Cpl. John Geoghegan, a native of Athea, Co. Limerick, shipped out in September 1961 to serve with the Irish army’s UN peacekeeping contingent, leaving behind his wife and seven children, the youngest of whom was just a year old.
He died three months later, on Christmas Day, in a “friendly fire” incident, while on duty protecting a refugee camp.
His eldest son, who was 15 at the time, has been campaigning for most of his adult life to have his father’s sacrifice honored properly.
On a recent evening, he was in for a surprise. He knew he was attending a birthday party in his honor with his wife Winifrede, a Belfast native, and their two children at Lunney’s in Midtown – but he was expecting something low key. Instead, his best friend John Egan and others like Pat Finnerty worked feverishly to get things ready ahead of his arrival.
And Gerry Staunton, Ireland’s deputy chief consul to New York, was in the wings with some of the medals Geoghegan had been arguing were his father’s by right.
When he did arrive, Geoghegan said: “What’s this?” and then smiled broadly, taking the flashing cameras and applause in his stride.
At the dais, Staunton explained the special place that the army’s UN peacekeeping efforts have in the hearts of the Irish people. In all, 75 soldiers have died serving abroad. The first deaths, he said, happened in the most shocking circumstances in November 1960 — nine soldiers of an 11-man patrol of the 33rd Battalion were ambushed and massacred by Baluba tribesmen.
It coincided with another notable event: the election of a great-grandson of Famine immigrants to the world’s most powerful office. The Irish Independent headline ran: “Irish Joy Over Kennedy Win Marred By Congo Tragedy.”
So, John Geoghegan knew the risks when his unit was sent out 10 months later.
“He was a great man,” his eldest son told the crowd. “Dad was a very giving person. He tried to do the right thing.”
And then added: “I’ve been fighting for this for 30 years. I’m feel very gratified.”
Afterwards, friends and colleagues said that Geoghegan was cut from the same cloth as his father. “If ever a man deserves this, it’s Pat,” said Lattin, Co. Tipperary native Pat Dunne. “He’s done a lot for the Irish community here in a quiet way.”
Geoghegan left Ireland for Canada in 1967. He moved on to New York in 1969, got a job as a UN field service officer, and spent time in the Middle East. When he got married to Winifrede, she wanted him to stay home to build a life in New York.
In 1972, it wasn’t easy to find employment. “It was very disorientating. I’d been working since I was a kid,” he recalled. Then a friend got him a job as a building manager, and he’s worked in that business since.
Geoghegan became a driving force in the New York Building Managers Association. Now 300-strong, it organizes superintendents, building managers and resident managers.
“We changed the salary structure to reflect the work,” said Geoghegan, who is currently resident manager of the 600-unit Manhattan House on East 66th Street.
“He’s done a lot to develop the building managers’ education program,” said colleague Mike Roytman.
New York native Mike Conway, a former transit worker, said that working with Geoghegan was the best training anybody could have. When he was interviewed for his current job at a residential building in Soho, he was told: “If you can work with him for five years, you can work with me for 20.”
Jim Mazzo Jr., who attended the event with his father Jim Mazzo Sr., recalled working with Geoghegan as a youngster in 1976. “He took me under his wing like I was his own child; he watched out for me; he introduced me to people,” said Mazzo, who owns Leardon Boiler Works. “He said: ‘Stick by me.’ Without him, the business wouldn’t be what is today. He’s like the Godfather.”
“I consider him a mentor,” said the Loughrea, Co. Galway native Finnerty.
Several of his friends referred to Geoghegan’s most passionate hobby — his support for the Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland soccer teams. His interest in United goes back to the tragic night in February 1958 when Busby’s Babes were almost wiped out. He was mainly a Gaelic football and hurling fan up to that point, though he kept an eye on the London club West Ham United. The Munich air disaster changed that. “Soccer was all over the papers,” he recalled.
He travels to Old Trafford and Lansdowne Road as regularly he possible, and also follows the Irish team around the world. “I wanted to go to Israel, but nobody would go with me. They were scared,” he said.
But his campaign to properly commemorate his father has also been a reason to go home. Back in Ireland, people like the former army NCO P.J. O’Toole have been very supportive. “We never got the whole story,” he said. “But we understand it was an accidental shooting.”
There’s always been a dispute, he said, about who should get what medals. Soldiers who died in “friendly fire” incidents in the 1980s did get medals posthumously, in contrast to earlier victims.
Geoghegan and his siblings (his mother died in 1985) maintain a small shrine composed of their father’s medals, belt, beret and other service items.
John Geoghegan joined the army in 1944, during what in Ireland was officially known as the Emergency. The army became somewhat depleted in the 1950s, but the Border Campaign and the increase of subversive activity changed that. “There was an influx of young men,” Pat Geoghegan said, adding that his father was one of the experienced NCOs to be offered a commission. “But he turned it down. Because it meant that he’d be away from his family a lot.”
Geoghegan was fully involved with his community. “I remember he went around the village collecting money so a leukemia patient could go to Lourdes,” he said.
“He used to say: ‘You get what you give,'” his son said. “He was ahead of his time like that.”
His father always wanted to see New York, and the fact that he’s lived out that dream – and that his two children, John and Tracy, have gotten a college education – is a source of immense satisfaction to him.
“I always felt that my father was pushing me to do better,” Geoghegan said. “I think of him every day.”