Into Africa

Published August 9th, 1960. Photograph by Eddie Kelly

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 06:00

It may be a largely forgotten conflict nowadays, but in the early 1960s, many Irish families were all too aware of the ongoing hostilities in the newly independent Republic of Congo, to which some 6,000 Irish soldiers went as UN peacekeepers over four years.

This image shows the advance party of the 33rd Infantry Battalion at Army Headquarters on the eve of their departure. In the front row, from left, are Sgt John Mullins, Moate, Co Westmeath; Comdt Patrick Keogh, Quarter Master, Adare, Co Limerick; Lt Col RW Bunworth, Cobh, Co Cork (commanding officer of the battalion, who did not travel with the party); Comdt Kevin O’Brien, Kildare, second command unit; Sgt John Bowe, Portarlington.

In the back row, from left, are Sgt Michael Fenlon, Athlone; CQMS Patrick Dillon, Kilmacrennan, Co Donegal; Coy Sgt Michael Maher, Littleton Co Tipperary; CQMS Patrick Murphy, Middleton, Co Cork and CQMS Alfred Taylor, Dublin.

The men gaze steadily at the camera, giving an impression of organised calm which belies the ferocity and chaos of the battles to come. Look more closely at the faces, though, and you can detect subtle variations on the official theme of unruffled stoicism.

Actually, it would be no surprise if some of the soldiers in the picture are wondering whether their heavy woollen tunics and trousers might not be a tad OTT in a country where the average summer temperature – even in peacetime – reaches a whopping 30 degrees. No doubt their colleagues from the 32nd Battalion, who had already left for the Congo, had already reported back to this effect.

Within 12 months of this photo being taken, Irish soldiers had served with distinction in such incidents as the Siege of Jadotville and the Niemba ambush. Nine Irishmen and 25 tribesmen were killed in the latter battle, which is commemorated every November at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin. A total of 26 Irish soldiers died before the peacekeeping force was withdrawn in May 1964.
Arminta Wallace

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