‘Those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love’ ~ W.B. Yeats
It is a sad state of affairs when it takes a Hollywood actor to draw your attention to bravery and sacrifice on your own doorstep. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until Jamie Dornan attached himself to a Netflix motion picture of the same name that I became fully interested in this topic. I am not alone in my ignorance either. The tale of these brave Irish soldiers’ bravery has been all but wiped from national history in recent decades. Thankfully, Declan Power has written the book that these heroes fully deserve.
Historical non-fiction is a perilous genre. It is never going to compete with the bestsellers and to be successful it must walk the tightrope of attracting popular opinion whilst also standing up against the scrutiny of academics. Declan Power achieves this with impressive skill. Here he has created a book that factually leaves no stone unturned, yet also maintains an entertaining flow that engages the reader throughout. The 288 pages fly by as Power recounts the political climate at the time, the state of the Irish Army and UN at the time and the events and aftermath of Jadotville.
I found myself reading this book in a constant state of disbelief. How could 150 Irish soldiers compete with an army five thousand strong led by well paid mercenaries? How could they deal with constant air raids, dwindling food and water supplies and a complete lack of military information and support? The answers to these questions tell an extraordinary tale that reveals startling truths about the UN’s involvement in the Congo during a turbulent decade.
In September 1963, A Company were sent to replace a company of twice their number in Jadotville. They were sent to protect a local white population that were in fact already antagonized and upset about their mere presence in the first place. This alone shows the staggering gap between on the ground information and top table decisions that was evident at the time.
As for the Irish troops themselves, Power paints an accurate picture of how they had only just emerged from a turbulent time themselves in recent history. Some men would even have fought on opposite sides of a recent civil war. Several remarks by the author highlight the state of the Irish Army at that time.
- ‘In 1960 the Army only numbered in the region of seven thousand troops. This was a miniscule number with which to provide even the basic requirements for a peacetime army in a democratic society.’
- ‘Equipment was World War II vintage at best, and in many cases still World War I.’
- ‘Even the helmets issued to the men at the time were useless, being made out of a type of fibreglass and used for ceremonial or patrol duty. They were actually helmet-liners and designed to be worn inside the steel helmet that normally accompanied them.’
Many of the soldiers enlisted left their country for the first time in search of adventure. One soldier remarked, ‘Many of the lads were expecting to see a country filled with giraffes, lions, and tigers. After all, we could only know what we had seen in the cinema – Tarzan films and the like.’ Many of these soldiers had lied about their ages and we still only teenagers or in their early 20s.
To read that none of the A Company soldiers were actually killed during the intense five day siege at Jadotville is nothing short of a miracle. This story has many heroes but a huge amount of credit has to be given to Commandant Pat Quinlan who led the men superbly. As commanding officer, it was he who shouldered most of the blame when A company ultimately surrendered to the Katangan forces. But it was also his decisions that would save many lives. His story is just one of many remarkable accounts presented in this book. We also learn about the crucial involvement of Irishman and civilian Charles Kearney. By a stroke a fortune, Kearney happened to be working as an engineer in the locality at the same time and his information and invaluable help proved to be vital to A Company’s survival.
In his concluding statements, the author references the ‘national apathy’ of the Irish people. This he argues might not seem so bad in practise, but he correctly states that ‘we as a nation have left a vacant space for others to cast slurs on our fighting men.’ This illustrates why he wrote this book with such commitment. For far too long, these soldiers endured an unwarranted shame, and in some cases abuse, for their role in the Congo affair. These men deserve to emerge from the shadows as noble warriors and take their rightful place at the top table of national heroes. Declan Power’s book is the weapon that their cause badly needed.
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes. This is one for all the Dads and Grandads out there interested in current affairs or Irish history. It is a book that will provide many talking points and it gives a great insight of how the UN works as a peacekeeping force. I now look forward to watching the film.