'I had to watch as my twin was thrown across the room like a broken doll': Investigative reporter Donal Macintyre reveals his troubled past
21:30 GMT, 20 April 2012
00:33 GMT, 21 April 2012
During 20 years as an investigative reporter I’ve been shot at, beaten, abused on the streets in front of my children and forced to move house more than 50 times because of death threats. I’ve often asked myself why I have followed this dangerous road.
On any single day I could meet gangsters who openly talk about the thrill of violence, receive illicit calls from a cocaine smuggler in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, or talk to young criminals who stalk their communities trading firearms.
This is the life I’ve led for most of my career, but now I have a family – my wife Ameera and I have two girls, Allegra, nine, and Tiger Willow, five, and a four-month-old boy, Hunter – the question why I continue to live it has become much more critical.
During the 20 years Donal has worked as an investigative reporter he's been shot at, beaten and forced to move house more than 50 times
The death threats I’ve suffered have had an immeasurable impact upon us, placing huge safety concerns over every public outing, whether it’s to the circus, the cinema or even the hospital. Days after Hunter was born at the Royal Surrey in Guildford, while mum and baby were being kept in for observation, I was threatened by a group of men inside the hospital. I needed an escort to their bedside and we were escorted out the back way.
A year before, Guildford Crown Court sentenced a man to two years for ABH on my wife and I in a revenge attack for my investigation into the Chelsea Headhunters football hooligans nearly ten years earlier. My wife was suffering from a brain tumour at the time and has been traumatised ever since, more by the attack than the tumour. And the question remains, why do I choose this job Why do I continue to report from the dark crevices of society
The answer, I think, lies in the brutal classroom experience I endured nearly 40 years ago as a six-year-old in the Republic of Ireland. The headmaster of my school – St Patrick’s Primary in Celbridge, County Kildare – was known as ‘Butcher Sands’.
Donal, left, with his twin Desmond
He had hands the size of shovels, a 6ft, broad-shouldered frame, and his ruthless inhumanity damaged generations of the children he taught. He would throw us across the room like broken dolls. He stuffed a duster into the mouth of one of his terrified pupils, and caned and humiliated the least fortunate and most vulnerable in the class.
We came from a broken home, so called because my amazing hard-working mum held down three jobs to bring up five children by herself after my father walked out. In Ireland that counted as dysfunctional, and Tom Sands singled my twin Desmond and I out for abuse because of it. We were different. Others got the same because they were poor or because one of their parents had died.
I didn’t fear him for myself. Don’t get me wrong, tears welled up in my eyes as he brought down his ash cane onto my tiny tender hands. But it wasn’t his clips around my head, which left my ears stinging for the day, that gave me the terrors. It was the helpless sight of my twin brother, my flesh and blood, my soulmate, being beaten and bullied day to day that cut so deep. I sat helpless while Desmond suffered assaults sufficient to put a person in jail for years. There was nothing I could do.
Family man: Donal with wife Ameera
The soundtrack to our wonderful lives until the point when we attended St Patrick’s was Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys. We played make believe and lived out every lyric in the glorious countryside. But we never grew up to be soldiers like the boys in the song, and when Des needed rescuing, I couldn’t do a thing about it. The dripping saliva of Sands flew into my face as he slapped Des around the room for leaving smudges on his workbook. This was the revered headmaster, anointed by the Church and paid by the government to help progress young minds. I looked on as my brother was left bruised and terrified. Around me, some children wet their pants while others shivered with fear.
I didn’t gallop to the rescue as Rolf Harris sang, but one afternoon, after Sands had delivered another beating to Desmond, I had my say as the school bell rang. I dashed out the door crying, “You’re a monster”, and kept running for the half mile home along the banks of the River Liffey. I dreaded the reception the next morning. He had heard me but nothing was said. Everything went on as normal, kids were hit, slapped and physically abused but my outburst was never spoken of.
Now I understand that’s why I so abhor bullies and the abuse of power. It’s why I can connect with damaged and abused kids on the fast track to crime. It’s why I have little fear for my own safety because those events have made me think of others in more serious predicaments. Fear means something different to me, but I want my children never to have to live a childhood like mine.
I no longer go undercover. I now try to get the criminals I spent 15 years following in various disguises to talk about their own lives. My latest series follows a notorious family, The Noonans, as they face courts, deaths, funerals and baptisms. My solution to a safer world for my family is not to avoid criminals but to get closer to them. It’s perverse perhaps to some, but it works for me.
The most important lesson from my childhood is that family is all-important, and that’s why I’ve changed the way I work. Nonetheless I’m always ready to go into battle for them and my twin – and I’ll always remember when we were two little boys.
At Home With The Noonans starts tomorrow at 10pm on the Crime & Investigation Network.