When I joined the FCA (An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil) Local Defence Force in 1970, I was just fourteen. The rules in those days were somewhat flexible. I should have been seventeen, so the officer with whom I filled out my application forms in Griffith barracks on the S. Circular Rd, told me to put 1953 down as my year of birth.
Did I look seventeen when I was actually fourteen? Did I hell !
When he asked me my name and I said “Jimmy Nelson” he fixed me with his officer eye, and told me in a stern manner “your name is Nelson James, not Jimmy. Here you will be known as Nelson J 713 9476, suddenly I felt very grown up and prisoner like. But that was me for the next five years of military service, Nelson J.
Griffith barracks, which is now Griffith College, in those days belonged to the Department of defence, and was the headquarters for the FCA in South Dublin.
It had everything that one would expect from an army barracks, a square, a very tall flagpole with the Irish flag flying, a guardhouse, a big gate with a red and white ‘lifty up’ barrier which the armed MP or in Irish PA (Poilini an Airm) raised or lowered as the situation dictated, and rows of grey three storey buildings, once the accommodation of British soldiers garrisoned on the south side of Dublin.
It seemed to us new recruits, that the gate PA’s sole role in life was to arrest those of us who tried to gain entrance to that military establishment, in civilian attire.
The morning that I signed up, I was detained in the guardhouse until a non-commissioned officer from our company, came and claimed me. The first time it happened I was genuinely frightened, but it was all a game.
Until I got my uniform a few weeks later, twice a week, Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings, I sat in the guardhouse for half an hour or so, until someone came to fetch me.
On the day of my enlistment, I was uniform less and a bit ordinary- formless also.
I was part of an intake platoon, whose time for the next sixteen weeks, would be taken up with basic training.
Training in marching for six weeks, training in arms drill from 6 to 10 weeks, marching with rifles from 10 to 12 weeks, and finally weapons training and live fire exercise.
Assuming that one lasted that time, and that one could pass the minimum marksmanship standard, then one was presented with their two stars badge, to be sewed on both sleeves and the Brassard, indicating that the wearer was a trained soldier (part-time) and ready to be thrown into combat (equally part time) at a moment’s notice.
Cpl O’ D was in charge of our training in parade drill initially; obviously his task was to mould us into some sort of a cohesive group. So on this first day, he pushed, pulled and dragged us physically into two ranks of six men each.
He then turned us to the right, ‘the other right’ he bellowed at the few who turned the wrong way, and attempted to march us around to a small square at the back of the company lines.
Some tried to look vaguely military, some just walked, and some swung their arms out of time with their legs while others slouched.
Like every group of recruits, before their uniforms showed up, or before they had any knowledge of what soldiers did, we were a sorry looking bunch I’m sure.
As we had just clearly demonstrated, before we could move in a military fashion, we had to learn how to fall in, which meant, in our case, arrange ourselves in two lines (ranks) of six men.
To begin our training, Cpl O’ D marched to where he wanted the platoon to fall in.
He then turned to face us, and standing at attention he called out, ‘I Dha Line Luíonn Isteach’ (in two ranks fall in) at which time, we were told to straighten up and form ourselves into a military group, using the NCO as our datum point.
O’ D again dragged us into two ranks, pulling one of the lads by the sleeve to stand at attention to the left of where he had been, and then he pushed and pulled the rest of us into roughly the same positions that he pushed and pulled us into a few minutes before.
The man at the right hand end of the front rank, determined by the first one to arrive there, would position himself an arm’s length to the left of, and in line with the datum NCO, and everyone else would dress off him.
When we were in the required number of ranks, the Corporal marched to a position, ten feet or so in front of the middle man in the front rank.
It was then necessary for us to straighten the lines, and achieve the standard distance between each man. It was called dressing, or in Irish búiste.
He pulled a ‘volunteer’ from the front rank and stood him to attention with his back to us.
