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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Carlow Militia

Anthony Finns


Keeping The Peace
by
Anthony Finn, The Meadows, Myshall

Joining The Army

I can still clearly remember the day I joined the Army in 1973. To be honest I cannot say I ever wanted to be a soldier or had any sense of excitement about being one but Dublin in the early seventies (like everywhere in the Country) was hard. The dole queue or immigration was about as good as it got. To put it into perspective, the Platoon in which I trained contained 60 recruits 12 of whom were from the area I had grown up in. Most had no qualifications and all were from working class backgrounds.

There was a sprinkling of country lads in the Platoon and we soon discovered that they were in the same boat as us -unemployed and facing a bleak future. The recruit training was long and sometimes very hard. Just over half the figure that started completed the course. Although we learned many new things including shooting, marching, radio etc we soon realised that most importantly we had bonded together as a unit and that the comradeship we had developed had got us through many of the hard times. A lot of strong friendships were built and maintained. Some of which in my case remain to this day.

Background

Since the Congo in the early sixties the Irish Army had gained huge respect within the United Nations for it's performances while serving on peacekeeping missions overseas. When I joined in 1973 the Army was serving on one such a mission in Cyprus but these troops were moved to The Sini after the October war between Israel and the Arab Countries. Overseas service was always a huge topic of conversation amongst us and most of us could not wait for the opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately this dream came to an abrupt halt in 1974. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings forced the Government to recall it's troops from The Sini in order to strengthen it's Military resources at home. In 1978 Israel invaded Lebanon and the UN received a Mandate to put troops on the border between Israel and Lebanon. The Irish Government was asked if they would supply a Battalion to serve with this Unit which would be known as UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon). To our delight the Irish Government felt the situation at home had stabilised and they were willing to supply a Battalion.

Forming Up and Training

In 1978 I was in the process of learning another type of marching. I was about to take the short march up the aisle to get married. This curtailed my overseas ambitions until the following year. Overseas service is on a volunteer basis in the Irish Army so I was delighted when my application was accepted. I was lucky that A Company with whom I was to serve formed in Collins Barracks where I was based. This saved the hassle of having to move to another Barracks.

The training was long and hard with an emphasis on testing our composure to handle pressure. There were a number of substitutes in the background to take your place if you were not up to it. Everybody had to be inoculated against the various diseases we might encounter over there and there were also endless amounts of documentation to be completed. There seemed to be a form for everything. Perhaps the strangest form to be completed was the "Last Will and Testament". I do not think it had crossed any of our minds about making a will. Besides none of us had an awful lot to leave.

All I was leaving were my "Debts and Regrets". We also had to be interviewed by the Platoon Officer who had to ensure we were all aware of the task we were about to take on and also to make sure everything was okay with our families and that there were no problems at home. The one thing the Army was conscious about was that problems at home distracted from the job to be done overseas. My wife was pregnant at the time but I hid this fact in case it caused me to be dropped. Finally we were ready to go and we were given a few days off to spend with our families before we departed.

Departing

Having said my good-byes I ieft my home in Eastwall and walked to the North Strand to get a Bus to take me to Barracks. As I walked along the footpath I kept looking around me and tried to take in as much of Dublin as I could. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that it might be the last time I would ever see it. Still the excitement of the adventure ahead far out weighed those thoughts. The flight out although long was uneventful and eventually we touched down in Beirut Airport.

Beirut and The AO

The first thing to hit us when we got off the plane was the heat. It was unbelievable. We had to sit on the tarmac for a good two hours as we waited for the trucks to arrive with the troops going home and to take us to the Area of Operations (AO). The trucks arrived and the lads going home dismounted. All of them were tanned and all had the swagger of "Home is the Hero" about them.

We were starting to envy them already. I was already thinking what it would be like to be on the other side in 6 months time. I managed to get a few quick words with some of my mates one of whom told me he had written and told me not to bother coming out. I asked him what he meant and was told I would soon find out. Unfortunately I had not received his letter, as a postal strike had commenced in Dublin just before we left. We departed the Airport and began our long journey South to the AO. As we drove through Beirut none of us could believe our eyes.

The place was in desolation from the ongoing Civil War which broke out after the Israelis had withdrawn. We journeyed on and eventually just as it was starling to get dark we drove through our first UN Checkpoint. On we drove and at last we arrived at the Irish AO. As the UN was still in the process of establishing itself most of the accommodation was under canvas. In the pitch dark everyone was falling over tent pegs and ropes. Every now and again you would hear a burst of swearing as another one of us bit the dust. After a quick bite to eat a few of us were placed on Guard Duty. All we could do was wait for morning to come to see what the location was like and get a look at the terrain we were in.

