Three years ago the men of Jadotville, Congo had their 15 minutes of fame. Jamie Dornan sprinkled stardust on these forgotten men from a forgotten war. The movie opened, the battle was recalled. As is standard fare in this country the manner in which those forgotten men suffered was recalled with a sense of shame. And then everybody went home and the caravan moved on.
So it went when the movie The Siege Of Jadotville was released. The movie depicted what occurred when 155 Irish soldiers on UN duty in the Congo in 1961 were attacked by a force of 3,500, led by trained European mercenaries.
The battle occurred at the mining town, 130km from the capital of Katanga, Elizabethville, where the UN force was located. A company of the Irish army was sent to protect the white population, although it was to emerge that the white population was not under any threat at the time.
While the Irish were in situ, other UN forces, acting on orders, attacked various installations belonging to the Katangan government, thereby breaking the UN’s peacekeeping mandate. Major questions still remain as to why the UN acted in this manner and who was responsible.
In any event, retaliation came in the form of an attack on the isolated A-company in Jadotsville. What ensued was a fierce five-day battle. Pat Quinlan, from Cahirdaniel in South Kerry, was commended for the manner in which he led his troops. Despite being up against overwhelming odds, none of the Irish soldiers were killed. Five were wounded, while the enemy suffered casualties of 300 deaths and 750 injured.
The average age of the Irish soldiers was 18 years. Two of the men were 15 and a dozen of them just 16 years of age. The battle ended when the Irish surrendered after the five days. They were taken prisoner and released six months later.
The surrender was possibly one of the features of the event that ensured that Jadotville and the heroism therein was never really celebrated within Irish military circles. Quinlan recommended that 33 of his men be awarded medals to mark their contribution. A medal board within the Irish Defence Forces sat in 1965 to consider the recommendations but ruled that no medals would be awarded for Jadotville.
While the military brass and everybody else was busy forgetting what these men had been subjected to, some of those who had fought couldn’t escape it.
One of the soldiers recommended for a medal was Private Matthew Quinlan (no relation to his commandant) who was just 16 at the time of the battle. Last month his sister Bernadette spoke at a meeting in Trinity College Dublin about how he dealt with things.
He had been on his first tour with the army in Jadotville, but, like most of those who fought there he had been “treated abominably” by both the UN and authorities in Ireland who had “swept the whole thing under a carpet” as a diplomatic embarrassment.
Matthew Quinlan left the army a few years afterwards and moved to England and later Australia. He never got over the experience of those five days. In 1991, Bernadette took the call from Australia that her brother had died by suicide. He was 47. She had to inform her parents who have since died.
It is partly for their sakes that she is now speaking out. “I’ve never spoken publicly about this before,” she told the gathering.
Matthew Quinlan was one of five of those at Jadotville who subsequently took their own lives. Others among them must undoubtedly have suffered post-traumatic stress as a result of what they saw and what they had to do when their lives were in such danger.
The past was eventually recognised in the last decade as a result of the tireless work of people such as Pat Quinlan’s son Leo; and the filming of The Siege Of Jadotville, based on the book by security analyst Declan Power.
In 2015, the Minister for Defence Simon Coveney came on board. Through his offices, the men of Jadotville received awards of merit. But the medals that had been recommended by Quinlan for his men never came.
The issue has been raised in the Dáil a number of times. In February 2017, Independent TD Noel Grealish made his case:
“The UN military commander in Katanga, Brigadier KAS Raja memorably said that ‘the Irish troops at Jadotville were magnificent and Commandant Quinlan the Irish commander, could be held as an example to all soldiers’.
"That is an important statement from the UN commander at the time on what Commandant Pat Quinlan achieved that day… I seek a firm commitment from the taoiseach that he will right a wrong. These people were never officially recognised.
I accept that the unit received a citation in Athlone last year but Commandant Quinlan’s memory should be honoured and the medals which he proposed should be given to the soldiers for their bravery and honour.
Then taoiseach Enda Kenny responded in kind, but he was on his way out. So was the transient attention and hand-wringing that accompanied the movie and attendant publicity. For whatever reason, some elements within the defence forces or the department have failed to follow through on political commitments.
It may well be that the commitments were not conveyed to the relevant authorities in defence with any degree of force. Or perhaps there is more to it. A barrier that has been cited to awarding the medals is that there is a statute of limitations on awards and the deadline has long since passed.
If anything, this appears to be a form of roadblock constructed to avoid doing the right thing. If such an issue exists, it wouldn’t take much to overcome it in the event of the will being present to do so.
One way or the other, the surviving men of Jadotville have yet to receive their medals. Eight of these men are still living in Ireland and were recently contacted by Leo Quinlan. Some among them had no idea that they had been recommended for medals.
Why does any of this matter? Because for the remainder of the lives of many who fought there. the battle, their role in it was something to be forgotten, an embarrassment of sorts.
Because relatives of those who found that life was never the same afterwards are entitled to have some small recognition of the contribution their loved one made.
In other areas of Irish life, there have been attempts to come to terms with the past. Some of these have been cosmetic, others a genuine effort to make genuine reparation, even in the context of an apology.
In this instance, the expedient awarding of medals to those deemed to have deserving isn’t too much to ask.