He then stood himself on the volunteer’s left, and called out búiste ar deas’ (dress to the right.) His head whipped around 45° facing to his right, his right arm shot up towards the shoulder of the volunteer, while he crooked his left arm directly out, bringing his fist onto his hip. He then shuffled left, right and in and out until he was perfectly in line with, and exactly one arms length distance from, his datum soldier. The corporal’s right fist rested lightly on volunteers upper left arm, just below where the epaulette would be, and there he remained stiff as a board, until he called out ‘parad, parad aire’ (pronounced aarrah), then like a spring his head snapped back to looking straight ahead, his right arm snapped down to the seam of his right trouser leg, and his left de-crooked itself back to the seam of his left trouser leg.
He was now; he told us over his shoulder, at Parade Attention and properly dressed.
After standing there for a couple of seconds, he called out ‘Fall Out’ and then he turned 45° to his left, and in a military manner, he marched off a few paces and then relaxed and walked away. Falling out was pretty easy.
It took several parades to get us falling in, dressing and falling out as a unit. It was our first example of the army way, and after two or three weeks we were reasonably proficient.
I did get my uniform after about two weeks and despite its texture, we called it ‘Bulls Wool’, I was very excited to bring it and the entire ancillary gear home at last.
It was a Tuesday evening, so that night instead of walking; I got the number 18 to Sandymount Green and walked home from there.
I can still almost smell the material and the leather of the boots, the uniform smelled of powder.
The large bundle of medium green, hairy fabric consisted of a pair of trousers, a short jacket (tunic) a very large and heavy army greatcoat, a black beret, a pair of black leather military height boots, enough brass collar badges for the tunic and the greatcoat, four yellow field with red pike head, Eastern command flashes, one each for the tunic and the greatcoat, two company arm flashes for the tunic and great coat, and finally one cap badge for the beret.
The collar badges were brass crossed rifles indicating that the wearer was an infantryman (child), and the cap Badge depicted a laurel with the letters FF in Old Gaelic script. The FF referred to Fianna Fail, but not the political party, it was the Irish for ‘Soldier of Destiny’.
That summed me up completely at that moment.
To top all that off we were also issued with a full set of unpainted British Army, Second World War webbing, consisting of two basic (pronounced bassic, why I have no idea, they were universally known as diddy bags), a web belt, a backpack and a bayonet frog, a belt holder for the Lee Enfield 303 bayonet scabbard.
The web belt was to be worn with either dress or combat uniform in the future; the rest was only to be used when ordered to do so. The main job that Tuesday evening was to paint the webbing green.
The Americans call their green, olive drab, we didn’t call it anything except green, but it was olive coloured and drab.
We mixed the green powder in bowls with water and then stirred the mixture until it was the consistency of custard, it could then be painted on to our webbing. It dried quickly so it was ready to be carried home at 10 PM.
Of course, even though I had been meticulously measured by the company quartermaster, the beret and the boots were the only things that fitted properly.
Luckily my ma was a very experienced dressmaker, who incidentally had made American army uniforms during the Second World War, so she was well able to measure, and then nip and tuck it into shape on her singer sewing machine.
After she had worked on it for a couple of hours, it fitted perfectly, and when I finally put it on, I looked like a real boy soldier. She also expertly sewed on the various arm flashes, two fingers width down from the epaulet on each upper arm.
Amazingly, my da still had his ‘brass button stick’ from his time in the LDF during the emergency, Ireland’s name for the Second World War. He handed it down to me, as the only one of his sons pursuing a quasi-military career.
A button stick is a brass implement that protects the fabric of the uniform from the Brasso, necessary to put a shine on the brass buttons, and the collar and cap badges. It slips inside the button or badge, coming between it and the fabric.
Over the next five years, polishing my boots and those buttons and badges, became a regular twice a week ritual, and to this day the smell of Brasso and shoe polish instantly transports me back to those times.
There were certain uniform refinements which were necessary, and which we were made aware of on the night that we were presented with ours.
We were instructed to wear our trousers tucked up under knicker elastic garters, at the top of my boots.
At our own expense, we were told to get a couple of good American army surplus khaki shirts and a green army tie, a dark green field jacket, and matching cargo pocketed trousers. All of that really good stuff was available in Millets army surplus store off Capel Street in town.
