After 35 years in the army, 15 charities, six overseas tours in four countries, three promotions, two children, and one wonderful wife, local dynamo and social benefactor Noel O’Callaghan managed to find the time to shoot the breeze with the Advertiser this week about his colourful career and his involvement with so many great causes around the Midlands.
Noel first came to Mullingar from Ballyfermot as a 17-year-old to sign up with the 4th Field Artillery Regiment in Mullingar, and a year later he married Breda.
“And 35 years later she still puts up with me. I often wonder how she does it,” said Noel.
Within two years he got his first stripes, and was promoted again to sergeant by the time he was 23.
“In those days that was rapid promotion,” said Noel.
He went on his first peacekeeping mission with General Vincent Savino to the Lebanon in 1978 as a 19-year-old corporal, and served in Tibnin and some smaller villages, and returned again within a year. Having since served with the UN in Eritrea, Kosovo, and Chad, Noel will return for a fourth time to Lebanon this June as Battalion Sergeant Major. (The part-time change of prefix for the Regimental Sergeant Major is because he is travelling with an infantry battalion. )
“That was a burner!” he said in reference to the trip to Chad in 2009, where temperatures occasionally hit 58 degrees Celsius and water was the premium resource in a landlocked country the size of France and Spain combined.
“You could have a 30 second shower once a day and if you weren’t finished, a hand would come in and drag you out, because there was a queue of 400 people waiting outside,” he remembered.
Noel’s first grandchild was born while he was on this mission, and was four months old when she finally got to meet him.
Considering this sort of sacrifice, the Advertiser asked him where was it the most difficult.
“Regardless of the year or location, each one was as challenging and diverse as each other,” said the RSM.
“It’s always about the people, whether it’s the troops you’re with or the people we’re there to protect,” he added.
“Regardless of the equipment we’ve had over the years, our best assets were the soldiers that served with us, although I’ve got to say, the equipment has come on leaps and bounds in the 31 years from my first  to last  deployment,” he continued, pointing out that the weaponry he and his colleagues have faced in this period has improved immeasurably.
However, as most of our readers know, Noel O’Callaghan is far more than just a career soldier, and over the last 20 years has got involved in an extraordinary 15 charities in and around the Midlands.
“The first one was when my kids [Rebecca and David] were young, and I noticed if you weren’t into sports in Mullingar, there was nothing in the town,” he said.
So over the next 10 months, Noel O’Callaghan put together a questionnaire and walked the town distributing, collecting, and collating the results.
From this he approached the National Youth Federation of Ireland for funds and was eventually successful.
“Between begging and screaming it took me about two years to do this but it’s still running,” he declared.
The headquarter of this facility is in Grange, with a second opening in D’Alton Park, as well as the offshoot EYE Project on Spoutwell Lane.
All three are affiliated with the Midlands Regional Youth Service in Athlone, of which Noel has been treasurer for the last six years.
Concurrent with the campaign, Noel has been a member of Vincent de Paul since 1990, having been brought into the fold by local leader and his retired boss, Colonel Enda Breslin.
The youth service he set up in Grange took four years to get opened, but in the ultimate tribute to such an endeavour, was opened by the President, Mary McAleese in 2009. She has been back twice to Westmeath to open similar facilities in Killucan and Ballymore.
From this Noel became the local representative with Westmeath Community Childcare Services, and is also the treasurer of this group.
“I would’ve visited every créche in the county, I’d be very active in that respect,” he admitted.
Not content to park anything on laurels, Noel has since founded the Mullingar Community Together to get facilities and amenities in estates around the town, and on the strength of that, the RAPID support fund got involved in Mullingar for the first time.
The RAPID project (Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development ) was developed in Dublin in the late 90s to bring amenities to the inner city.
“They had been in Athlone for years, and we couldn’t get them in,” said Noel who, unsurprisingly, is now chairman of RAPID in Mullingar.
Since then, he has become PRO for the St Patrick’s Day parade committee, which this year had more bands than the parade in Dublin, as well as a hand in the Open Door Project and the Mullingar Drugs Network.
“From that group, we became aware of a man trying to set up a Midlands branch of Living Links, a bereavement support group for people left behind by suicide,” said Noel.
“We’re trying to send a message to show there will always be somebody on the end of the phone, and we’re hoping to have a number manned 24/7,” he added.
When asked when was this going to go live he said: “Realistically, yesterday, but I’m pragmatic about funding in Ireland now”.
On Tuesday, April 26, at 6.30pm in the Annebrook Hotel Noel O’Callaghan will be rightfully acknowledged for his sterling selflessness over the years, when Living Links will make him its first ever patron.
It is the very least we can do.