Irish servicemen 'airbrushed out of history,' says D-Day veteran
Published 06/06/2004 | 00:11
AN IRISH survivor of the D-Day landings, now a Franciscan friar, spoke for one of the first times last week of his bitter disappointment at the indifference in his homeland to the sacrifices made by thousands of his countrymen in World War II.
Brother Columbanus, now aged 79, was shocked at the negative reception he and his fellow servicemen received at the hands of their compatriots on his return.
He returned from France a year after the end of the war, where, as a skinny 19-year-old known as Sean Deegan, he had played his part in one of the greatest military invasions in history.
"The people back home didn't realise what it meant. To them, you were just a renegade who had gone off and was fighting for the Brits," he told me. "I was a soldier of fortune, not a political soldier. When we went to Germany, we found out it was a worthwhile cause," Deegan said, as he prepared to return to Normandy for this weekend's 60th anniversary commemorations.
He recalled waiting nervously with his Harley Davidson by his side as the invasion force advanced upon the coastline on a landing ship, ready to disembark and face the inevitable fire from the Germans
"Believe it or not, I had thought that all my dreams had come true when they trained me on a Harley Davidson," he remembers. "Then I find myself on one of these little landing crafts waiting to go in, and I'm thinking to myself 'what have I done?'
"It was horrendous, there's no other way of describing it; on a lot of the beaches there was absolute slaughter," Deegan remembers.
At the outbreak of war, he was a young man of 17, "mad keen to get involved". He had tried to join the Irish Army, and had queued up with the other hopefuls, but was turned away for being too young and too slight of build. However, undeterred, he "heard on the grapevine that the RAF didn't mind you being skinny" and he enthusiastically joined it in 1942. A few years later, waiting on that landing ship, he had to watch his friends and comrades advance before him, many to their deaths, on the coastline of France.
They were young men with whom he had shared drinks and dreams and jokes just a few days earlier.
"When there's danger around you, you become very pally with people. It's a different sort of friendship that you experience. I've never really experienced that sort of friendship in civilian life."
Like many men, the young Sean had signed up because he "was going for the adventure and the money". After D-Day, he rode right through Europe: "When we broke through, that's when I had a ball".
But soon he and his comrades were to realise the true horror of war, when they encountered the infamous concentration camps in Belsen and Auschwitz.
He says: "That, to me, was my turning point in the war: that I'd been fighting an evil. Up until that point it had been a game."
During the War, his role had been mainly non-combatant, he was involved in communications, air to ground, sussing out suitable airfields and as such he was "able to keep out of danger mostly, but was fortunate in that I witnessed most of the biggerbattles."
But Deegan wasn't to realise, until he got home, that he would have a different sort of battle to face in handling the hostility of many Irish people.
"It was ironic in that the Irish army wouldn't have me anyway!" But nobody was interested in that point. He remembers coming home and crossing O'Connell Bridge.
"I was looking up the river and I was delighted to be home, but sad because two of my school pals who had gone out before me had met me in London before the invasion, and we'd vowed to meet back in Dublin, but they're buried out in Normandy."
Today there is little in Ireland to commemorate the memory of the thousands of young Irishmen like Tim O'Neill and John O'Reilly, Sean Deegan's pals. In some towns across the country, there are small services to remember the servicemen who lost their lives, but many people have chosen to forget. It is true, as Deegan fears, that they have been virtually "airbrushed out of history". This weekend, that same young soldier will return to the Normandy shores for the anniversary. He will remember those Irishmen, those comrades and friends who may have been forgotten, and he will say prayers for them.
No longer a soldier, Sean chose a completely different path. He is now a Franciscan monk in Co Waterford where he is known as Brother Columbanus, and is now a pacifist. He didn't return to Normandy until the 40th anniversary when he came to the realisation: "I can live with this and I can talk about this without worrying about what people are going to say by way of comeback".
Brother Columbanus, one of the very few Irish veterans left, spoke in a sprightly and friendly manner that defied his age. And, as he prepared to revisit the place where so many lost their lives, he vowed that he was "speaking on behalf of the Irish men, my own pals and all the Irish who were killed and died and were forgotten about, a part of history. Now I'm like their voice".