Luckily my ma was not only an ace seamstress, but she also had the 20 pounds needed to buy it all.
The American Army surplus field jacket and trousers were for wearing on field days, those times at the firing range, hikes across country or security detail. And the shirt and tie were for wearing with the dress uniform, and an open-necked shirt with a white T-shirt below was to be worn on-field days.
On that first sunny Sunday morning when I stepped out in my dress uniform, I did not look like a bag of shite. I did not look old enough to be wearing military garb, but at least it fitted me, and I felt like a million dollars.
On Saturday night before, I polished my buttons and badges to a brilliant sheen, and I hardly slept with all the excitement.
I was up early enough to get 7:30 AM mass on Sunday morning, gleaming (as I thought) in my brand-new uniform. And as I had only recently finished my time as an altar boy and helper in that church, I was interested to see what the priest and altar boys at the mass would make of my new tough-guy image.
Nothing is the answer; I had never served a seven-thirty AM Sunday mass, so I couldn’t have known that it was always an out-of-town priest with no altar boys.
Not to worry, I’m sure that, to the half-dozen Catholics in the church, I looked smart.
There was a girl who always attended Sunday 7:30AM mass with her family, and we used to stare lovingly, at each other at Holy Communion.
Me on one side of the altar rail, and she opposite.
For years we carried out this ritual once a week, but we never met, we never spoke, I never even found out if she was from Sandymount, we just stared, as only teenagers in love can do.
All Together Now
Once we had our uniforms and we could fall in fallout and dress correctly, we were merged with the company for inspection at the beginning of every parade.
When the order ‘Complacht Luíonn Isteach’ was given, everybody watched to see who the first guy would be.
It was usually one of the two or three stars who took it upon themselves to provide the datum for the three platoons of our company.
On the order ‘búiste ar deas’ everyone but the men on the right-hand end of each column, went through the motions, crooked their left arm, resting their clenched fist on their left hip, snap their heads around to the right (some martinets in my time demanded to hear that head snap) while simultaneously shooting their right arm out towards their neighbour on the left. Then we shuffled backwards and forwards left or right, until we were in line with, and exactly one extended arms distance from, our neighbour.
You’re probably thinking that next they should go into some sort of Broadway high kicking chorus dance, and the same thought often struck me, particularly when we dressed off before the parade to Arbour Hill at Easter time, all wearing white gloves, white web belt and white leggings. But it never happened.
I know that shuffling must sound strange for a military movement, but it works very well, looks army, and I can remember as if it were yesterday, the sounds of few or many army boots, shuffling on the tiny pebbles and tarmac of the main square in Griffith barracks.
As you can imagine, teaching us recruits how to march was a mammoth task for Cpl O’ D, later joined by Cpl B, they really had their work cut out for them on that first Sunday and for a number of parades afterwards
For three hours on Tuesday evening and four hours on Sunday morning, we fell in, fell out and marched and marched.
We learned the Irish commands off by heart and we tried to respond as one, but inevitably for the first few weeks, some turned left, some turned right, some stopped some reversed direction, some swung their arms, some didn’t and some had difficulty identifying their left foot. “YOUR OTHER FUCKING LEFT” was much hollered loudly at us.
We were shouted at, we were berated, we were bawled out, and eventually, we were turned into a reasonably cohesive entity, which led off by the left with one accord, turned left as a unit, turned right en masse, reversed direction in unison, came to a stop as one, came to attention simultaneously, and stood at ease in concert.
“De reir chle go mair mairseail” “” iompaigi thairt” “complacht stad” complacht aire” “complach sheasaigh arais”
Irish was not an alien tongue to me, and I’m sure to others in the platoon, but the strange word grouping and having the orders screamed loudly at us, made them difficult to understand.
We just had to remember the commands and react to them.
Sometimes the NCO in charge would bellow “aire” “arais” “aire” “arais” “aire” “arais” multiple times, while our platoon stood to attention and stood at ease until our heads spun.
