The Irish Soldier

Ever since Finn McCool and his Fianna exercised on the Curragh of Kildare in mythological times soldiering has been a popular profession in Ireland.

That Brian Boru was killed by the Danes, as he was praying the rosary during the battle of Clontarf in 1014, confirmed the native character of spirituality and ferocity, and ever since then Irishmen have gone into battle at home and abroad for God and Country.

Even if the soil they were fighting on was in Europe or America, and the banner they rallied behind was on Spain, France, Ecuador, or England, their hearts were in Ireland. A celebrated painting shows the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers of the British army kneeling at prayer, with their chaplain mounted on a horse, before the slaughter at Aubers Ridge during the Great War of 1914-1918, when over 200,000 Irish men fought for the Empire.

It was the opinion of Fr. Willie Doyle, chaplain to the 16th (Irish) Division of the British Army, that it was ‘an admitted fact that the Irish Catholic soldier is the bravest and best man in a fight but few know that he draws his courage from the strong faith with which he is filled up and the help which comes from the exercises of his religion.’

From the 16th century Irishmen had served in European armies, and the Wild Geese, as the soldiers who left Ireland after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 are called, rallied to the flags of Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and Austria.

Many of the officers were from old landed families, such as the Chevalier Charles Wogan and Major Richard Graydon. Their exploits in rescuing in 1717 the noble Clementina, the proposed bride of the Pretender James Stuart, were the subject of much romance, and a novel by A.E.W. Mason. Many of the exiles settled in their adopted lands, and married into aristocratic families, There are still O’Donnells in Spain, and Hennessys, distillers of the famous brandy, in France, descended from Wild Geese. During the American Civil War Irishmen fought on both sides, and Thomas Connolly from Kildare kept a diary of his experiences there, which has been published.

The modern Irish Army has its roots in Oglaigh na hEireann (The Irish Volunteers), which were formed in 1913. During the war of Independence they became known as the Irish Republican Army. In January 1922, following the Treaty with Britain and the withdrawal of the British army from Ireland, the Civil War erupted and the National Army was formed from the men of the Republican forces who had accepted the Treaty.

Many of the soldiers had served in the British Army and they brought their professional skills with them to the new army.

Several legal officers had been in the service of the Crown, and an ex-soldier of the Royal Artillery was to be a Director of the Artillery Corps. Capt. J.C Fitzmaurice, a former RAF officer, was a founder of the fledgling Air Corps. He was to become famous, when as co-pilot with two German officers, he achieved the first east to west crossing of the Atlantic in 1928.

General Michael Costello was sent to the United States to visit training centres there prior to the establishment of a cadet training school on the Curragh.

Capt. Fritz Brase came from Germany to set up the Army School of Music. Within a few years of the formation of the Army Equitation School riders were competing in Europe, and in Boston, New York and Toronto.

The new army occupied the barracks built by the British army over a hundred years before, but with no requirement for a colonial strength force, many of the barracks had small garrisions, and those burnt during the ‘Troubles’ were not rebuilt. Faithful to the old traditions, a battalion as nominated for the recruitment of Gaelic speakers, and in later years the army was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As a neutral state during the Second World War it was imperative that a substantial military force should be created, and once again the big barracks and other requisitioned buildings were full to capacity. But thousands of men elected to join the British Army, and not only the sons of the Anglo-Irish families rallied to the royal standards.

The Army acquired an International status in the 1950s when, for the first time, it sent officers to participate as Observers in United Nations missions in the Middle East.

Within a few years requests came for officers to serve in missions in the West Indies, Dutch New Guinea, India and Pakistan. From 1960 onwards contingents of Irish troops joined those of other nationalities in the Congo, Cyprus and the Lebanon.

The first casualties of UN service were experienced in 1960 when Balubas attacked a foot patrol in the Congo and nine men were killed.

Irish generals have commanded UN forces in the Congo, Cyprus and Lebanon, and other officers have been attached to UN headquarters in New York, the Organisation on Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, Bosnia and Georgia, and with the European Community Monitor Mission (ECMM) in the former Yugoslavia.

During my own service I spent several years in the Headquarters on UN missions in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

It was professionally rewarding to work with officers of many other armies, including Australia, Canada and the United States, Senegal, Nepal, Ghana and Scandinavia, and to be known that Irish soldiers were highly appreciated as peacemakers. 80% of the army has now had service with the United nations.

The peace process in Northern Ireland, and the participation of Ireland in the European Community, have created different defence policies.

Currently the army is being re-organised and in the process more of the old British army barracks are being evacuated. With a strength of 12,000 Regular and 16,000 Reserve (male and female) troops the Permanent Defence Forces, comprising the Air Corps an the Naval Service as well as the Army, are adapting to the new political situations at home and in Europe.

As internal security duties diminish, involvement with the United Nations and NATO require more attention.

The Air Corps and the Naval Service have ever-increasing duties with fishery patrols, and search and rescue operations, while the Army elite Ranger Wing is always on standby to aid the civil power in any emergencies that might arise.

The new organisation will ensure that the men and women of the army will happily continue the long tradition of Irish soldiering, and carry the flag of Green, White and Orange proudly into the new millennium.

Courtesy of the Leinster Leader
December 2002