An Irishman's Diary
It’s not just simple anniversaries that Ireland will be marking over the next few years. There will also be at least one anniversary of an anniversary. And it was the subject of a rather poignant letter I received recently.
The writer was Louis O’Brien, last surviving officer of a Guard of Honour formed at the GPO in 1966 during ceremonies to mark the semi-centenary of the Easter Rising. The 100-strong guard, which included a future taoiseach, was drawn from members of the Pearse Battalion of the FCA, one of the more interesting groups in that organisation’s history.
Louis is also now the membership secretary of the Pearse Battalion Association. As which, he wants to organise what may be the guard of honour’s final reunion. “Please [. . .] think about publishing my request and make a (relatively) old man happy,” he writes.
His letter includes a roll-call of his former charges, which includes one “Pte Bruton, J”, the future taoiseach. It also includes a “Cpl McNally, F” (no relation of the Diary). But with sad inevitability, a few on the list are now dead or missing in action – the action that was their post-military-reserve life.
The Pearse Battalion began, like the FCA itself, in 1946. With the ending of the war, or the “Emergency” as it was known in these parts, the five Dublin Battalions of the Local Defence Force were disbanded and reformed as units of the new Fórsa Cosanta Áitúil . And it was from the remains of the LDF’s old 42nd Battalion that the PB rose.
It was a highly educated force, its members all being students. Some came from UCD, Trinity, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Dental Hospital, and St Patrick’s Teacher Training College. Others were from secondary institutions in Dublin and Kildare, including the O’Connell Schools, Belvedere College, and Clongowes.
In his charmingly frank history of the battalion, published in 2005, Louis confesses that they didn’t necessarily join the FCA out “any high falutin’ sense of patriotism”. No. These were the days before television, and when church and government regimentation still greatly limited the social lives of teenagers.
As a result, “many young men – very young men – joined the FCA for something to do”. And not everyone was happy at the prospect. At least one Belvedere mother “expressed reservations about her little darling joining because of bad language”. But as well as bad language, the recruits learned how to be soldiers. And despite initial lack of motivation, says O’Brien, most soon caught the “military bug”.
Mind you, the late 1940s and 1950s in Ireland were not notable for military opportunities. To coin a phrase, the men of the Pearse Battalion were as likely to make hay as war. Or if not hay, corn.
One of their most notable engagements was in 1947, when appalling weather threatened Ireland’s grain harvest, on which the country heavily depended. The government all but declared another emergency, appealing for volunteers. Dublin civil servants were encouraged to take time off and head for the fields. The Department of Education dismissed students for as long as they were needed.
The Pearse Company’s Belvedere boys, O’Brien included, volunteered en masse and were soon dispatched to the front line in Co Louth, where, wielding scythes rather than bayonets, they forced the fields into submission.
They got to kill things too, if only the rats that fled the falling corn. And all told, between the 1947 harvest and other, more conventional actions, they did the State some service before being stood down in 1959 and becoming a mere company, under the wing of the Army, in 20 Infantry Battalion.
Even then, their finest hour had still to come when, seven years later, what was now D Company (Pearse) 20 Battalion was asked to form the Guard of Honour during Rising commemorations. It did the job well. So much so, O’Brien notes with pride, that IRA veterans at the GPO were heard to argue about whether the guard comprised FCA men (as it did) or “regulars”.
Whatever the motives in joining, the former commandant says, recruits learned “self-confidence, self-discipline, and obedience”, as well as how to work for a team.
No one he ever met afterwards regretted the experience. Which is why he would like the guard to muster one more time, in 2016. It’s not an order, exactly – he’s a retired commandant now. Even so, members are strongly urged to contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. 01-4909247, or at 36 Crannagh Park, Rathfarnham, Dublin 14.