There were some who added a final twist, after four or five aire and arais (pronounced awrash), finishing on aire; they would bark “Not a Move, Not a Fucking Move”. Our CS (company sergeant) D was a particularly fearsome proponent of the multiple orders, followed by the ‘Not a Move’, and woe betides anybody who moved a muscle, a Fucking eyelash.
He was not a tall man, but if he saw a movement he would rush up to the culprit, and roar into his chest if necessary “What Did I Say? What Did I Fucking Say? What did I Fucking Say? Not a Move Not a F-U-C-K-I-N-G Move!”
That actually never happened to me in my five years, but being shouted at as part of a collective and in such a military fashion, sometimes made me feel very small indeed.
After six weeks of drill, endlessly up and down our company lines, or in the small square behind our barracks, we had to buy the battalion lanyard, which was then presented to us individually in a ceremony attended by all Company personnel.
It was a braided red navy and yellow cord, which looped over the left shoulder, under the epaulette, and was secured in the button of the left breast pocket. We were then fully integrated as regards close order drill, and the following Sunday morning, we were paraded as a platoon within our Company, in our full dress uniform, on the main square, reviewed by the Battalions highest ranking officer, Commandant Q.
Nobody did, but I would say that anyone who fucked up that day would have been roasted alive. As it was, everything went without a hitch.
To be a part of an unthinking commune was very communist, and so had an appeal for the Marxist in me. However I was then, and have always been, an individual who liked to do its own thinking, so I was somewhat conflicted but conflicted or not, I felt very proud of us.
We marched up and down and around the square like veterans, I found it very gratifying indeed.
On the following Tuesday when we arrived at seven in the evening, there was an army truck parked on our company lines.
A squad of Our Company two star and three star privates in combat gear, flak jackets and belt pouches, were positioned strategically with what I could tell were bolt action rifles, one a three star had a submachine gun with a leather pouch of magazines on his belt.
It was time for weapons training; I have to say I was very excited.
I was and had been since I was eight or nine, a great reader of what we used to call 64’s. We called them that because they always had sixty-four pages, they were, in fact, the Commando Miniature War Comics, in which the British Army always won, against the Japanese “the rice eating sons of Nippon” or the Germans “the sausage munching Jerry’s”.
They were exclusively World War II, and they told tales of derring-do performed by back to the wall Brits in the Far East, in Europe, in the skies and in the oceans.
The drawings were crude, but the common denominator was that the British, no matter how outnumbered and outgunned, always came through by the skin of their teeth.
“Cor lummy, Sarge that was a close thing.”
The infantryman’s weapon in these commando comics was always a Lee Enfield, 303 calibre, No: 3 mark 1 rifle and in 1970, the standard FCA infantry man’s weapon was the same, a museum piece from the Second World War, but that didn’t matter, they were real weapons; heavy!
I took mine reverentially from the quartermaster, who told me not to drop it. It felt so comfortable in my hands, all that wood and blacked steel, ancient yet so well cared for that they could have been brand-new.
The quartermaster sergeant, who was an irascible little man, permanently bad humoured, then had us fall in, so that he could get our names and the serial number of the weapon just given to us.
The serial number was on the breech block; there were twelve of us, holding our weapons awkwardly, so it took him five minutes to get the information necessary.
We now had new NCOs, Cpl B, Cpl O’N and Sgt A, to instruct us in rifle drill.
We were ordered in English to heft the rifles in our right hand, arm fully extended holding them at their centre of gravity, by the stock, just forward of the magazine and parallel to the ground.
We were then split into two groups and we were marched around to the small square behind our barracks, there to begin our rifle drill.
Anybody who has ever seen soldiers move weapons around on the parade ground, or at some ceremonial event like a state funeral, or the remembrance days in Arbour Hill, will realise that they do not move them around in a haphazard or slovenly manner. Everything is done to a cadence, in their heads during the ceremony, but in training, out loud.
It takes a great deal of time and practice to get any unit of men (or boys) to the point, where moving a rifle from rest to present in perfect time appears seamless.
Around in the small square, six of us went to one end with Cpl B and six the other with Cpl O’N and Sgt A.
