IRELAND’S first major overseas peacekeeping mission was to the Congo in 1960, a milestone in the State’s history and something that was marked with a commemorative ceremony late last month.
There was a good sprinkling of Clare soldiers who travelled to the central African country, including Sixmilebridge man John O’Malley.
In the 1950s there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in this country, so the chance of a steady job and of seeing something different led to him leaving the Banner county for the fierce heat of the Congo.
He remembers the moment when he volunteered to serve abroad.
“I was down in Ballybunion for exercises and stuff. The next thing we had a muster parade. That’s a thing where every man, woman and child comes in and is briefed on what’s going down. We were told there was a mission coming up to the Congo and they wanted volunteers. So I took a step forward. That was about it.”
He had never been abroad or on an aeroplane before but he wasn’t unduly worried as he set out.
“It wasn’t unnerving, you’d be anticipating what’d happen and you’d be hoping for the best and that it’d work out well. I was very excited about it.”
Getting to the Congo was a massive journey in itself and, once he arrived, he was struck by the soaring temperature there.
“We were travelling for about 24 hours on one of those huge troop carriers. We stopped in France and Tripoli and Nigeria on the way. The first thing that hit me was the enormous heat. The minute you got down the ramp of the plane you were hit with this enormous flash of heat. It was unbelievably warm and humid, that was the first impression I got. ‘Jesus Christ’ I said ‘What am I doing in this place at all?’”
The locals’ experiences of people with white skin hadn’t been very positive and they weren’t exactly thrilled to see the Irishmen coming.
“We came in when the Belgians evacuated. You were white-skinned and they were suspicious of us, they thought we’d be like the Belgians and obviously they’d got a tough time off the Belgians. They were very suspicious. When you were on patrol they’d point at you and call you ‘Belge’. Once they got used to us we did okay. We had the gift of the gab and the bit of Blarney. Between their little bit of English and our small grasp of Swahili, we got on alright.”
He spent two tours of duty in the Congo and remembers it as a rather tough time. “It was a tough oul’ slog, food wasn’t great, accommodation wasn’t good and there was a bit of tension there. We did the best we could.”
Greg Mullane is a native of Limerick, but has lived in Ennistymon since 1967. “I’m a Clare man now,” he says.
Greg went to the Congo in 63 and like John, he wasn’t too perturbed about what he was facing.
“Not really, no. When you’re young like that you don’t take any notice do you?”
The intense heat and the uniforms more suited to Irish conditions than African sunshine, are another memory.
“It was fierce warm out there, up to 50 degrees. We used to call the uniform ‘bull’s wool’. It was very thick. You had to have it buttoned up to your neck.”
He didn’t find the locals overly welcoming either and remembers a few skirmishes.
“It was like anything, you’d have good days and bad days. There was trouble there a few times and things. There was a bit of shooting here and there with the Congolese. A fella was hit from Clonmel, but he wasn’t too badly hurt and he survived.”
He said that, at times, the soldiers would shoot up trees, in the hopes of hitting snipers. Christmas wasn’t a particularly festive time, he recalls.
“On Christmas Eve we were having a bit of a party. Then a few shots came in the window. We had to go out and hide inside in the trenches then. We had to stay there then for a few weeks. When things settled down, we could go back to the house.”
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