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With little “excitement” on offer in the Irish Army, young Irishmen are queuing up to join British regiments. Next month, hundreds of them will go to war in Afghanistan. London Editor MARK HENNESSY meets the Irish soldiers who have enlisted in the British army
LATE LAST year, Ranger Brendan O’Mahony from Millstreet, Co Cork had work as a carpenter on the few building sites still operating in west Cork. Next month, he will be in Nad-e-Ali in Afghanistan facing the Taliban.
Twenty-four-year-old O’Mahony, who signed up last November, is just one of 80-odd men born in the Republic and hundreds more from Northern Ireland who are now serving with the British army’s Royal Irish Regiment.
“The fall of the Celtic Tiger didn’t affect me. I was still working. That wasn’t why I joined. It was something I always wanted to do. My father did 22 years in the Irish Army. I thought the British army would be more of a challenge,” O’Mahony says.
In early September the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards will deploy to posts along the Helmand River in Afghanistan, where British and US troops have suffered heavy losses in summer fighting.
Seven months have been spent training on the Salisbury Plain and ranges in Northumberland and Norfolk in the most rigorous-ever preparation offered to troops heading for a six-month tour.
Inch-perfect Afghan villages have been built for recreations of incidents from the front, using amputees, complete with actors’ blood, to play the part of soldiers badly injured by landmines.
London-based Afghans, including a former senior official in the country’s Ministry of Energy before the Russian invasion, have helped to train the Irish in how best to deal with locals.
“They remember when it was a good place to live,” says Lieut Col Colin Weir, commanding officer of the Royal Irish’s First Battalion. “I was reading a tour guide that talked about where people could get a hostel in Helmand. Afghanistan has not been a basket-case throughout all of its history. If they have a glimmer of optimism, who are we to say that it can’t be built? We’ll do our bit,” says Weir, from Portadown, Co Armagh, who joined the British army in 1992.
The training has been gruelling, and most – despite trepidation that is normal in the face of danger – are keen to go.
“It’s challenging,” says O’Mahony. “My younger brother is jealous and my sister thinks it’s a bit mental.”
Despite Afghanistan, interest in joining British army – which is currently over permitted numbers – is high. Recruitment has slowed to a trickle and some intending recruits are being held in a queue until entry is allowed next March.
Eighty men from the Republic serve in the Royal Irish, with most of the remainder hailing from Northern Ireland or places such as Liverpool that have a strong history of Irish emigration.
Just 5 per cent of the Irish Guards are currently from the Republic, though numbers are rising, due in part to the recession but also, more importantly, due to curbed recruiting by the Irish Army and the small number of overseas missions for those in its ranks.
The Guards was “almost entirely Irish up to the late 1980s,” says Bray man, Maj Mickey Stewart, whose mother was from Rathfarnham and father from Donaghadee, Co Down. “Then numbers fell off and we lost some of our identity. There are more Irish again now and that matters an awful lot to people. The greatest thing is that it provides a sense of family, something tangible in terms of culture.”
For Stewart, joining the British army was “a professional thing. Irishmen have been doing this for centuries. It isn’t forced on anyone; it is a freedom that people are allowed to pursue.”
MOST OF THE SOLDIERS are happy to be identified, though a few prefer not to give full addresses in Ireland, or to be photographed. However, they bridle, politely but firmly, at any suggestion that men from the Republic should not be there at all.
Twenty-year-old Ranger Michael Maguire, from Bantry, Co Cork, joined two-and-a-half months ago: “I was waiting for the Irish Army but it wasn’t recruiting. There was no end in sight; they just said it was indefinite.” His security vetting by the British military took seven months to complete, far shorter than the 18 months it used to take during the height of the Troubles.
Most, though not all, have had a reasonably positive reaction from family and friends in Ireland, including 18-year-old Ranger Seán Ryan, from Kilmaley, Co Clare, who joined six months ago. “I left home at 15, did a block-laying apprenticeship in Kerry, finished up there and got a job. I moved to England at 16 and got a job from guys I knew in Robert Emmet’s hurling club in Ruislip in London.
