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A hidden tale of real heroes

There's an old soldier from the small village I've been living in these last eight years or so. He's what my da would have called "a decent oul' skin". If it's quiet when I bump into him in one or the other of the two local pubs, we might have a chat about stuff -- usually Western movies, which we both love.

He served with the UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo. Somebody told me years ago he never talks about it, though, so I've never asked him about it. I could be wrong (I'm only a blow-in from Dublin, after all), but it strikes me that nobody seems very interested in asking him about it.

After watching the second part of Irina Maldea and Brendan Culleton's superb documentary Congo 1961 (which received a limited cinema release last year under the title Congo: An Irish Affair), I can understand why the man might be reticent to speak about his experiences.

Old soldiers -- real men, real heroes -- don't tend to brag about their exploits anyway, and for decades the Irish involvement in the Congo was something of a no-go topic, not least among the Irish Defence Forces.

The reason for this was the subject of last night's film: the siege of Jadotville, when 155 members of 'A' Company 35th Battalion, led by Commandant Pat Quinlan, came under sustained attack by forces loyal to the Katangese Prime Minister, Moise Tshombe.

After UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold ordered an offensive against the State of Katanga, in order to end its secession from a unified Congo, the Katangese responded by attacking UN bases in Jadotville.

Vastly outnumbered by the Katangese forces (which, according to different sources, ranged between 3,000 and 5,000), short on food and water, and equipped with only the lightest of weapons and ammunition, 'A' Company held out for six days under a bombardment from Fouga jets and heavy armaments.

A relief force numbering several hundred Irish and Swedish UN personnel persistently tried to break through and reach Quinlan and his men, but ultimately to no avail.

The failure had nothing to do with their military capabilities and everything to do with the UN's bureaucratic hesitancy and tactical bungling.

In the middle of all this, Quinlan, with no clear orders from his supposed UN superiors and operating against a background of political machinations between Tshombe and Hammarskjold, proved to be a natural-born leader and a brilliant strategist.

At one point a UN supply helicopter attempting to make a drop was attacked by Katangese forces trying to bring it down.

Quinlan, seeing that the enemy had betrayed their position, launched a mortar attack that inflicted many casualties and rattled the Katangese command. 'A' Company, meanwhile, didn't lose a single man.

After six days, having rebuffed the Katangese overtures to give up, Quinlan finally surrendered. His men were exhausted, starving, dehydrated and out of ammunition. The only other option -- and it wasn't really an option at all -- was to engage in hand-to-hand combat, which would have been suicide, plain and simple.

Many of the surviving members of 'A' Company contributed to the film; all of them consider Quinlan, who died in 1997, a hero -- which is what the man was.

They all are, actually.

"I would have gone to hell and back with Pat Quinlan," said one. Another added: "If he'd said 'Fight on', I'd have fought on."

Quinlan vowed to bring his men, all of them, home on a plane, not in coffins. He achieved his goal. Back home, however, it was viewed rather differently. Quinlan petitioned the Irish Army to honour the men.

No medals were forthcoming.

The Defence Forces effectively airbrushed Jadotville, which was a victory that somehow ended up being warped into a defeat, out of Irish military history. Other soldiers who'd never been to the Congo, and who never had to fire a gun in battle, branded the men of 'A' Company cowards.

That outrage has since been rectified. Maybe it's time I asked that decent oul' skin a few questions.