We have fought bravely and died brutally in wars ranging from the Napoleonic to the Boer to World War 11. The Fighting Irish is the story of our finest says Richard Fitzpatrick
THERE were more Irishmen than any other nationality in the British Army in 1843 — 42,000, a thousand more than the number of Englishmen. “This is one of the themes of my book,” says Tim Newark, author of The Fighting Irish: The Story of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier, “there’s almost this invisible Irish army. I was very much struck by the amount of Irishmen that served in the British Army who were dubbed Englishmen when they won the Victoria Cross. I found that absurd.”
Michael O’Leary, who grew up on a farm in Macroom, Co Cork, was the first Irish Guardsman to win a VC medal. During a skirmish at Flanders in Jan, 1915, he weaved through gun fire, grenades and soldiers bayoneting each other, shot dead eight German soldiers, seized a machine-gun, which could have wiped out his company, and returned with two prisoners. His valour turned him into a celebrity and a prized recruiting asset for High Command, not that his father was fussed. “I am surprised he didn’t do more,” said Daniel O’Leary to a local newspaper. “I often laid out 20 men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could only kill eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet.”
There’s dozens of accounts of the bravery of Irish soldiers in Newark’s study of 400 years of battle, including the Napoleonic wars in Spain and the Mexican Army’s San Patricio battalion of the 1840s, as well as the Boer War, and modern combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, the intrigues and double crossing among Irish soldiers in German POW camps in World War Two are fascinating.
Newark tells the stories of scoundrels. John Devereux, from Co Wexford, who styled himself as “the virtuous and brave General D’Evereux,” concocted an elaborate confidence scheme: he sold commissions in his Latin American Irish Legion to take part in Simón Bolívar’s South American liberation wars.
When his recruits arrived on the mosquito-infested coast of Venezuela, they found meagre rations and no pay. Mutiny, illness and losses in battle ensued. Those left alive begged to be evacuated to Jamaica. They had been duped by the promise of adventure. Not much has changed.
“For us at home, it seems pointless,” says Newark. “Why would you go to war today? I know young men who I’ve spoken to for this book — and this is consistent throughout the history of all young men — and war gives them a sense of purpose. They’re in their late teens. They might be out of work. They might want to impress their family, their father, their friends and it really suddenly transforms a boy into a man. He thinks it’s going to be quite exciting. Certainly, prior to TV where we can see pictures of what war is actually like, it can seem quite romantic. The true reality of war is not something they think about.”
On Nov 8, 1960, a patrol from the Irish army’s No 2 Platoon, ‘A’ Company, ran into an ambush of Balubas, one of the Congo’s two warring tribes, on a bridge outside Niemba. “They were all drugged up to the eyeballs roaring and screaming,” says Joe Fitzpatrick, one of the Irish soldiers caught in the ambush. “We had a police duty mandate from the UN. Lieutenant Gleeson went forward a couple of paces and put up his arm and got an arrow right through it; then he gave us the command to withdraw into the bush.
“We didn’t know where we were going. We went into this elephant grass, which was about six-foot high. We crossed a river. On the other side, I met Gerry Killeen. He was the colour of marble, the sweat pumping out of him like a tap. When we reached this hump-backed ridge, the Balubas came around it, outnumbering us about 20 to one. If I had been under a British Army officer, he would have let a roar, ‘For King and Country’, but my fellow said, ‘Take cover lads or we’re all going to be killed,’ which was a different order altogether.
“Some fella followed me with a hatchet. I had a .303 rifle. Every time I fired a shot I had to reload. I fired a shot into him and then another shot and went on into the jungle, where I stayed in this swampy area with my face blackened so it wouldn’t shine at night-time. The next day, I heard some noise from the road. It was the Ethiopian UN army. They saved my life.”
Fitzpatrick was lucky. He and Private Tom Kenny were the only soldiers to survive the attack. The other nine were killed. He completed his six months tour of duty and left the army, which ostracised him for, in his words, “running away”. It took him 47 years to clear his name. In 2007, the State awarded him a medal for bravery.
In June, 1961, the Irish Army’s ‘A’ Company, 35th Battalion, was besieged at Jadotville, a wealthy mining town in the Congo. There were 159 in the camp; they dug into five-foot trenches to defend themselves. They were attacked by 2,000 to 4,000 Belgian mercenaries and their Katangan allies. The Irish soldiers had to endure bombing from a Fouga Magister jet fighter. The fighting was relentless. They got no sleep in five days and survived on army-ration “dog” biscuits.
“When you’re young, you didn’t know what fear is,” says Westmeath man John Gorman, who was a 17-year-old private. “There was nothing we could do but defend ourselves. We had tremendous leadership. I often thought afterwards that it was their first time under gunfire, too.”
With ammunition running low, Commandant Pat Quinlan negotiated a ceasefire. Five of his men were wounded. Incredibly, there were 400 casualties on the other side. The Irish soldiers left their trenches but were disarmed and taken hostage. They were released after six weeks.
A rumour circulated in Ireland that they had surrendered. The public ignored them on their return. Fellow Irish battalions mocked them. “They would taunt you,” says Gorman. “When we walked into barracks at the Curragh, lads from the Southern Command started singing ‘Ye showed the white feather’. That time in the army, we had brown waste belts that went around our tunics with a good, hefty brass buckle. They came off. By Jesus, there was murder. There were people hospitalised.”
Gorman deserted the army in 1963 and worked on building sites in England for three years before returning to Ireland for a court martial. Commandant Pat Quinlan defended him in his trial. He was fined £5.
He says he is “very, very bitter” about the treatment the Jadotville veterans received. Ten to twelve of his comrades committed suicide. He still gets counselling. “I will never forgive them,” he says of the army’s top brass, who airbrushed the memory of the siege. As a result of Gorman’s campaign to hold an official review of Jadotville, the veterans of the battle received honorary scrolls in 2005 and a six-foot memorial stone was erected at Custume Barracks in Athlone. He was cleared of soldierly misconduct. A portrait of Commandant Quinlan, who was never posted overseas again after Jadotville, hangs in the Congo Room of the Irish Defence Forces’ UN School.
* The Fighting Irish: The Story of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier by Tim Newark, is published today by Constable, €16.99.