Archive Team: L to R, Private Short, Noelle Grothier, Lisa Dolan, Captain MacEoin and Hugh Beckett.
July 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of Ireland first sending a battalion-strength contingent of soldiers to serve on a UN Mission. In all, 12 Battalions, Infantry Groups and Armoured Car Squadrons were sent to the Congo between 1960 and 1964[?]. Friday, the 23rd July, was chosen as the main commemoration date as it was close to the exact day that the first Battalion of 685 soldiers, all ranks, concentrated in the Curragh and the advance party flew out to the Congo. Other commemorations will follow, marking the main actions in which the Irish were involved.
The political situation which led to the UN sending a mission to the Congo was convoluted and complex, but a very short summary follows...
Belgium, having effectively ruled since the 1880s, was forced to offer independence to the Congolese due to the rise of anti-colonialism, spiraling unemployment due to the focus on exportation of the wealth of mineral deposits, repression of any groups opposed to this focus, and the lack of any progress on Government policy reform.
With the surge in political, anti colonial and inter-tribal rioting and violence in the Congo, and Cold War politics and sabre rattling breaking out in the UN Assembly, the UN Security Council was forced to quickly assemble one of the largest peacekeeping contingents in its history to help maintain security there. Ireland, as a neutral country, was acceptable to all Nations as a part of this mission, so the Government led by Seán Lemass enacted legislation to enable the first Irish Battalion to be sent to the Congo.
These Battalions were heavily involved during the course of this mission (﴾each one serving six months before being relieved by a fresh Battalion from Ireland)﴿, suffering a number of fatalities. 26 officers and soldiers died during the mission, 16 of these during active combat, while 65 medals were awarded, highlighting the bravery and determination of those men. Place names such as Niemba, Elizabethville and Jadotville will long resonate in the Irish collective memory, both military and civilian.
The Commemoration had been planned for a number of months, and many different units within the Defence Forces were involved in the build-up. We assisted with the production of a commemorative book of photographs from the Congo mission for the occasion, having, earlier in the year, produced a commemorative calendar.
For the day in question we assembled a photographic display and compiled contemporary footage for an audio/visual display, along with a reproduction of an 'Officer's Desk' using ephemera and other items from our holdings. We also took as many photographs as possible to record the day, but our plans to interview veterans on camcorder turned out to be impossible, due to the number of people coming to our stands.
The arrival of the Black Knights Irish Military Parachute Team in Baldonnell, delivering the first copy of the Congo Commemorative Book to An Taoiseach.
In addition, we displayed copies of the listings of soldiers and officers from each Battalion, Infantry Group and Armoured Squadron, so that the Veterans attending could find their and their comrades names. This proved very popular, along with the notice boards and specially produced visitor's books for signing and leaving messages. Many reunions of old comrades and emotional first meetings of relatives and old army friends of some of those who died while in the Congo took place at our stands. This, more than anything, reminded us of how important it was to properly mark this anniversary.
The commemoration was attended by An Taoiseach, the Minister of Defence, the Senior Military Staff, the Defence Forces Chaplains, staff of the Veterans Associations and more than 1,200 veterans and their relatives. Speeches were given by An Taoiseach and the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, among others. Prayers were given by the Chaplains and a solemn candle presentation ceremony was performed for those officers and soldiers who had lost their lives whilst on peacekeeping duty.
A military armoured vehicle display and an aero- display were organised, and a plaque marking the occasion was also unveiled, while one of the highlights was the presentation of the first copy of the Congo Commemorative Book to An Taoiseach by a member of the "Black Knights" parachuting team.
One of the final parts of our remit, which dominated the middle and latter part of our day, was to facilitate the donation of private collections of photographs, diaries, personal accounts and other documentation to the Military Archives. We took in a certain amount of such collections on the day, but, due to the sheer numbers of veterans who wished to donate material, we decided the best course of action was to take their contact details for a planned further event organised by us, in which we will take in the balance of these donations.
The Candle Ceremony for those who lost their lives in the Congo
It was a long, but highly successful and rewarding day, which enriched our knowledge of that time in our history, hopefully added to the experience for the veterans on the day, and generated great exposure for the Military Archives, its collections and the services we provide.
Hugh Beckett, Military Archives