The crowds were descending on Dublin Airport to see the C-5 Galaxy, then the World’s largest transporter. Irish soldiers had been through intensive training in the Glen of Imaal and Kilworth for our impending trip to Lebanon with the first battalion deployed there – the 43rd. Jack Lynch, the then Taoiseach, reviewed us in Mc Kee Baracks and the band played They call him Jack of all Trades. There was something of the Punchestown atmosphere about, as no Irish troops had served abroad since the Dublin and Monaghan bombs provoked a withdrawal from Sinai. 14 Kilkenny based soldiers and myself were part of the battalion.
We arrived at Tel Aviv airport on 6th of June and had to wait in the boiling sun – about 40 degrees cent – laden with pack, helmet and personal weapons . The French transport to pick us up was late. I recall the sun being in the sky at as close to 90 degrees over us as made no difference. We availed of the relative shelter of parked Israeli trucks on the apron- crawling in under them to avoid being toasted.
Eventually we were transported to our destination in Haris, South Lebanon. Our tents were rather basic with clay floors and trestle beds. Toilets were a route march away. Flies were everywhere and before long took their toll with a spate of sick tummies. The worst cases were taken into a sick bay and put on a drip. One victim while recovering had the misfortune to be joined in his low bed from the clay floor by a scorpion which was particularly partial to the Celtic flesh. Chemical toilets were in great use – they were Elson toilets. The Irish humour helped us through these trying times – one victim of the tummy bug was called Elson Eddy.
An administrative blunder caused us to be left without any money for 6 weeks. While we were fed and watered it would be nice to be able to buy a razor blade or a bar of chocolate. To keep morale up in these circumstances we organised a few concerts. Ollie Kearney, late of the Black Aces , brought the house down when he turned out his empty pocket to the Minister for Defence, Mr Molloy and warbled Bobby can you spare a dime.
One of the biggest tasks was the building of a new tented camp at Tibnin. This involved moving all the ordnance from the old camp to the new. I recall a great muster of personnel including chaplains, dentists etc helping to move thousands of tons of ammunition. The sight of people who previously led rather sedentary lives struggling with heavy boxes of ammo provoked Mick Bardon to burden himself with one on each shoulder. This was the very effect which their participation was meant to provoke. A Gaelgoir titled Mick, Tomaltach trean.
Before long our troops were winning the hearts and minds of the Lebanese locals. It was their genuine warmth and communication skills which won the day. We were prepared to share our shelters with them when under shelling from unfriendly forces. Our engineers built playgrounds for the children while our medics looked after every ache and pain of the local community. When it was mooted towards the end of our tour of duty that the Irish troops be changed over with another UN Unit the locals sent a protest to the Force commander and had it rescinded.
The experience for us was enormous- worth many years of home training. There were many near fatalities from incoming fire but our only combat injuries were from cluster bombs which had been dropped indiscriminately in previous fighting. We had one death in a traffic accident. All 15 Kilkenny based soldiers returned safely. A few years back a local journalist was being given the story of the first Kilkenny troops in Lebanon at a function. He may have imbibed not wisely but too well, as having meticulously recorded all our names he then pronounced in the next issue of the paper that we were all now deceased. The resurrected, raised a few glasses to that. As Mark Twain said ,report of our death is greatly exaggerated. Alas Frank Walsh, Mick Cahill, Liam O’Shea and Paddy Kelly have since gone ar sli na fireanna – go ndéanfaidh Dia trócaire orthu.