“I didn’t want the Irish Army – not busy enough. The French Foreign Legion sent on the package of information, but I threw it out. I was originally going to join the Paras, but I was told about the Royal Irish.
“Some people don’t care that I joined; other people don’t talk about it. Some of the guys in Ruislip weren’t happy about it. Some of the family haven’t found out yet,” he says, provoking laughter among his colleagues. “Only distant relatives, I mean. The family know, of course. My mother’s side is Italian, so they didn’t care. My father said: ‘Are you sure?’.”
Guardsman Craig Featherston’s parents in Booterstown, Co Dublin were not “best-pleased at first”, but are supportive now: “Close friends are all fine about it. You get the odd look, but it is more that you are in any army, not just the British army.”
Ranger Michael Farrell, from Bray, Co Wicklow, who worked in a Dublin pub before enlisting, agrees: “People at home are more intrigued than anything else. I have never had any hassle.”
Describing himself as “the baby”, Ranger Brian Curley from Corofin, Co Galway, who worked in his family’s horticultural business before enlisting, says “a lot of my friends are in the Irish Army. It didn’t appeal to me. I thought about it once. My Irish Army friends were advising me to join the Royal Irish. Here, you are dealing with fellows who have real battlefield experience.
“That is a big part of being a soldier. You are learning from the best. Feelings are mixed back at home. The picture that they have is about all about mounting losses. It isn’t about the big picture.”
However, he faced no opposition: “That day is gone. I’m happy. They’ve seen a massive change in me. I’m even happier than I was. It has opened up real opportunities for me.”
Guardsman Carl Earley from Rialto in Dublin, first joined in 1996 and served in Kosovo, when his unit was among the first to cross the Serbian border, before he left the regiment in 2001.
He came back in 2008 for Afghanistan: “Why? It is what you join the army to do. Kosovo was like working for Securicor, sitting in vehicles. We ended up protecting the Serbs. It was guard-duty. Afghanistan was fighting.”
Sgt Joe Coyne of the Royal Irish comes from Newbridge, Co Kildare. He joined in 1997, and says Irish Army soldiers, frustrated by the lack of UN duties, are quitting and enrolling in the British army.
“They want to go to places like Afghanistan. The Irish Army doesn’t offer anything like that. Sure, they have a stable job for five years, but with very slow promotion,” says Coyne. “They want extra money for going away to places for six weeks. And you can buy your way out. Guys [in the Irish Army] are getting bored and fat and lazy. And they come back from UN missions with €25,000 in the bank. There’s nobody in the British army getting anything like that, even with the improvement in the overseas allowance brought in by David Cameron.
“There is nothing exciting for [the Irish Army soldiers] now that the mission in Chad is finishing.”
Coyne is from a military family. His father, Chris, is Regimental Sgt Maj of the Irish Army’s Military Police; while his brother, Shane, joined the British army before him and now serves with the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment.
In 2000, Sgt Coyne was one of six Royal Irish captured and held for 16 days in Sierra Leone by the “West Side” rebels until they were freed in a day-long attack by the SAS, which saw 25 rebels killed. He left the Royal Irish “briefly” in 2002. “When I left I knew it was a mistake but I tried to make it work. It took eight months to come back, and I have never regretted it since,” he says.
OVER TWO DAYS with both units on the military’s firing range in Otterburn, Northumberland and in Ternhill, Shropshire, soldiers talk repeatedly of “family” and of “belonging”, but, equally, they talk in the acronyms and jargon beloved of armies everywhere – including the word “kinetic”, the term used to describe often vicious battles with the Taliban.
Royal Irish Regimental Sgt Maj, Dubliner Frankie O’Connor says: “As soon as the lads are taken from the enclave, wherever that might be, they gel straight away. Their backgrounds seem to go out the window.
“I have come across really hard-line fellows, but once they are taken away from the peer-pressure, they are fine. There is an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm.
