‘Last sergeant standing’ recalls 1938 Treaty Ports handover

“I’ll be the last man standing,” declared retired Irish army sergeant Michael Kelly ahead of today’s 75th anniversary commemoration of the handover of the Treaty Ports from the British.

The sprightly 97-year-old is the last surviving soldier to have marched into the ports on the day they were handed back to Irish control.

Born in Mountrath, Co Laois, Michael joined the army in 1935 and, three years later, found himself in the Coastal Defence Unit.

“We came down to Cork by train and stayed in Collins Barracks before arriving in trucks at Fort Camden,” he said.

“From there the men were dispersed to the other nearby forts like Spike Island.”

“Everybody knew exactly what their job was. I was a cook in the officers’ mess. The British weren’t leaving Fort Camden (later renamed Fort Meagher) until 8pm that night. They took their flag down one minute before. They had a meal ready for us when we arrived,” Michael said.

The taoiseach of the day, Éamon de Valera, arrived at Fort Camden the following morning.

“I cooked him breakfast. He had a full Irish. He’d stayed with friends in Midleton the previous night,” Michael said.

“A few days later I also served breakfast to Bishop Coughlan who came to reconsecrate the fort church. He wanted two hard-boiled eggs and toast soaked in butter.”

While Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be guest of honour at a special ceremony in Spike Island today, most people’s eyes will be on Michael, who will also be attending the event.

“I went there three years ago when it was handed over from the Department of Justice to the county council. It will certainly bring back memories again and I’ll get to meet some of the descendents of the men I served with. But it would have been nice to meet old comrades and share a joke with them,” he said.

After three years serving on Fort Camden he was transferred to the fort on Bere Island where he operated the search lights.

In 1945 he went back to Fort Mitchell on Spike Island as an electrician, before taking over the stores at Collins Barracks. He retired from the army in 1963.

Today’s ceremony on Spike Island will also be attended by senior military officers.

“It will culminate in a 21-gun salute from the 12 pounder artillery saluting battery at Fort Mitchell and the playing of the National Anthem by the Band of the 1st Brigade. The Naval Service Flagship LÉ Eithne will return a single shot in response and will be anchored in the harbour throughout the ceremony,” said Comdt Michael Doyle of the 1st Brigade.


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