South Lebanon

The only way I could describe South Lebanon is that it is similar to The Burren in Co Clare. Rocky and rugged with lots of deep valleys known as Wadis. As you looked across the Wadis you could see lots of little villages dotting the landscape. The people were friendly and were not unlike the Irish for their hospitality. They really appreciated the UN presence as it brought some semblance of normality back to the area. They liked nothing more then to invite us into their homes for a cup of tea (Chi as they called it) and a bit of a chat. Most etched out a living growing crops of tobacco, olives, dates etc but with the arrival of the UN they quickly learned that they could supplement their income by taking in laundry and sewing from the troops. Some got work with the UN as interpreters or just doing work around the camps. The payment they received for these tasks made a huge difference to their lives.

The most unusual group were the "Mingy Men" as we called them. These men travelled around the AO selling items from vans or the boots of cars. It did not matter how remote a location you were in the "Mingy Man" would find you. They sold everything from electric goods to gold and they couid even get photos developed for you. No matter what you sought they seldom failed to come up with the goods.

The Job

As Infantry men, our job consisted mainly of manning Checkpoints (CPs) and Observation Posts (OPs). There were other tasks such as escorting convoys of rations, water etc but you only got the odd run on those. OPs were basically keeping an eye on things and reporting any incidents that might occur within the area of the OP. CPs were the stopping and searching of vehicles passing through the AO.

The Lebanese people in general accepted being stopped and searched but on occasions you would get armed groups trying to pass through. These would have to be stopped and turned back. Most times they would comply and turn back but every so often they would refuse and there would be a confrontation. These could become quite heated and a "Mexican Standoff" would develop. Luckily these were normally resolved after a time and the group would turn back.

Every day was a working day and if not on duty we would be occupied filling sandbags, building bomb shelters, cleaning and painting. It has often been said that if you stood still long enough in an Irish Camp it is quite possible you would find yourself painted blue or white. The theory was that if we were kept occupied we would stay focused on the job and not mope around thinking of home. I guess it worked to some extent.

Rest and Recreation

Letter writing was one of the main ways to pass the time. It was soon discovered that the receiving of mail was a huge boost to morale. We were unfortunate to be handicapped in this regard for most of our trip due to the postal strike back home. When the postal votes for a referendum due to take place back home arrived and no mail arrived with them we registered our disgust by spoiling all the votes with "No Post No Vote". At least the strike ended a short time later.

The odd night when you were not on duty we would be collected and brought into the main camp for a few beers. There were strict rules about drinking and the canteen would normally only be opened for two hours. Various pastimes were organised in the canteen and on certain nights you could have a quiz, a poker classic, bingo or the odd time maybe even a concert and sing song. Some lads could not bring themselves to play bingo and looked upon anyone who did as "Oul Wan's". We were all entitled to two weeks leave and in the early trips this was mostly spent in the Holy Land, Egypt or Cyprus. It was a great opportunity to see places you could only dream about in Ireland. In later trips when things were better organised I knew lads who went as far as Brazil and Australia.

Good News

On the 29th of Sept, the day the Pope arrived in Ireland I received word by radio that my wife had given birth to a baby boy. There was a huge buzz amongst us over the Pope's visit but this made it all the better. Happy days! I could start looking forward to the Christening. I later discovered that there were five other lads in the Battalion who had kept the news of their wife's pregnancy a secret.

End of Trip / Going Home

The last days of the trip seemed to just drag by. They were endless. An air of excitement and elation was slowly building up as everyone looked forward to going home. Finally the day of reckoning arrived. I can remember little about the trip home. We were just too excited. The journey up to Beirut, the flight, everything was just a blur. The one thing that sticks out in my mind was the cheer that went up when the plane landed in Dublin. The roof nearly came off. My wife and her father picked rne up at Clancy Barracks where we had to collect our luggage and we headed for home.

On the way the wife's father asked me if I fancied a pint of Guinness. Now there are a lot of things you miss when you are away from home (batch loaf, tap water, sausages, King Crisps) but a pint of Guinness is up at the top. We pulled in at Gills on the North Circular beside Croker and in we went. As I was in my UN uniform we got a lot of strange looks from the locals. When they discovered I was just home from the Lebanon everyone came over and shook my hand and the barman insisted that the drinks were on the house. It was good to be back.

 Source: Myshall Parish Magazine 2006; Pages 18 & 19 & Michael Purcell 2012


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