We were then told to lay our rifles gently on the ground beside us, bolt side (right) uppermost, and we watched and paid attention to corporal B, as he began our training by introducing us to the Lee Enfield rifle.
He named the different parts of the weapon from the brass butt plate (the part in contact with your shoulder if you are firing), the butt, the butt stock, the rear sight, the trigger and trigger guard, the magazine, the sling, the breech block, the bolt, the stock, the fore- sight guard, the fore-sight and finally the muzzle.
We were warned that the training about to take place was strictly arms drill; we were under no circumstances to operate the mechanism or to point the weapon at each other or anyone else.
He then stood us at ease; marched himself out in front of us, turned to face us, and then ordered himself into ‘Parade Rest’
He pointed out that at ‘Parade Rest’ his feet where 18 inches apart, the magazine and sling of the weapon was pointing outward, with the butt plate by the outside toecap of his right boot.
He then brought himself to ‘Attention’ by shouting “Aire” (arrah) while simultaneously bringing his right leg and his rifle in to meet his left boot, feet at 45° angle to each other, with the weapon along the outside seam of his trousers, the butt plate resting on the ground, midway down his right boot, and with his hand holding the stock 8 inches below the foresight guard.
There he stood like a statue, his left hand along his left leg trouser seam, fingers clenched thumb forward. The rifle almost like part of his right leg, his right arm crooked and holding the weapon tight against him. Eyes front et cetera et cetera just as we had learned in our close order drill.
He explained that the order Clionaigh Airm could only be given from the position of parade attention, it could not be given from parade rest or any other position that we would learn in the near future.
Then he called out “Clionaigh Airm,” whilst concurrently hefting the rifle with his right hand, up and diagonally across his body, letting go momentarily while switching hands, transferring his right hand from the stock below the fore sight guard, to the butt stock (the narrow part of the butt) just behind the breech block, and his left to where his right had been.
As he executed the movement, he shouted out 1.2.3. Emphasising the one and trailing off the two and three.
The smoothness of the transfer, from attention to having the weapon diagonally across the body, was essential. Corporal B emphasised to us, that the only parts of our body to move during these manoeuvres, were hands and arms.
Eyes should remain resolutely to the front, we should not look down to see what we were doing, and we should not move our heads, our hips, or our feet at any time during the manoeuvre. “Move the Fucking rifle around your head, not your Fucking head around the rifle” was often shouted at us.
He assured us that, following the military method of repetition, this and everything else we would learn during our time in the FCA would become as second nature.
The first part brought the weapon to chest height, diagonally across the body, and it arrived there as he called out 3, in the 1.2.3 sequence.
Counting 1.2.3 again, he transferred his left hand from the upper stock to the base plate whilst concurrently bringing the rifle over to rest on his left shoulder at an angle of 45°.
The weapon was now on his left shoulder; his left hand was supporting it on the butt plate, with the elbow tucked in tight to the body, while his right hand still held the butt stock. It had arrived there just as he said “3.”
We had then reached the final part of the movement, getting his right hand back down to his side. He shouted out “ONE” and as he called it out, he snapped his right arm back to the position of attention, down by his side, fingers clenched, thumb to the front, and along his right trouser leg seam.
His weapon was now in the sloped position, and he was standing to attention.
He exhorted us to note the major points.
He was standing to attention, the weapon was resting on his left shoulder at an angle of 45°, his left arm was crooked, elbow held tight into his side and his left hand supported the rifle on the brass butt plate, he stood perfectly still, “not a move”.
Of course having got his rifle there, it will be necessary at some point to get it back to the ground.
In order to do so, corporal B shouted out “Sithigh Airm” (seat arms) surprisingly, the movement was not the reverse of getting it up there in the first place.
The cadence was the same1.2.3. 1.2.3. 1.
During the first 1.2.3, he pulled the rifle down with his left arm, extending it to its full length, whilst simultaneously bringing his right hand up, grasping the weapon by the stock 8 inches below the sight guard.
During the second 1.2.3 he released his left hand grip on the butt plate, and brought the weapon with his right hand down to alongside his right leg, following the movement with his left hand to lend control by using the palm of the open hand, on the muzzle to steady its descent, not splay fingered, thumb and fingers held rigidly together.
