Old friends re­call days spent in the Ir­ish army

Bray People - - In Profile - Mary FOG­A­RTY

IN 1960, over 600 ill-equipped Ir­ish sol­diers were sent to the trou­bled Congo in cen­tral Africa on a peace-keep­ing mis­sion, amongst them Bray man Tommy Kealy.

Less than a year later, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple lined the streets of Dublin to watch the fu­neral of Ir­ish­men who had been butchered by the Baluba tribes­men at Niemba.

‘We were only chil­dren,’ said Tommy, 50 years af­ter train­ing for the task in the Cur­ragh and Glen of Imaal. ‘We shouldn’t have been there in the jun­gle af­ter train­ing in the Cur­ragh without a tree in sight.’

Tommy was only 20 when he boarded the army plane, his first time fly­ing, un­sure if he would ever re­turn. ‘I was afraid. I’d never been higher than up a tree in the park,’ he said. ‘I still don’t like fly­ing. I had to go to the Philip­pines re­cently for my son’s wed­ding and the flight was very hard.’

Nine of Tommy’s own com­rades on a dif­fer­ent pla­toon in the bat­tal­ion were killed in the Niemba am­bush. ‘It was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble,’ he said, re­call­ing the hor­rors he wit­nessed. ‘I haven’t for­got­ten it yet. I still get night­mares.’

On Novem­ber 8 that year, a bridge over the Luwey­eye River was at­tacked by Baluba tribes­men. Two of the 11 men sur­vived. The Ir­ish troops wore heavy ‘bull’s wool’ uni­forms, boots and leg­gings – un­suit­able for the heat.

Their ra­dio equip­ment was not work­ing and they used a short-wave ra­dio owned by mis­sion­ary priests to con­tact HQ in Dublin.

Tales were told sub­se­quently that Baluba men had been seen wear­ing the boots and jack­ets of the dead sol­diers.

Tommy joined the army in 1958, just a few months be­fore his good friend Owen Gor­man, from Dublin Road. Tommy, from Dar­gle Road, was just 19 and Owen 20. Owen and Tommy both turned to the army for work in the ab­sence of any al­ter­na­tive.

Not quite tall enough to be a sol­dier, the of­fi­cer in­structed Tommy to ‘stand on his tippy toes,’ to be mea­sured and he was ac­cepted. ‘There wasn’t the same height re­stric­tion in those days, we were both diminu­tive!’ said Tommy.

‘Owen and I went to Ravenswell and St. Peter’s to­gether. We are still great friends,’ said Tommy. ‘We were de­liv­ery boys and worked in var­i­ous other jobs from the age of 13. But there was no work about and we needed to get em­ploy­ment.’

Tommy’s fa­ther told him not to come back to the house without a job. ‘The money wasn’t great. We’d get paid on a Wed­nes­day and be broke by Thurs­day!’ he said. The wages were £2, 12S, 6d per week. They went on ma­noeu­vres to­gether in the Glen of Imaal, where they were pho­tographed to­gether with a cou­ple of their friends.

They trained in the county bar­racks in the Cur­ragh be­fore Tommy was dis­patched to Africa and grave dan­ger. ‘The plane was an Amer­i­can one. It was mas­sive and we were strapped in,’ he said. ‘I had to go to the Congo for six months and I had to stay in the army for three years. At the time you didn’t get the chance to be re­ally fright­ened, but when it was all over it hit me.’

Tommy left Ire­land in Au­gust and re­turned at the end of Jan­uary, re­lieved that it was cold here. ‘I didn’t like the army at all,’ he said. ‘I was very glad to get back to Ire­land.’

Owen, how­ever, did en­joy army life and missed it at times over the years fol­low­ing his three years of ser­vice. ‘I en­joyed ev­ery hour if it,’ he said. ‘But there was a sergeant I didn’t get on with so I had to leave. There were too many peo­ple with too many stripes telling peo­ple what to do. And if you wanted a stripe you had to tell your friends what to do. That would hurt me.’

He de­scribed how he and the other sol­diers in Ire­land wor­ried about their friends sta­tioned over on Congo.

‘It was a worry to us, their safety. Es­pe­cially af­ter those nine men were killed.’

Af­ter leav­ing the army as three-star pri­vates, both men went on to marry and have chil­dren and worked in var­i­ous jobs both in Ire­land and Lon­don. Owen is mar­ried to Ann and has six chil­dren and 14 grand­chil­dren. Tommy has four chil­dren and two grand­chil­dren. They re­main the best of friends to this day.

The men on ma­noeu­vres in the Glen of Imaal in Bray all those years ago.

Tommy Kealy and Owen Gor­man are still the best of friends to­day.

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