Camp Shamrock celebrates for last time as peacekeepers' mission ends
WHEN the first Irish contingent to the United Nations force came to Lebanon in 1978, I found an Irish Army Air Corps Captain, Martin Egan, sheltering under a truck as Palestinian gunmen shrieked abuse as the French Foreign Legion fixed bayonets 50 feet away.
Recalling his country's bloody experience in the Congo, Egan asked me a question very matter-of-factly. "Could this be the same?" But it was worse.
In all, 48 Irish soldiers were to die in Lebanon in the next 23 years and this Saint Patrick's Day the last for the UN's Irish battalion there was talk of how they hoped their one unrecovered body may go home, too: that of Private Kevin Joyce, missing presumed dead after being kidnapped by dissident Palestinians in 1980.
One more Irish battalion will be sent as peacekeepers to southern Lebanon and they will close down Camp Shamrock in October. The Irish will then leave behind them a land that looks like Co Mayo, in which they have been loved, harassed, insulted, murdered and maligned.
But the peacekeepers stayed on through the worst shellfire and the most deliberate killings.
In the town of Tibnin, the Lebanese speak English with Dublin accents. In the village of Bradchit, they have Galway accents. In Haddata, the Lebanese speak like Waterford men.
At their last Saint Patrick's Day parade this week, they were debating what to do with the memorials to their dead. Do they stay in the land where their soldiers died? Or are they freighted back to Ireland?
The mission of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon was supposed "to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces" after Israel's 1978 invasion and assist the Beirut government in restoring its sovereignty across southern Lebanon.
But the Israelis continued to occupy the southernmost part of the country 10pc of Lebanon until they finally retreated last year after constant attack by Hizballah guerrillas.
If "interim" can now be defined in Ireland as 23 years, much of that time was made ferocious by Lebanon's militias and by Israel's murderous little proxy force, the South Lebanon Army.
The Israelis insulted the battalions as "Johnny Walker Irish", infuriated because Irish troops, whose sobriety has never been in question, refused to retreat before Israel's proxy gunmen in 1980.
In the village of At Tiri that year, the Irish soldiers battled to prevent the "South Lebanon Army" taking over.
They killed one of Israel's Lebanese allies and lost one of their own: Private Stephen Griffin. I went to his funeral in Galway a few days later, his blue UN beret lying atop his coffin in the breezy seaside churchyard.
In revenge for their own dead, one of Israel's militiamen, Ali Bazi, murdered two Irish soldiers Privates Smallhorn and Barrett in an incident that might be regarded as a war crime. But Mr Bazi now lives in safety in the United States.
The Americans otherwise so keen on hunting "terrorists" show no interest in arresting him.
Then there was Lieutenant Aonghus Murphy, a promising young officer, deliberately blown up in a mine explosion by the Hizballah in August, 1986. The guerrillas were angry that his men regularly cleared a road upon which they had planted mines to kill Israelis.
The man held responsible was a Hizballah official named Jawad Kasfi, now one of 19 Lebanese held illegally in Israel and whose release is demanded by the Hizballah and whose Unifil liaison officer, the bearded Haj Abu Firas, was sitting as a guest of honour at this week's Saint Patrick's parade. What, I did wonder, would Saint Patrick have made of that?
Yet nearly 30,000 Irish soldiers have served in Lebanon. One, Private Michael Keane, is completing his 16th term.
Like the Irish, the Lebanese suffered massive famines in 1912 and 1915. Their countryside looks uncannily like Ireland. Their hospitality has much in common with that of the rural Irish. The troops paid from their extra Lebanon salaries to fund an orphanage in Tibnin. And they leave behind one of the best Irish stories of recent times.
It may be apocryphal, but legend has it that Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, scholar, historian, UN diplomat, government minister and supporter of Israel, turned up at the village of Beit Yahoun and told the local kids to leave him alone.
"Emshi" ("go away"), the eminent Dr O'Brien is said to have told them. To which a small Lebanese boy answered in a perfect Dublin accent: "Emshi, me bollicks!"
* Independent News Service