Then the final 1, lower the rifle last inch to the ground and snap the left arm back to the parade attention position, fingers clenched thumb to the front and running down the trouser seam of the left leg.
While we watched intently and tried to memorise the movements and the cadence, corporal B went through the manoeuvre again and again and again, until we had some idea of what would soon be demanded of us.
What could possibly go wrong?
We picked up our rifles and stood at parade rest, feet 18 inches apart toes at 45° angle, rifle alongside the outside toe cap of the right boot extended to the full length of the right arm. Left arm crooked with hand in a fist between the back buckles of the web belt.
We stood, expectant!
To assist us, our NCO carried out the movements and we tried to mimic him.
He called out “Squad, squad Aire” (the first squad, as in any order was to prepare us).
We managed to get that, pretty much right, though Cpl B went amongst us busying himself straightening rifles, and moving hands up or down the stock.
The next order was “squad, squad Clionaigh Airm”.
Of course what ensued was mayhem, I had been concentrating quite intently during the demonstrations, and I tried to follow his movements amid the chaos.
Every conceivable example of the wrong way of doing it was exhibited.
Corporal Byrne shouted no, no, no! Do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Right up until the end of that parade, and then the next parade and the next parade and the next parade after that. Until, incredibly we could execute those movements as a squad of six, simultaneously.
After a month of solid arms drill, we still called out the cadence, but we executed the movement with perfect timing.
At that point we rejoined our fellow trainees as a platoon, and amazingly, when we performed the Clionaigh Airm Sithigh Airm, by the numbers, we were in perfect time with them and them with us. That military method really works.
After that we spent two weeks practising closed order drill with sloped arms, until we could carry out perfect arms drill, reciting cadence in our heads, and march with the rifle on our shoulder.
We then paraded as part of Our Company in a battalion review by the Battalion CO.
At the risk of boring any reader to tears, I have explained here in minute detail the movements involved in getting a rifle into one position or another, in these cases, parade rest, parade attention, sloped arms and finally back to parade attention from sloped.
I took that risk, to give you some idea of the methods employed to teach soldiers how to do things.
That method is universal.
Over the next five years, I learned and taught some mind bogglingly complex arms and closed order marching drill, which are used at various ceremonies, such as those mentioned above, and once having been one of three men, chosen from Our Company to represent the Battalion, at the yearly Wolfe Tone Memorial, where reverse arms (the so-called Queen Anne movement) needed to be executed perfectly. In that case I learned five individual 1.2.3 sequences and carried them out in full public view, absolutely respectful of tradition and the dead of the Irish defence forces, where nothing less than split-second timing was acceptable.
Whenever weapons were issued to an FCA unit that was not going on a field day, they were handled in that special army way 1.2.3, 1.2.3, 1.
We had survived the first twelve weeks of training and no one had dropped out. I remember well that I enjoyed it all very much.
We had adapted to this alien lifestyle, and we had done well at our marching and arms drill.
It was then time to move on to learn about the workings of the weapons that we had just spent six weeks learning how to handle efficiently.
For the next phase of our training we were under the tutelage of Cpl B and Sgt A.
Sgt A was singular in the company in that he wore a green army jumper rather than a tunic, with his stripes and flash on a brassard. He was also the most approachable and amenable of the NCOs.
From now on discipline was somewhat relaxed.
Of course when we drew our weapons, we still handled them in the prescribed way, and we fell in for inspection, dressing ourselves correctly ready to be assessed by Lieutenant F.
However after falling out following inspection, Sgt A and Cpl B led us upstairs in the
Company building to a billet, where an army table ,with benches in front had been set up.
Sgt A invited us to sit down on the benches, and told us that we could smoke if we had them and had enough for him.
Over the next three hours he took his rifle apart on his table, and explained to us what every part did, reassembled it and then showed us how to load it, with real bullets.
Of course having watched him a few times, we had to emulate what we had seen while he watched carefully and corrected any errors.
