McGee’s memoir is a fascinating insight into a life on the force and on the pitch 

Oisín McGovern

MOST Mayo folk know him as Willie ‘Four-goals’ McGee, the dazzling full-forward from Burrishoole who put four past Kerry in the 1967 All-Ireland Under-21 final. But few know that he once headed what became one of the most successful anti-fraud police units in the entire world.
During his footballing days, Willie McGee broke the hearts of defenders up and down the country, who thought they could outsmart him and his dazzling footwork. In his time with An Garda Síochána, the Newport native dealt a similar fate to chancers, bluffers, rouges, liars, spoofers and thugs across the country. Indeed, some of the yarns in his book ‘Tales from The Fraud Squad’ reads like something out a crime fiction novel.
McGee takes the reader on a journey from his childhood in Mayo to the mean streets of Dublin as a young officer in the late ’70s, before rising through the ranks to become Head of the Garda Fraud Squad.
Having served in Dublin and Cork before returning to civilian life as head of AXA Insurance’s fraud investigations unit, Willie saw everything and anything in his 35 years in the force – from a suspect eating a forged bank draft to a corrupt priest, a runaway nun and a Garda colleague falsely impersonating him at the Galway Races.
As Wille explains in his page-turner, the fraud squad frequently operated with one hand tied behind its back due to weak archaic legislation dating back to the 1892. “You had to find people in the process of committing the act to be able to arrest them,” he writes in the book.
For decades, he and his Garda colleagues lobbied The Law Reform Commission for tougher legislation, which eventually arrived in 2001. The unit weren’t found wanting when they were given these extra powers.
Since then, law enforcement agencies from all over the world looked to Ireland to learn from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.

Culture shock
Whatever he set his mind his mind to, Willie McGee made his mark.
Talking to The Mayo News, he admits he had originally set his mind on joining the army. After failing the medical, he decided that joining An Garda Síochána was the next best thing.
His father was his role model, a very straight and honest man to whom the words ‘arra go on in, you’re grand’ were alien. Willie carried that sense of justice with him all throughout his days in the force. It is clear from reading his tales that he has very little sympathy for the crooks he dealt with. Moreover, he took great pleasure in bringing them to justice for the people they conned and the lives they ruined.
Long before that, he had to cut his teeth as a young garda in Pearse Street, right in the heart of Dublin city. Unsurprisingly the whole thing came as ‘a culture shock’, for the lanky young man from Mayo.
In those early days, his duties involved everything from pulling bodies out of the River Liffey to politely redirectly country folk who had driven the wrong way up one-way streets. Far from raiding poitín distilleries in Tiernaur or Kilmeena, young McGee found himself directing traffic on Ireland’s busiest thoroughfare in O’Connell Street.
“I was standing at a junction of Townsend Street and Tara Street stopping traffic going down Townsend Street, because there was traffic stuck under a bridge behind me,” he recalls. “People stopped asking me how to get to Bray, Dun Laoghaire and Blackrock, and I didn’t even know the street I was standing on!”
By his own admission, his move to the fraud squad came ‘by accident’. He was always interested in numbers and figures and achieved a good result in Leaving Cert mathematics. It was no surprise that his superiors appointed him to the force’s anti-fraud unit after a successful interview to become an inspector.

Story rich
Instead of directing traffic, he was now dealing with scams involving thousands and eventually millions of euros. He even once drank coffee at the home of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, who could have gone on trial for his dealings with developer Ben Dunne – had the serving Tánaiste Mary Harney not prejudiced his case by publicly calling for the ex-Fianna Fáil leader to be jailed.
The sheer scale and complexity of some of the crimes described in the book leaves the reader aghast. One cannot but appreciate the equally complex work undertaken by Gardaí to thwart and counteract these crimes.
After three decades of distinguished service, Willie began civilian life by becoming the first person to head up AXA’s dedicated fraud investigations unit. The move came at a time when insurance fraud became a massive business. On any given day, Willie could be dealing with anything from staged car crashes to mind-bending multi-million-euro con jobs.
Between winning an All-Ireland with the Mayo Under-21s and his distinguished career in uniform, Willie McGee is a man that always had many stories to tell. So why did he finally decide to sit down and document them at the age of 74?
“When I’d be out socialising with friends and neighbours over the years, I’d be regaling them with those stories. Every time, people would say to me, ‘Will you put them all together and put them in a book? People will be interested in them’,” he says.
The seed they had sown did not germinate until he heard a best-selling author being interviewed on the radio who had some simple advice for aspiring writers: “Anybody with stories to tell should sit down and write a book.”
However, the stories very nearly remained untold when Willie suffered a stroke some years ago. Thankfully, he made a full recovery from this setback, emerging more determined than ever to document his trials and tribulations.
Across the land, his name has been cursed by criminals and respected and admired by the men in blue. But here in Mayo, he wants to be remembered forever more as ‘Four Goals’ Willie McGee.“That has never left me,” he says.

‘Tales From The Fraud Squad’ by Willie McGee is available from all good book stores, with proceeds going towards the Irish Heart Foundation.