The story of ‘A Company’ of the 4th Western Brigade of the Army, who served in Jadotville in the Belgian Congo in 1961, has finally come to an honest and dignified conclusion, albeit 56 years later. Their company commander was Comdt. Pat Quinlan,
‘A’ company, which had been based in Custume Barracks, Athlone arrived in 1961, to a very tense and uncertain time in the town of Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo in Africa.
Pat Quinlan and the company were sent about 70 miles away to Jadotville. Their equipment, other than rifles was 2nd World War stuff, and they had no great means of transport.
A five day battle in Jadotville ensued between the Belgian Katangans and the Irish, who were only there as peacekeepers. The Irish men of Jadotville got no help from their United Nations masters, so were left to their own devices. The battle took place on the ground and in the air.
Agreements were drawn up, and there was to be joint patrols between the Irish and the Katangans. The Irish were in the open and they had nowhere to take cover.
Quinlan had been told that he would have to surrender. Most of ‘A’ company thought that they had actually won the battle, because there was up to 400 Katangans and Belgians killed, and five Irish wounded.
The Irish soldiers were taken as prisoners, and held in an old hotel in Jadotville, and then a prison camp was got ready in the nearby town of Kolwezi, and there they remained for six weeks, writes David Flynn. Finally they were released, due to a prisoner exchange agreement.
When the group returned home to Ireland they were ignored and branded as cowards, but one of the Jadotville soldiers, John Gorman took on an amazing campaign for vindication.
“People suffered in silence for 44 years, and I kept in touch with the Irish soldiers who were in Jadotville, and searched for those who were no longer living in Ireland,” said John, in an interview with this writer in 2010. “I felt we were wronged and treated as cowards because of the surrender, but we were not, and I set out to prove it. I had a mission to do for those men, and I’m proud now that I did that.”
John worked on getting vindication for many decades, and carried out his workings mostly alone, and discreetly. He got information from all of the Jadotville men, and built up a huge dossier on the incident. While it took many decades, John’s campaign for vindication of the Jadotville soldiers bore fruit in December 2004.
Earlier that year, the incident, which had been largely forgotten, was featured in an RTE radio programme, produced by Tom Maguire.
Here is the link to that programme:
After the documentary aired, the matter was brought up for discussion at the March 2004 meeting of Athlone Town Council.
The incident was brought up by Cllr. Austin Berry who called on the council to write to the Minister for Defence and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, to request them to establish a plan to honour the members of the Army who served in Jadotville under extraordinary conditions in September 1961.
“Many of these men were from Custume Barracks in Athlone,” said Berry, at the meeting. “No army or soldier would like to surrender, but these men technically did not surrender. They were suffering from extraordinary conditions, and had endured five days of skirmishes.”
Cllr. Berry said that many of these men had passed on, but some were still alive.
Cllr. Nicky McFadden said she heard the original radio programme which was presented by Tom Maguire. She too supported the motion, as did all the other councillors.
Austin Berry, who was an Independent councillor died in 2014, the same year as Nicky McFadden, who had been a Fine Gael Dail Deputy at the time of her death.
In 2005, the then Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea contacted a national newspaper about the men of Jadotville being vindicated and getting recognition and about a memorial being erected in Custume Barracks honouring the men of ‘A’ company, and John Gorman was the first to be notified of this, before the Minister went to the newspaper.
“A few months before that, I had met with the Minister in the Dept of Defence in Dublin, and he had wanted to hear both sides of the story, and he contacted me to hear our side, and after 44 years, it took two retired corporals to bring the Jadotville siege to a closure,” said John laughing, in the 2010 interview. “I was a corporal in the army and Minister O’Dea was one time a corporal in the Reserve Forces.”
However despite the relief, there was sadness attached to the vindication, because so many of John’s comrades had passed away.
There was seven Roscommon soldiers involved in the 1961 Siege of Jadotville, and they along with their 149 other colleagues finally got recognition for their bravery and valour at a ceremony on Sept. 17th, 2016 at Custume Barracks, Athlone. Sadly most of the soldiers had passed away by this time.
The men, who were of ‘A’ Company in Custume Barracks, were awarded a unit citation, which recognised the courageous action of the soldiers.
The political gathering included the junior Minister for Defence, Paul Kehoe, Mayor John Dolan of Athlone, and the four Longford Westmeath deputies, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Willie Penrose, Robert Troy and Peter Burke. Also present were Senators Frank Feighan and Gabrielle McFadden.
Also representing Athlone Municipal District were: Cllr. Tom Farrell, Cllr, Frankie Keena, Cllr. Ailish McManus, Cllr. Michael O’Brien and Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke.
“I’m delighted to be here today to see the great men being honoured, and the extraordinary work they have done being recognised and commemorated, and I think as a state we need to be more mature and remember the sacrifices and the vocation of these people who gave great service,” said Roscommon’s Senator Feighan.
The Fine Gael senator commented on the former, Sgt. George Tiernan, from Boyle, who was a member of the Jadotville soldiers.
“George was a great friend of mine in Boyle Celtic, and I ran a double decker bus to Germany during Euro 88, and we were there for two weeks and we slept upstairs, and cooked downstairs,” said Senator Feighan. “He brought his army experience with him, to show that we were fed and the bus was cleaned to army regulations. We had great fun with him, and sadly he passed away a few years ago.”
The Roscommon Jadotville soldiers were as follows, Donal Madley, Daniel Regan, Christopher Roche, James Taheny, George Tiernan, Sean Tiernan and Michael Tighe.
Athlone’s Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke said there was a great sense of pride on the day in Custume Barracks.
“The survivors sat in front of us, some in wheelchairs, on sticks, in frames, and some were hale and hearty, and for them not to have received recognition until now, I felt somehow ashamed, but it didn’t feature at all in school when I was growing up,” said the Fianna Fail politician. “We had 156 people on peacekeeping missions, representing our town, our state, and the Defence Forces abroad, and thank God they made it home safe, which was a miracle. I was so proud, and definitely it gave me a very warm feeling.”
Cllr. O’Rourke said it was an amazing day for Athlone, and was long overdue, and deserving and justified.
“All families were bursting with pride, with sons and daughters, in-laws, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, it was wonderful to see,” said the Fianna Fail politician.