Irish in Lebanon: ‘We have shelling, air strikes, machine gun fire. It gets the adrenaline flowing’

‘I’d have to say it’s a big eye-opener now’, says returning soldier

“We have had quite an amount of activity in terms of shelling, air strikes, machine gun fire, mortars, the use of various munitions,” says Lieut Col Stephen Mac Eoin of the last six months when he has commanded the 123rd Infantry Battalion in Lebanon.

“It is very, very loud,” added the Dubliner, a married father of four, of the live-fire incidents right up to the perimeter of the Irish camp. “You can’t necessarily hear people talking. There can be a shock-wave effect, depending on the type of munition that is used. It certainly gets the adrenaline flowing.”

The 391 Defence Forces personnel under Mac Eoin’s command have faced a much more dangerous environment since the security climate in this part of southern Lebanon, on the border with northern Israel, changed after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas last October.

Past deployments of Irish troops on this mission – the United Nations Interim Force Lebanon (Unifil) – were forced to take cover in bunkers, in a process known as “groundhog”, once or twice during six-month tours. But since last October, that has often been a daily occurrence.


The conflict in Gaza, some 200km away to the south, has seen Israel and Iran-backed Hizbullah, an ally of Hamas, trading fire daily along the Lebanese-Israeli border. With the Irish caught in the middle of that live conflict zone, conditions have been “kinetic”, as the Irish troops say.

“All around the area behind me here, which is right down the south of Lebanon at the Blue Line frontier between Lebanon and Israel, there have been exchanges of fire on a daily basis,” Mac Eoin explains, speaking to The Irish Times at Camp Shamrock.

“This fire has obviously caused a lot of damage and death in the local surrounding area, but also we have had quite a number of incidents of firing close to our own positions here in the Irish-Polish area of operations.”

One of those troops who is now experiencing the new situation “for real” in Lebanon is Comdt Aine McDonagh from Rush, Co Dublin. She arrived two weeks ago – as part of the 124th Battalion replacing the 123rd – for her third trip to Lebanon after previous deployments in 2016 and 2019.

“I’d have to say it’s a big eye-opener now, it’s very different,” she said of the current situation. “We got off the bus [in Camp Shamrock on arrival] and we were straight into groundhog. And in my previous two trips I think we had one groundhog in two six-month trips. So you just fall back on your training immediately.

“We did a lot of preparation for this and we were in touch constantly while with the group who were already out here while we were doing our training in the Glen of Imaal. And we’d done groundhog about 15 times since I got here two weeks ago.”

Although the security climate is very different, she said she was not more apprehensive as she travelled out to Lebanon. One big change for her since her last deployment is that she is now the mother of two young children: Tomás, aged 3 years, and Donnacha, aged 2 years.

“I’m not concerned from a personal safety point of view,” she said. “We travel in armoured [vehicles] and in body armour and helmet everywhere. So I am confident we are going to be okay. This is my first trip since we had kids and the only way I can balance it all is 100 per cent down to my husband.

“I wanted to serve overseas and we had plenty of conversations about it and he always knew when he was marrying me he was going to end up in a situation like this,” she said with a laugh. “The video chat is the best thing ... I don’t feel so detached from the children, I can see them running around in the garden, I can talk to them every day. That just makes it a lot easier.

“Also I am only a family-friendly deployment so I’m going to be here for three months [rather than the usual six]. So it’s good for work and life and to keep your career on track because I joined the Army to serve overseas and I didn’t want to let having a family stop me progressing in my career. So it’s a great experience and while I really miss them, hopefully they will look back and they’ll be proud of what I did when they were small.”