IT’S a biting cold January morning in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on the edge of Cork City.
Workers stream through the front gate and the stadium plays a chorus of heavy machines and whizzing drills, high up in the new stand.
Among the workers is Michael Martin, a 33-year-old builder and father. Michael is originally from Limerick and this particular week he’s doing brick work in the upper tier. But what most of the other workers don’t know is that Michael is a veteran of war in Afghanistan and more recently, the war against the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East.
Michael’s story is the subject of a new RTÉ radio documentary that has been brought into sharper focus by the recent devastating terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.
This particular morning in January, rolling a smoke at the front gate, Michael spoke about Islamic State fighters using Ireland as a sanctuary, while plotting attacks elsewhere.
And as we now know a man carrying an Irish ID card travelled from Dublin and killed people in London Bridge and the city’s Borough Market.
“Are you telling me there are no Isis [Islamic State] fighters in Ireland,” he’d said in January. “Go away boy, they come in under the radar and use Ireland as a stepping stone.” It’s more than a year and a half since Michael returned to Ireland after working alongside the Kurdish people’s army — the Peshmerga in Iraq.
Michael witnessed airstrikes screaming overhead to attack IS positions.
“I was Facebook calling my cousin in Limerick one night and next thing I had to say to him, listen, I’m going to have to call you back, there’s an airstrike coming in. And next thing the sky is red and the ground is shaking and all communication is down. Ten minutes later, I call him back and continue with the conversation.”
In Iraq, the father of four crisscrossed a landscape scarred by dead bodies and says he guarded IS prisoners fleeing towns and villages near the Iraqi city of Mosul.
“A lot of them looked like they were coming down off drugs.
“Their jaws were hanging down and their eyes were sunk in their head. You wouldn’t be having a conversation with them or anything. But you’d be giving them water and food because you needed them to live to get information.”
Michael says he only decided to share his story about his decision to travel to the Middle East and fight the so-called Islamic State after he returned to Ireland.
“People were asking me questions and I realised that no one knew about the Peshmerga and their fight against Isis.
“There was a lot of ignorance about Muslims, and I’d fought and worked beside Muslims who were on the frontline fighting Isis! So I thought i might be able to help educate people that Muslims aren’t the problem, Isis is the problem.”
Because of a moratorium on recruitment, Michael was unable to join the Irish Defence Forces and so in 2009, he decided to join the Royal Irish Regiment in the British Army.
His decision was in part rooted in the 9/11 terror attacks and pride in the military careers enjoyed by some relatives.
But between two tours of Afghanistan Michael reveals he also served time in prison.
But after his release, Michael returned to the British Army and was sent to Afghanistan along with dozens of Irish citizens.
However, after returning safely, Michael suffered a serious injury in a training exercise when a grenade detonated close to his ear.
The injury saw him withdrawn from active service and placed behind a desk but from there he started following the conflict in the Middle East, the rise of IS and the battle between Kurdish resistance forces and the Islamic State in besieged cities like Kobani.
“I remember as a boy watching the first Gulf war ... and I just kept on the interest. But growing up I could never understand why none of the things that happened over there didn’t happen here — the constant conflict, the mass graves. I don’t know, I always felt I had to see it with my own eyes.”
Michael contacted the Peshmerga using their Facebook page and they told him that they’d a policy that meant soldiers who joined them didn’t get paid.
So Michael paid his own way to the Middle East at a time when the Islamic State was posting gruesome executions of Western citizens on YouTube.
And not long after Michael landed in Iraq, the Islamic terrorist group placed a bounty on his head and the heads of fellow Westerners of nearly $200K.
“I knew about this bounty before I went there,” he says. “My fear wasn’t necessarily of dying but of being captured, put in an orange jumpsuit and used as a pawn. That was my biggest fear.”
In Iraq, Michael provided field and first aid support for the Peshmerga as they defended towns they’d liberated from IS, but he entered the country on a two-week holiday visa and after four months he got caught up in a diplomatic incident that involved three governments.
This led to a collision with the Iraq police and some of Britain’s top security agencies.
“They didn’t like what I’d done, but they understood why I done it.”