For the next two weeks we worked incessantly, gaining a detailed knowledge of the workings of the Lee Enfield mark 3 rifles, and by the end each of us could strip, reassemble, load, unload and make the weapon safe, by the numbers.
I was riveted, so much so that here forty-nine years later, I believe that I could strip a Lee Enfield down and reassemble it, purely as a result of those hours of lessons.
On the Tuesday night when our training was due to finish, we were ordered to carry a filled sandbag each up to the billet, where there was a pile of genuine First World War, guppa percha ponchos.
We were invited to take a poncho each and to create a firing station for ourselves. The poncho was to lie upon to keep our dress uniforms clean, and the sandbag to rest the rifle on as we pretended to fire our weapons.
Of course, that being the wannabe army there was a ‘by the numbers’ manoeuvre to get the shooter on the ground, and lined up with the imaginary target.
We were ordered to Parade rest at the end of the poncho, then Sgt A called out “squad, squad Aire” and then when each of us was at attention, he called out in English “take firing positions,” at which time we hefted our weapons, up into our left hand grasping the rifle on the stock just in front of the magazine 1.2.3, then lying forward in a dignified and reasonably cohesive manner 1.2.3, using our free right hand to stop us smashing our face on the ground, then bringing the rifle up into a firing position. 1.
The two NCO’s then moved amongst us leaving a clip of five false bullets, not blanks, just cartridges that had been used and then affixed again with a bullet head, on the sandbag beside our right hand.
A was adept at humour, so he called out that we each had a Baluba charging towards us at 200 yards.
I had won Tom Mc Caughren’s book ‘Niemba’ for my exams in sixth class of national school, and I had read of the ambush of Irish U.N troops in the Congo, four years previously, when seven Irish soldiers had been beaten and hacked to death by Balubakat tribesman, who were at war with the Congolese government, and (they believed) the UN who were supporting them. Baluba was short for Balubakat.
Under a UN directive the squad of Irish Soldiers had been carrying empty weapons, so they had no way of defending themselves.
I realised what the Sgt was alluding to, but I was the only one as it turns out, even my intellectual friend N wasn’t aware of the incident, or the main protagonists.
The whole Niemba ambush and subsequent battle of Jadotville episode was hushed up at home, because despite a spirited resistance at Jadotville, the Irish were ultimately forced to surrender having run out of ammunition, to an overwhelming force of tribesman and French mercenaries.
I loaded the weapon, pushing the rounds out of the clip and down into the magazine with my thumb, past the bolt, which I slid over the top of the bullets, and pushed it home, cocking the weapon, pulled the trigger against an empty breech and finally set the safety catch to on.
I now had five rounds in the magazine, but none in the breech, ‘up the spout’.
On the order, 200 yards, five rounds, rapidfire, I flipped up the spring loaded rear sight and set it to 200 yards, laid the weapon on my left hand which rested on the sandbag, lined up the centre of the rear sight aperture with the tip of the foresight blade, and the centre of the target, flicked the safety to off with my thumb, pulled the bolt up and back as far as it would go, then pushed it forward , loading my first dummy round.
We were stopped right there, by a shouted: “Hold it there”. Sgt A then explained to us in a raised voice, that the trigger of a Lee Enfield has two pressures.
If it is squeezed gently it from its normal position, it will stop about halfway to its full extent of travel, it is then a hair-trigger so with another gentle squeeze it will fire.
The reason for the two pressures is that when you have a target in your sights you take the first pressure, realign and squeeze again.
A hair-trigger gives greater accuracy but has obvious disadvantages where loaded weapons would be the norm, like in actual combat. By having two pressures, the shooter has the advantages of a hair-trigger without endangering his comrades in arms. So we were instructed to take first pressure, I squeezed my trigger gently and indeed it did stop. However one or two rifles went off, so we were told to release the trigger while the miscreants went through the process of re-cocking their weapon.
