Joe Duke presented with a certificate by Brig. Gen. Kieran Brennan, IUNVA president at the IUNVA Congo veterans presentations in Custume Barracks recently. Photo Paul Molloy.

Heroes honoured on 60th anniversary of end of Congo mission

by David Flynn

It is 60 years last week since the last Irish troops pulled out of the Congo, after having completed a series of peace missions over the previous four years. The local Irish United Nations Veterans Association (IUNVA – Post 9) soldiers honoured their former surviving colleagues on Saturday afternoon, June 29, in a military ceremony at Custume Barracks, Athlone.

The event was the final one held in the country this year by IUNVA members to honour various Congo veterans.

The gathering was made up of former Congo soldiers, their families and ex and current military personnel. Paul Cooley, IUNVA, acted as MC on the day and at the beginning of the ceremony he welcomed the veterans and told them Certificates of Appreciation would be given in recognition of their dedicated service, and contributions they made during “a complex and dangerous mission in the cause of world peace”.

GOC 2nd Brigade, Brigadier General Stephen Ryan read out an address to the gathering on behalf of Lt General Sean Clancy, Chief of Staff, who he was representing on the day.

The address revered the Irish soldiers who went to the Congo in the early 1960s and also mentioned the tragedy that took place there, which is known as the Niemba Massacre.

James Feery DSM with Paddy Costello and Jim Cleary all formerly from Tullamore at the IUNVA Congo veterans presentations in Custume Barracks last Saturday. Photo Paul Molloy.
Three generations, Col. Flan Cleary with his son Brig. Gen. Brian Cleary and his grandson Captain Ross Cleary at the IUNVA Congo veterans presentations in Custume Barracks last Saturday. Photo Paul Molloy.

“Our Congo veterans inspire us and for over 66 years not a day has passed where an Irish soldier has not being on a peacekeeping mission somewhere in the world,” said the Chief of Staff’s statement. “No doubt that the Congo was a sharp learning experience for the Defence Forces. They must never be forgotten.”

The statement also said that by 1964, after Ireland’s four-year involvement in the Congo, a total of 6,000 plus Irish soldiers had served there. The Chief of Staff expressed gratitude to IUNVA for providing the Defence Forces the opportunity to thank the Congo veterans for their service.

Speaking on his own behalf, Brigadier Ryan thanked the group for their invitation and also addressed recent controversy, concerning the Defence Forces.

“As you probably have all seen in the media in the past week it’s been a bad week for the Defence Forces, but I want to assure you that we are a very fine organisation, with many hundreds of thousands of the finest people in the organisation, and if any of you have any friends or relations or friends who wish to join our organisation, I would urge you to push them in our direction,” said the Brigadier.

Derek Judge, Chairperson of IUNVA, read out an address from the Minister for Defence and Tanaiste Micheal Martin.

The address said the first troops that left Dublin on July 27, 1960, for the Congo were the trailblazers, who showed great example. Mr Judge said the mission was traumatic and difficult, and some made the ultimate sacrifice and it was fitting that all comrades be remembered.

Major General (retired) Kieran Brennan, President of IUNVA read a roll of honour of all who lost their lives in the Congo, including the nine members who died in the Niemba massacre in 1960. He also mentioned two other troops who remain missing in action, one in the Congo and the other in Lebanon. He addressed the veterans present on the day in Athlone and called them “our pathfinders.”

“You played a key role creating the personal reputation of the Defence Forces in peacekeeping, and set the standards where others followed,” said the President.

Among those deceased mentioned were:

Capt. Ronald McCann - a commissioned officer who served in Custume Barracks. He was critically injured in May 1962 while he was driving in Matadi Port in the Congo. Capt.

McCann who was 44 years old lived with his wife and three children in Auburn Terrace in Athlone.

Cpl. John McGrath - died in March 1963 from fatal head injuries while he was travelling in a back of a truck. His parent unit was 4 Hosp Coy, Custume Barracks. He lived in Assumption Road with his wife Bridget and nine children. (His son Matthew had served with A Coy 35th Inf Bat and he was one of the hostages held at Jadotville and later at Kowezi.)

Comdt. Thomas McMahon - died in Leopoldville from a heart attack aged 47 years. He lived with his family in Beechpark, Athlone.

Francis Eivers - a former Garda Sergeant was the only Irishman to die while serving in a UN civilian appointment. He was 28 years old and was from Ballybay, Kiltoom. He was killed in an aircraft crash near Ndola in what was then Northern Rhodesia. He was married just four weeks before his death in 1961.

On the day, wreaths were also laid in memory of the deceased soldiers.

Peter Phillips, one of the main IUNVA organisers of the day read the poem ‘Soldier’ by George L. Skypeck to the gathering. He then led a salute to the soldiers of the Congo, followed by a round of applause from the gathering.

GOC 2 Brigadier Stephen Ryan and the President of IUNVA presented the certificates of honour and appreciation to the former soldiers.

An instrumental lament was played on the pipes by Les Kiernan, and it was followed by a minute’s silence. ‘The Last Post – Reveille’ was then played by Les, just before the day finished with ‘Amhran na bhfiann’

Speaking afterwards, Peter Phillips, one of the main IUNVA organisers of the Congo ceremony said: “This was a great event today, which was to remember all of them. We had eighteen here today, because unfortunately some couldn’t travel. I’d like make a special mention of John Westman, age 102 years, who couldn’t make it today.”

“They set the standards for what I used to do and what the troops are doing now,” said Peter.

Peter also made a special mention of thanks to the current military members for helping out on the day, including, Lt Col. Mark Lennon OC 6th Infantry Battalion, BSM Graham Nuttall and Acting BQ Benny O’Connor.

He also highlighted the presence of Brigadier General Stephen Ryan and Lt Col. Flan Cleary, who was also a Congo veteran.