Old friends recall days spent in the Irish army
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.