Tuesday 20 March 2018

Our hero of Jadotville

Anthony McMahon tells John Manning the story of his brother Terry and why he is being remembered this weekend as a hero in his beloved home town

Private Terence McMahon of the 35th Infantry Battalion of the UN Peace Keeping forces in the Congo of 1961 loved his home town so much, his fellow soldiers called him 'Balbriggan'.

He was known to his family as Terry but it was years after the courageous soldier's death that his family and the town of Balbriggan found out just what a hero he was.

Terry was just 16-years-old when he dug trenches in the earth of the Congo with 154 of his fellow Irish UN troops in a bid to survive a siege that saw the force vastly outnumbered.

Against all odds, the poorly armed Irish troops held out for a week before dwindling supplies forced them to surrender but incredibly, not a single Irish soldier was lost in the action while heavy casualties were inflicted on the side with the greater numbers and a much greater arsenal.

Terry was to celebrate his 17th birthday as a prisoner of war and while that status lasted only a short time before his release, in a sense he remained a prisoner of that war for the rest of his life and was never quite the same man again.

News of the battle was buried at the time and when Terry returned home to Balbriggan on a month's furlough after his first stint in the Congo he told nobody what he had been through, not even his family.

This weekend, Terry's extraordinary courage will be marked with a plaque on George's Square in Balbriggan, a stone's throw from where he was born and his three surviving siblings will be there to see it all happen.

Among them will be Terry's younger brother, Anthony who has travelled all the way from Santa Cruz, California to be here, a trip he makes every summer but this year, the journey has added meaning.

Terry and Anthony grew up tough because they had to be. It was a disruptive childhood that began in Balbriggan but would see the family blown apart after the boys' mother died.

Anthony explained: 'Our mother died when Terry was four and I was two and we were shipped out to relatives and friends on and off, and then we would come back to the town and go away again.'

They lived with relatives, in convents and industrial schools and by the time they were teenagers, they couldn't wait to get away and both chose the army as a means of escape.

Terry lied about his age to join the Irish army at 15 and Anthony would follow him a few years later, at the age of 16.

Anthony remembers the day his brother joined up: 'I remember him joining up because I was with him. We drove up to Collins Barracks and I remember we had a Ford Consul - I'll never forget it.

'My dad told them Terry was 17 because you had to be 17 and have your parent's consent to join. When they took him so easy, Dad looked at me and said: 'Will you take this fella too? They said to bring me back in a few years - I was only 13.

'Terry just wanted to get away and do his own thing. He did his basic training in Dublin and then he wanted to go to the West so he got transferred to Galway to the Irish speaking battalion. There weren't many Dubs in that battalion that went to the Congo that year, they were mostly from Athlone and Galway.

'He was in the army about a year when he went to the Congo so he would have been 16 when he went and he actually celebrated his 17th birthday as a prisoner of war in Jadotville.'

Once Terry was overseas, very little information was relayed back to his family about what he was doing over there and certainly, there was never any mention of the Siege of Jadotville.

Anthony told the Fingal Independent: 'We had very little information about what he was doing over there. My dad got one letter from the army saying he was fine and that was it - there was no more information. There was a picture in the paper of Terry when he came home but there was no coverage of the battle.

'He came back to Balbriggan for a month's furlough and then he went back to the army because he had another year to do.

It was during that furlough that I caught up with him again but he never talked about Jadotville - we didn't know anything about it. 'He never discussed it. He kept quiet - I think they were told not to say anything about it and he took it literally.

'It is only in the last three or four years, I found out what really happened. This guy, John Gorman from Westmeath was doing a lot of research. He was in the group with Terry and he was doing a lot of work to try to bring this thing to the attention of people. There was a huge campaign to try and get these guys recognised and it was only through that we really found out what happened.'

When Anthony realised what his brother had been through and how it must have prompted Terry's later descent into reclusion and paranoia, he was angry at the army for leaving his family in the dark about what happened in Jadotville.

Anthony said: 'I was really upset that we were kept in the dark about it. I was in the army at the time and we never heard anything about these guys - they were never mentioned. I felt let down and cheated by the army.

'I started doing my own research and I found some of the soldiers that were there and talked to them. But this guy, John Gorman did great work. Most of the pictures you see around from Jadotville were taken by him and he was a private too at the time and was a year or two older than Terry. He said the siege was awful - he had a real bad time himself afterwards. He deserted and went to England for a while and was court-marshalled and came back. A lot of the guys had some kind of post-traumatic stress but nobody talked about post-traumatic stress at that time - it wasn't even a term that was used.'

Suddenly, his brother's life made sense to Anthony, who said: 'Terry seemed ok when he came back from the Congo. He went to New York and became a cop. Everything seemed normal enough to begin with but you could see over time a deterioration in him.

'I was living in California and I would visit him in New York from time to time because I had access to travel in my job. You could see he was getting stressed more and more and a little paranoia was setting in and they eventually had to take his gun and badge off him. He would have been in his early 40s by then.

'He never married. He was engaged to be married once to a lovely gal in the Bronx and everything was set to go and he called it off. He just couldn't do it. If we knew then what we know now, we would have known he needed counselling. He became a recluse and paranoid - he thought people were out to get him.'

That was the Terry McMahon that returned that returned to Balbriggan where he died at the age of 53 in 1997 but Anthony does not want the town to remember him that way and the ceremony that takes place this Saturday will cement his brother's place in history as a local hero.

Talking about the upcoming ceremony which will also be attended by Terry's other two surviving siblings, John and Julia, Anthony said: 'This is unbelievable to tell you the truth. To think after all these years we have a hero in our midst and didn't even know it and it was kept from us. Now that the town is prepared to do something like this for him, we are all greatly honoured and very moved by it.'

Anthony's voice cracks and he's visibly moved as he talks about the ceremony feeling like 'redemption' for his brother.

He said: 'What the town is doing is a great honour and it will also make people in the town aware that my brother wasn't just a bum hanging around and went through a lot.

'For me it's like a kind of redemption for him as a hero - not the man he was in the last few years of his life. And for us in the family, it's a kind of closure and it means he will be remembered in the town forever with this plaque.'

A national honour for Terry and the men of his battalion is at last on the horizon too. One of the outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny's last acts was to approve the awarding of medals for bravery to the men of Jadotville in a long overdue tribute to their courage.

Fingal Independent