Herrema, , had been dispatched by the parent company in his native Netherlands to troubleshoot the strike-ridden factory, Ferenka,which employed 1,200 at a time when the Irish economy was reeling from the oil crisis and six years of Northern Ireland troubles.
The kidnappers, banking that Liam Cosgrave’s government would quietly cave in, so as not to scare off other foreign investors, threatened to “execute” Herrema in 48 hours unless it released the republican prisoners Rose Dugdale(who had given birth to Gallagher’s son in Limerick Prison), Kevin Mallon (a friend of Coyle’s) and James Hyland.
Rose Dugdale, An English millionaire’s daughter who took part in an IRA helicopter bombing attempt and an infamous art theft at Russborough House in Co Wicklow.
It was the start of a 36-day ordeal for Herrema and his family, sparking the biggest manhunt in the State’s history.
Two weeks later a tape of Herrema’s voice was released, accompanied by demands for a £2 million ransom and a flight to the Middle East. After 18 days the kidnappers were traced to a terraced house in Monasterevin, Co Kildare.
The Coalition Government of Liam Cosgrave made it very clear from very start that there would be no release of prisoners, no room for compromise.
A Nationwide Garda operation was mounted with almost half the force engaged in house to house searches and roadblocks. But Gallagher and Coyle had gone to ground in a “safe house” near Mountmellick, Co. Laois.
Days passed and the kidnappers sent taped messages from Herrema pleading for his life. The intervention of a Capuchin monk as a mediator proved fruitless. Gallagher asked for Phil Flynn – a trade union leader and Sinn Féin member at the time – to be brought in as an alternative mediator and while Gallagher began to lower his demands – the Government were steadfast but no closer to finding Herrema. Gallagher & Coyle had moved hideouts – this time to a council house in Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, which was itself searched by Gárdaí but the occupants were tipped off and the kidnappers hid with Herrema in the attic undisturbed. But 1410 St Evin’s Park was to be scene of the final act in this drama when the controversial questioning of accomplices by the Gárdaí exposed the location. 18 days into the kidnapping, a dawn raid on the house failed to release Herrema and thus began the Siege of Monasterevin.
For a further 18 days, Ireland’s and the World’s press gathered. The Siege of Monasterevin was headline news every day. But behind the scenes what negotiations were going on to bring this dramatic standoff to an end after 36 days? – The longest and most dramatic kidnapping in Irish History.
The pair must have begun to suspect that there was something unusual about their captive shortly into the 36-day odyssey. For the first 14 days of the ordeal he had no idea where he was, confined to a tiny room in a house, in stinking conditions, feet and hands tied, cotton wool pushed into his ears.
Today Herrema is baffled, even irritated, that interviewers consistently overlook this part. “You all start by asking me about the period in Monasterevin . . . But the other part before, nobody talks about it, and that part was even worse for me. I didn’t know where we were. I didn’t even know how many were in the car that took me there.”
Once at St Evin’s Park in Monasterevin, by contrast, surrounded by armoured cars, searchlights, snipers and the hotshots of world media, he knew exactly where he was and what he had to do.
He set out to create calm, to humanize himself in his kidnappers’ eyes. His eldest son was about the same age as Gallagher. Coyle, he noted, listened to the conversations but never spoke. “For me that was an indication: be careful with her. As long as I can get them talking I learn something. But she didn’t talk at all. I could never reach her.”
The coping mechanisms that seemed second nature to him, a man for whom mental challenges were almost a sport, must have seemed odd to his kidnappers. “When the night is over and you have nothing to eat, you have nothing to do. That is very important to understand, because all you have then is the waiting. You cannot tolerate that all day. So you try to make the day.”
What Gallagher and Coyle didn’t realize is that Dr Herrema had been a Dutch resisttance fighter during WWII.
He was in his early 20s when the Nazis arrested him. He was sent to Prague where he was brutally interrogated after that he was transported to Ratibor – now the Polish town of Racibórz.
Where about half of his fellow prisoners were shot, some under 14 years of age. Even after he was freed by the soviet troops he still had to walk 500 KM to be transferred to the US troops. Needless to say he was made out of sturdy stuff.
After several days without food or water they began to accept supplies – as well as underpants and a chamber pot – hoisted up in a shopping basket. On day 18 Gallagher claimed to be getting severe headaches and neck cramps, which Herrema took as a sign that he was seeking a way out. Soon afterwards the kidnappers threw their guns out of a window and surrendered.
It was on this day 41 years ago November 7 1975, Dr Herrema was released.
Coyle was sentenced to 15 years, of which she served nine. Gallagher served 14 years of his 20-year sentence. In 1978 Gallagher and Dugdale became the first convicted prisoners in the State’s history to be married behind bars.