Kerry's UN veterans

The chairman of the Irish UN Veterans Association in Kerry, Alan Hanafin, joined Simon Brouder to talk about the network's important work and to share his experiences as a UN peacekeeper

Alan Hanafin in Tralee
Alan Hanafin in Tralee
Kerry IUNVA members Tom Birmingham, Johnny O'Connor, Joe Hanley, John Gilbert and Alan Hanafin visiting a WWII cemetery in Normandy in 2013
A convoy of UN armoured troop carriers, patrol vehicles and supply trucks makes its way through Liberian capital Monrovia in 2003. Photos courtesy of Alan Hanafin and Joe Hanley

In April 1981 - aged just 18 and having never strayed too far from his native Tralee - Alan Hanafin found himself at the heart of the conflict in Lebanon when he joined the UN peacekeeping mission in the strife ridden middle eastern nation.

It was a defining moment in the young Kerry man's life but within days Hanafin and his Irish comrades in the UNIFIL force received a rude awakening about the danger that faced them around every corner.

Less than a week into Hanafin's first tour, on April 27 1981, Irish soldiers Private Hugh Doherty and Private Kevin Joyce were killed during an attack on their observation post at Dyar Ntar in southern Lebanon.

Doherty was aged 20 and, like Hanafin, he was just days into his first tour.

His body was found near the observation post but the remains of Private Joyce - then only 19 and due to return home to Ireland a few days later - have never been found.

Now, almost 36 years on, he remains 'missing presumed dead' and the Irish Defence Forces are still trying to locate his remains.

The tragic fate of Privates Doherty and Joyce was a sobering event for Alan Hanafin but it didn't deter him from the call of duty and he would spend the next 30 years in the armed forces.

Stationed first at Collins Barracks in Cork and Later at the Curragh and Sarsfield Barracks in Limerick Hanafin took part in eight UN and NATO peacekeeping operations.

These included three tours in the Lebanon, two tours in Bosnia and tours in Kosavo, Liberia and Cyprus.

He witnessed first hand the horrors of Sarajevo; the plight of Kosovan refugees fleeing Serbia's ethnic cleansing programme and the torment of the drug addicted child soldiers who had been forced to fight by Liberia's warlords.

Alan Hanafin's long and dedicated service came to an end in 2011 when he retired from the armed forces and returned to live in his hometown.

Now, six years into his retirement he has just been elected the new Chairman of the Kerry Post 32 branch of the Irish UN Veterans Association.

The nationwide organisation - which acts as both a social network and a support group for former and serving soldiers - has 26 members in Kerry and the local branch are hoping to bring new members into the fold.

While the IUNVA helps bring old comrades together Hanafin says its main purpose is far more important.

"There is a social side, and that's a big part of it, but the association also exists to help former soldiers. We do a lot of fundraising and that money is used to help soldiers who may have fallen on hard times or others who might find themselves with post traumatic stress and who could benefit from counselling," he says.

The social aspect of the Association helps keep the sense of camaraderie alive among the veterans and, to that end, the Kerry Post 32 branch have taken part in numerous trips oversees.

These have included celebrations like St Patrick's Day in Boston and more sombre occasions like a visit to the graves in Normandy of fallen Irish troops who perished on D-Day.

Like Alan the IUNVA's Kerry members served across the globe and many of them saw action side by side.

"We have members who were in the Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, Liberia, Cyprus, Somalia, East Timor, Chad and Eritrea. Right now two of our members are serving in New York protecting the UN headquarters," he said.

"Our members have been all over the world and in some tough situations."

"We Irish are lucky. We have the gift of the gab and you'd be surprised how good that can be when you need to talk yourself out of a dangerous spot."

"We always had tremendous support from our families back home which was also very important."

Alan Hanafin has fond memories of his time in uniform but, as one would expect, not all of them are pleasant.

"I think the toughest place I served was Bosnia. That was tough. We were peacekeeping and there was a lot of humanitarian work to be done and we saw a lot of suffering."

"Liberia was hard too but that was more to do with the conditions. I'll never forget the heat. It was like working in an oven all day, every day."

The tours were often tough but the Irish troops also made firm friends with their foreign comrades, although sometimes there was some tension.

"Everyone always got along. Though I remember in Cyprus we were serving with the British and Argentinians and, given the history there, that did get a little awkward at times," he laughs.

The IUNVA is hugely important to Alan but, he admits, he still misses day to day life in the service

"I miss it every day. You never forget the comradeship and the trust that develops between you and those you serve with."

Anyone interested in joining the Kerry IUNVA, or learning more about it, can call PRO Joe Hanley at (087) 2376061.