There are so many discussions we could have in this column this week regarding the theme of heroism and bravery. Napoleon Bonaparte once said - “Valour is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes”.
I find those words to be extremely fitting as I speak firstly of the historic ceremonies which we had in Custume Barracks in Athlone last Saturday, and which are of course of national significance.
These ceremonies were to mark the recognition of the heroes of Jadotville – the soldiers of the ‘A’ Company, 35th Irish Infantry Battalion who came from Custume Barracks.
In September 1961, led by Commandant Pat Quinlan, the soldiers of ‘A’ Company found themselves tasked with protecting the European population at Jadotville, a small mining town in the southern Congolese province of Katanga. This was a United Nations Peace Keeping Mission in the Congo, a type of mission in its infancy at the time.
While they attended a Catholic Mass, ‘A’ Company were surrounded by Katanganese forces who proceeded to attack them in their thousands. These forces were local militia, the Congolese Baluba tribesmen and foreign mercenaries, among others. ‘A’ Company held out against them in spite of the huge numerical odds that weighed in on them.
The men of Jadotville never got their due recognition when they came back from the Congo Mission. This was due to a mistaken and regretful implication that somehow, by holding out and then having to surrender, they had somewhat let down the Irish Army. It was a most shameful end to what was such a brave and courageous incident in all of those young soldiers’ lives.
For years the hurt remained. Commandant Quinlan and most of the soldiers arrived home to a torchlight procession through the streets of Athlone to Custume Barracks. Private John Gorman went on to attain NCO rank and served with the UN in Cyprus. From that day on, Private John Gorman and others with him never stopped in their efforts to ensure that the real story of Jadotville got out and that the heroism of the soldiers there was compiled and honoured.
There was a final breakthrough in 2005 when Willie O’Dea, the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Defence, met a deputation headed by John Gorman and outlined to them that the Army was about to embark on a full recognition of their heroism. All of that took time to achieve, but the final outcome was last Saturday in Custume Barracks when those who remain of that famous ‘A’ Company, the deceased, and all of their families were honoured. It was so fitting that this should be done and that ‘A’ Company, the forgotten men of Jadotville, should get their due regard.
It is a wonderful story, not just for Athlone, Custume Barracks and the ‘A’ Company, but for the history of Ireland. There was many a heart filled with emotion in Athlone last Saturday.
A special Presidential Unit Citation was presented at Custume Barracks to mark the occasion. Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Defence, Paul Keogh, presented a copy of the Citations to members of the Unit or their next-of-kin, while wreaths were laid for those who died. The event formally recognised the bravery of the soldiers 55 years after they were attacked by troops loyal to the Katanganese Prime Minister. It was recognition that was long overdue.
Declan Power wrote the definitive book in 2005 entitled Siege at Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle, and it is well worth a read by anyone who can lay their hands on it. This week also in Athlone we have the showing in the cinema of The Siege of Jadotville, which is based on Power’s book. I am going along to see it with some friends of mine on Wednesday evening. I know that anyone who sees it will be moved by those stories of not so long ago.
There is a small familiar turn to the tale of Commandant Pat Quinlan. Later on in life he was a very good bridge player in the Custume Barracks in Athlone, where he regularly played the game with my mother. They enjoyed a very harmonious bridge partnership together.
There is so little time left now to talk of more heroism, this time in Croke Park last Sunday - the heroism of Mayo and the fight they put up in the All-Ireland final against Dublin. Rain, squelchy grass, and all of the attendant ills led to two own goals, giving Dublin a terrific score through no skill of their own. But Mayo did not lie down under that. They fought and they fought, culminating in that wonderful 77th-minute kick by their captain, Cillian O’Connor.
All the papers had forecasted a Dublin victory. Now they have to eat their words. The result as we all know is a draw and Mayo live to fight another day.
Another tale of heroism – the 48 athletes coming back from the Rio Paralympics with their clutch of 11 medals is surely a cause for great celebration all over the country. They went, they played and in many cases they conquered. They are surely heroes who are to be admired.
This week I could write four columns I have so much to talk about with you all. I will hold some until next week. I hope to talk with you all then.
In the meantime, go safely.
Slan go Fhoill,