“They join looking for some sort of excitement in their lives, but they also join for leadership, for guidance. The vast majority are missing something in their lives and this is where they are able to find it. A lot come from broken families. Here, they find positive male influences,” says O’Connor, from Cabra in Dublin, who joined in 1988 when told that there would be a four-year wait to get into the Irish Army.
“I wanted to be in the army. I made a drawing of an Irish Guardsman, my mother told me, when I was about three. My grandad was in the Royal Fusiliers, My great-grandfather was in the Irish Fusiliers,” he says.
Like O’Connor, Irish Guards’ Quartermaster, John Mateer from Lurgan, Co Armagh is another “lifer”, with 30 years’ service and retirement approaching in 2013.
“It has been more a way of life than a job. In Lurgan, there wasn’t a lot happening for fellows of my age. If I hadn’t joined up heaven only knows what would have happened to me. Life could have taken many different courses.”
Back in the early 1970s, the British army was “locked into a National Service-type of behaviour where it was designed to make life as difficult as possible for as many people as possible”, Mateer says. Today, things have changed: “The training is so different, you wouldn’t believe it. In Kosovo, you had one day of lectures and three days on the ranges. When I see the young soldiers now and the knowledge and the training that they have, they are a completely different breed to 10 years ago.
“When I finished my training, I could march, clean my boots and I was as fit as a butcher’s dog, but I wouldn’t say that I was a confident soldier. Now, they are massively confident in their own abilities.
“Sometimes the old and the bold sneer at the young people, calling them ‘hoodies’, but they are a hoodie one day and a Military Cross holder the next. When I joined up, we were cannon fodder for the Russian masses on the German plains.
“The raw material is as good as you can get. They are more intelligent than 30 years ago and as robust, even though the older folk might like to disagree,” he says.
BOTH REGIMENTS WILL start to deploy in early September. Some of the Irish Guards will be stationed in the upper Gereshk Valley, working alongside Danish troops operating under a wider British command. The Royal Irish will be further west, around Nad-e-Ali.
The rest of the 450 Guards will train Afghan soldiers and police: a job that has become dangerous in the wake of attacks on allied soldiers by Afghan recruits, claimed later by the Taliban as their own.
“It is difficult to say whether it is an individual or a planned campaign,” says Maj John Plummer, the Royal Irish’s operations officer.
“The Taliban are a thinking enemy. They’ve been quick to adapt. It is who is moving in the right direction quickest will win. The targeting by individuals in the Afghan National Army of international forces is a new thing. They will always claim that man as their man whether he was or not.”
The nightly death toll on British television screens of their forces in Afghanistan is regarded by the soldiers as a proper homage to fallen comrades, but also as a procession of death that hides achievements.
Ex-Belvedere College pupil and Dubliner, 2nd Lieut Nicholas Hynes says: “It is important to remember and honour the dead and the injured, but [the public] need to know that we are doing it for the right reason.
“Our friends and families will see that there has been another casualty. A lot of the time their understanding is just about casualty figures. There’s nothing wrong in showing that, showing Afghanistan as it is. But the unhappiness is that we just don’t show the repatriation of bodies, it has to be about the good things that are being done as well,” says Hynes, a member of the Household Cavalry but currently attached to the Irish Guards.
“Death? It plays on all infantry soldiers’ minds, sure, but we all know that there is a job to be done,” said Guards Sgt Gavin O’Neill, originally from Tallaght. “Afghanistan was the biggest producer of heroin, after all. Every time I am at home, every second page of the newspaper is filled with stuff about drug-dealers. So I think I am doing my bit. It doesn’t matter what uniform I’m wearing.
“David Cameron says we’ll be there for five years, and no longer. Personally, I think it will be for longer than that, but who knows? In 2013 it will be worse, or the training will be different,” he continues.
In the end, Afghanistan’s politics are for others. For now, the Royal Irish and the Irish Guards are concerned with the next six months “doing the job, and getting home with my legs still on”, as one Royal Irish sergeant dryly says.
“My soldiers are not stepping off to Afghanistan with the words of the prime minister ringing in their ears,” says Lieut Col Weir, “they are going because the guy next to them is going.”