The Hill of Allen in west Kildare, the fabled seat of ancient warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, has become an almost sacred site for Ireland's special operations unit, the Army Ranger Wing (ARW).
On completion of a torturous 42-week training course during which many quit, the remaining recruits climb the hill under the ARW’s black and yellow flag where they are awarded the coveted green beret. Fewer and fewer recruits have made that climb in recent years. Just two did so in 2019.
Last month, some of the Rangers were sent to Kabul to rescue Irish citizens stranded there.
It is never clear how many of them there are since the Defence Forces will not say. In all, it is believed that there are no more than 50 serving Rangers, just half the commonly-cited figure for the unit, despite the Government's plans five years ago to vastly increase the ARW's strength.
The reasons for the low numbers are many. They include frustration over pay and conditions, something that’s common throughout the Defence Forces, as well as grumbles about promotional opportunities in a unit that is shrinking in size.
Many serving and retired Rangers also believe that the Government lacks vision on how to use a highly-trained unit which is now considered to be one of the best in the European Union.
The commanding officer is only a commandant, which means he is way down the food chain. He has to cut through layers of bureaucracy to have his voice heard
“It’s nearly like they are afraid of them, like they’re Frankenstein’s monster,” said a former member, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There’s a lack of understanding of what they’re capable of and a real reluctance to use them.”
Some wonder if the Rangers can survive. Kabul brought headlines, but major deployments are rare. The last large mission was to Chad in 2008 when 54 Rangers were sent.
Last year, roughly a dozen Rangers were dispatched to conduct long-range reconnaissance patrols in Mali using borrowed German vehicles. A repeat of the 1999 East Timor mission, when 30 Rangers were deployed, is now beyond the unit's scope.
The reluctance to use the the ARW comes mostly from a lack of knowledge about what it can do, said Independent TD for Kildare Cathal Berry who previously served as its second-in-command.
“The commanding officer is only a commandant, which means he is way down the food chain,” he said. “He has to cut through layers of bureaucracy, both military and civilian, to have his voice heard.”
In his memoir two years ago, former ranger Billy Hedderman remembers the "massive reluctance", especially among gardaí, to use the Rangers during the 2011 visits of Queen Elizabeth and US president Barack Obama.
“People seemed to have the impression that we were some sort of rogue and lawless unit that daily came up with ways of trying to kill each other,” he wrote.
In 2012, plans to deploy Rangers to United Nations ships in the Gulf of Aden to counter the growing threat from Somali pirates were shelved at the last minute, as were plans to send them to a European special forces event in Spain.
Pay has long been a gripe. When it was established in 1979, ARW members were given a special allowance of £14 per week. By 2006, it had increased to just €20 per day, less than the allowances given to bomb-disposal or search-and-rescue crews.
So what is the purpose of the ARW today? Previously, its primary role was to counter the terrorism threat within Ireland, but that changed with the Good Friday Agreement and the growth of Islamic terror abroad.
Soldiers were then required to deploy anywhere in the world at five days’ notice. They had to wear beepers at all times, live close to the Curragh, learn foreign languages and take part in far more intensive training.
In 2006, members sought an increase in the daily allowance to €70. Four years later, an arbitrator ruled that they should get €200 a week regardless of rank, backdated to 2006, with a review in 2014 and every three years thereafter.
He would have awarded more, he said, if the State was not in recession at the time. The Department of Defence subsequently backdated the allowance to 2018, not 2006, while three-year reviews have not happened either.
This has left some ARW members owed up to €40,000, said Gerard Guinan, general secretary of PDForra, the organisation representing rank-and-file Defence Forces personnel. PDForra is pursuing a case before the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.
Rangers lose their allowance if they are off work for more than 28 days. One was seriously injured while fast-roping from a helicopter onto a boat. Left in a cast for weeks, his allowance was soon cut off.
Responding, the Department of Defence said the goal remains to significantly increase ARW strength, but that it will take “some time”, while the arbitration award could not be implemented because of wider government cutbacks.
It's not conducive to a family life. Most people don't want to quit, but there's only so long you can maintain that pace
Keeping the numbers up in the wing has always been a challenge, primarily due to the infamously tough selection course, which usually sees many applicants quit within the first 24 hours.
Instructors remind candidates during endless marches through the mud and bogs of Wicklow that they can quit any time they want and get a warm shower. They are sometimes too successful. In 2008, no one finished the course. The customary photo of the latest class from that year, which still hangs in the ARW compound in the Curragh, features 15 instructors and no students.
This was an aberration. Most years a handful make it up the final leg to the Hill of Allen. But Defence Forces numbers have dropped about 20 per cent since 2008, so the pool from which people can be drawn is shrinking too.
Meanwhile, Rangers are attractive to others, especially in private security, consultancy and risk management work where the right candidate can earn multiples of an Irish military salary.
In the past, Rangers usually left in their early 40s. Now some are quitting in their late 20s or early 30s, sources said. Often, people quit because they are burned out.
“It’s not conducive to a family life,” a former member told The Irish Times, “Most people don’t want to quit, but there’s only so long you can maintain that pace.”
Often, those who leave join An Garda Síochána, where ex-Rangers are often fast-tracked into the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) or National Surveillance Unit. There the pay is better and the lifestyle less demanding.
It is an obvious step. Despite tension between the military and the Garda during the 2011 official visits, the ARW and ERU train closely together and have a good relationship. They would work together if faced with a terrorist attack.
The colours of the Army Ranger Wing are black, red and gold with the black signifying the value the unit places on secrecy which lasts long after service has ended.
This secrecy even extends into death. Within the ARW compound there is a monument to four Rangers killed on active service. The circumstances surrounding the deaths of three of them remain classified.