IRISH troops are available “at any time” for peacekeeping missions according to the Taoiseach, who reiterated the country’s commitment to conflict resolution despite recent army withdrawals from Kosovo and Chad.
Speaking at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s first major involvement in peacekeeping missions abroad, Brian Cowen said Irish troops have set a high standard for other countries to follow. “Consistent with our own traditions, we are very anxious to be available to serve in the areas of conflict resolution and security sector reform.”
In July 1960, a plane left Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel for the Congo, which had just achieved independence from Belgium. With civil war breaking out, the United Nations had decided to assist.
The first plane carrying troops departed on July 27, 1960. As well as the soldiers, it carried 72 bottles of gin, 220,000 Players cigarettes, 156,000 Sweet Afton, and 10,000 blue Gillette blades.
“I still remember standing ready to board the plane with a plastic bag of ham sandwiches, an apple and an orange. Most of us had never seen a plastic bag before,” said Willie Redmond, who was 17 when he left.
Others remembered the heat of the bulls’ wool uniform, which had to be replaced with kits more suited to the tropics a few weeks into their stay.
Tom Feeney, then a 20-year-old corporal, remembers landing in Libya. “I had the bull wool’s tunic all buttoned up, leggings, a shovel and a pack with a blanket. An American airman said to us: ‘Where are you guys off to?’ When we said the Congo, he laughed and said: ‘Are you sure you’re not going to Alaska?’”
Their first major blow came at the Niemba ambush where the peacekeepers came under attack and nine were killed. Their bodies were later paraded in a cortege down O’Connell Street.
By the time they withdrew in 1964, a total of 26 had been killed. They were remembered yesterday at the commemoration in Baldonnel, attended by 1,000 veterans and their families.
Their story is one of “adventure, suffering and loss of life,” according to Monsignor Eoin Thynne, who gave the homily. They had gathered to honour “no famous men,” but rather “those who fought and those who died, their names and deeds known only to their families, friends and comrades and God”.
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