My Mission: Sgt-Maj Noel O’Callaghan – oldest soldier in group

Forty years with Defence Forces starting at age of 17 and veteran of seven UN missions


At 57, Sgt Maj Noel O’Callaghan is the oldest soldier serving with the 48th Infantry Group on the Golan Heights. He is 40 years in the Defence Forces this month and they have been the happiest years of his life.

“Two good things happened in 1975,” he says, lying in the sunshine on Cemetery Hill in the Glen of Imaal during a pause in field exercises. “I joined the Army and a week later, I met my wife, believe it or not. I was 17.”

Breda is his rock back home and mother of their two children. They also have two grandchildren.

O’Callaghan sports a restrained and well-kept handlebar moustache. He is a father-figure and mentor to his sergeants, corporals and privates, and is Lieut Col Prendergast’s direct link to them all.

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“Every man a rifle man,” says O’Callaghan. “You are a soldier first, then you have a rank and than a job.”

He is based normally with 2 Artillery in Athlone. What does he like about his job?

“Oh, everything!” he says, “I’ve never lost the hunger for it. I’ll be walking that ground out there in Undof literally till we come back. Feeling the pulse, making sure things are good, that we’re ready to rock.”

Tempo

Feeling the pulse in the glen three weeks before the off, he reckons all is well. “The tempo is good: they’re well-trained, well-motivated.”

O’Callaghan is a veteran of seven UN missions, including Lebanon (four times), Chad, Kosovo and Eritrea, and every one of them was different, he says. “The danger element is never really gone. We just have to train the boys to react sharp.”

In all units, the sergeant major plays a central role and is a custodian of standards and customs.

“He should epitomise everything that it good within a regiment and he should have the NCOs and the gunners looking up to him. . . You have to be very mindful all the time that what you say and what you do are the same thing; that you are leading my example.”

Noel was born in Ballyfermot, Dublin, and left school at 14, “cause we’d a big family”. He spent a year with CIÉ in Inchicore, was an apprentice butcher for a time and a printer with Smurfits in Walkinstown before being made redundant.

Sense of community

He has a very strong sense of community, something that has propelled him to found numerous groups in Mullingar, most of them related to childcare and youth services. His life experience has taught him the value of military service.

“The Army can instil self-discipline in a young person, helping them realise it’s not just about yourself. You have to be thinking of others because you are no good on your own here.

“One of the duties of the Irish Defence Forces is that, unlike other armies, all of our barracks are immersed in communities. You are like a civilian in uniform. It’s important to keep that connection with people. Very important. We can give a lot to society and communities – organisational skills and stuff.”

He will retire in 2017 on his 60th birthday – Christmas Day.

Until then, he’s got next year’s 1916 commemorations to prepare for and, for now, his role with Undof.

“One of the reasons I’m on this mission is that it’s very hard for me to sit in the office at home and say, ‘Right lads, you go and volunteer for Syria, I’m going to sit in my office and drink coffee.’

“I can’t soldier that way – I have to be there with the lads.”