Fintan O’Toole: Problem for Jadotville survivors is they did not die

My uncle could have bragged about Jadotville – but he never did

At the commemoration in Custume Barracks, Athlone, a relative points to the plaque marking the 55th anniversary of the siege of Jadotville in the Congo in 1961. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

At the commemoration in Custume Barracks, Athlone, a relative points to the plaque marking the 55th anniversary of the siege of Jadotville in the Congo in 1961. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Last year, I was waiting at a hospital in Dublin when I noticed an elderly man looking at me very closely. I assumed he was struggling to remember me from television or from a mugshot in the paper. But he asked me instead “Are you by any chance related to Billy Heffernan? You look the image of him.”

The man was from Mullingar, where my uncle Willy (he was Billy in Westmeath but Willy in Dublin) had spent most of his life after he joined the Army and was posted to Columb Barracks there. He was my mother’s brother. And when the man asked me about him I remembered his funeral and the guard of honour of elderly men with straight backs and blue United Nations berets.

 I always knew that Willy was in the Siege of Jadotville in the Congo in September 1961. I suppose Willy was notionally represented in the gripping movie that I saw last week – he’d have been one of the Vickers machine gunners who inflicted such large casualties on the poor Luba tribesmen ordered into battle by white Belgian, French and Rhodesian mercenaries.

In Declan Power’s fine book about the siege, there’s a photograph of Willy with a group of comrades from A Company sitting around a foxhole in front of the bus garage that was at the centre of the UN compound attacked by Katangese forces over six days and five nights. The siege is just over and the men are all alive, so it’s no surprise that they look happy.

Survival

But the photograph that was part of our family history was one that my father saw on the front of a newspaper in Dublin over a month later. After the 150 Irish men – their ammunition, water and food almost gone – surrendered to the overwhelmingly superior numbers of the Katangese, there were reports that 57 of them had been killed in the fighting and that the rest were missing. There seemed to be a very good chance that Willy was dead. And then my dad bought a paper one evening and there was a picture of the men in captivity, with their stoical commandant Pat Quinlan at the centre and Willy at the front, just to his left. His already thinning hair is bare. He has a fabulous tan and a huge warm smile on his face – the same smile you’d see on him in Croke Park whenever Dublin won a game. I knew about that picture decades before I actually saw it because my mother always remembered my dad running home to show her the proof Willy was alive.

 But I don’t think we had any real notion of what he’d been through by then – not just in surviving the siege but in actually killing people. He was the gentlest of men. It would be hard to think of a human being less naturally aggressive. Like his comrades in A Company, he had never fired a shot in anger until Jadotville. Yet they turned out to be rather good at it. They killed in self-defence, of course, and the movie allows you to imagine what it was like for 150 men to be attacked by perhaps 3,000 men with mortars, machine guns, a piece of heavy French artillery and a Fouga jet.

Masterpiece of defence

Quinlan’s feat of arms in getting through the siege without losing a single man is surely a masterpiece of improvised defence. Morally, there was no equivalence between United Nations troops on the one hand and mercenaries serving the interests of the Anglo-Belgian Union Minière du Haut Katanga and its control of much of the world’s supply of copper, cobalt and uranium.

 But killing is killing nonetheless. And what strikes me now is how justified Willy might have been in boasting about it and how heroic it is that he didn’t. The Jadotville veterans were mocked as cowards because they surrendered. But the bizarre thing is that they were a political embarrassment because they had actually been too lethally effective. It did not suit anyone’s agenda for UN troops to have killed so many people in combat. So it was easier to write them off as military failures. And it must therefore have been an almost irresistible temptation for Willy and his friends to reassert their manhood by telling tales about all the kills they had made. But they didn’t. They just got on with it – Willy went back to serve with the UN in the Congo in 1962 and then did two peacekeeping tours in Cyprus.

 It is not surprising that it has taken so long – too long, alas, for Willy – for the Siege of Jadotville to be acknowledged as a part of Irish history and for the men who withstood it to be recognised as patriots who risked their lives to give Ireland an independent place in the world. For Jadotville is the opposite of the great Irish nationalist myth of blood sacrifice.

The problem with the Jadotville men is that they didn’t die – they were almost unbelievably successful at staying alive while high politics were setting them up to be massacred. They lived to tell the tale and yet, under a different kind of siege – the long siege of insinuations on their manhood and honour – they chose not to do so.

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