We went through the first pressure again, this time there were no spontaneous firings, so I pulled the trigger and heard the click of the firing pin against the used firing cap of the first dummy bullet, and the other firing pins along the line in a ragged click, click, and click. I then operated the bolt, ejecting the used cartridge, loading the next round, and by repeating this method, I emptied five rounds’ rapidly,’ into my imaginary Baluba, stopping him dead in his tracks at 200 yards.
In my time in the FCA,I was to learn by numbers, in that strictly military way, how to strip down, reassemble, load and fire the Lee Enfield rifle, the Gustav sub machine gun, the Browning automatic pistol (BAP), the Bren medium machine gun, the FN semiautomatic rifle, the water cooled Vickers heavy machine gun, the 84 mm recoilless rifle and the 81 mm light mortar. I also learned how to read a map, use a compass and find my way from unfamiliar point to unfamiliar point across country using orienteering skills.
All of that I learned, using the military, repeat until you get it right, method and the fact that despite the passage of almost half a century, and with varying degrees of relevance, under normal circumstances, I could carry out any of those tasks now, says something about military methodology.
So excepting my disablement and wheelchair boundness, I am eminently qualified to survive, and to lead a group of fellow survivors, following a zombie apocalypse.
At the time, being very young and susceptible to suggestion, I easily learned by rote.
It served its purpose I suppose, in that nobody got killed even though we used deadly weapons.
In 1968, only two years before I joined, each member of the FCA had been issued with his own Lee Enfield, to bring home and to care for.
However after the outbreak of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and because of the worsening terrorist threat, the Ministry of Defence thought it prudent not to have a gang of kids running around with real guns, which made perfect sense.
I had joined up with my friend from school, both of us were Marxist, but he was more outspoken than I.
The rest of the training platoon was made up of lads from around the area, S. Circular Rd, Inchicore and Rialto, a good many of them were from flats in Cork Street. I see them all clearly lined up in dressed ranks on Our Company lines outside the austere grey ex-British Army barracks.
S was a Nazi fetishist, which, believe it or not, at that time was no big deal. He asked at parade one night if a blue grey WW2 German Parachutists camouflage smock would be ok as a field jacket.
He was told by Sgt A that under no circumstances was he to show up in such attire, and he then added that the PA would probably shoot him if he tried to get through the gate dressed as a German soldier, and if he didn’t that he (Sgt A) would order him to.
We finished our weapons training on Tuesday evening and we were instructed to wear our ‘combat gear’ on the following Sunday.
There was a general warning given, that we would be arrested if that uniform was not worn correctly.
That meant a brassard on the left shoulder, collar badges, khaki shirt open at the neck with a white round neck T-shirt underneath, an army jumper if we had such a thing and of course our regulation boots and beret. Our brasses and boots were to be polished, to a high gloss as normal.
We had all done well at our marching, our arms drill and our weapons training, so we were ready for a live firing exercise
The following Saturday night, I hardly slept with excitement.
The live firing exercise on Sunday was to be the most exciting thing that had happened to me since reaching puberty, a year previously.
I know it sounds terribly wrong now, but I really wanted to fire that weapon, not too fire at anyone, not to hurt anybody, just to fire it.
I wondered if my medium distance love at 7:30 AM mass noticed that I was dressed for combat.
I met N at his house at 9 o’clock, and we walked from there to Griffith barracks, it took about thirty minutes.
The PA on duty that morning nodded us through, so we must have been dressed appropriately.
When we got to the lines, there were already two large green army trucks parked.
Their tailgates were down, waiting expectant.
At 10 o’clock, and following a cursory inspection by Lieutenant F , even though he took the time to tell me to tuck my red woollen zip up cardigan, Christmas gift from my sister, down under the collar of my field jacket. Pointing out to me that the reason my field jacket was green, was for its camouflage value, and that the bright red colour of my Christmas cardie, somewhat negated that effect.
Following the inspection, we ‘fell out’ and were ordered into the armoury to carry the large wooden boxes of Lee Enfield rifles out to the truck. There were four long boxes of weapons, and a number of smaller square ones, very heavy, so I guessed bullets.
I can recall everything in perfect detail from that morning, the ammunition boxes, with the black stenciled numbers, the rifle boxes, the fabric bandoliers of bullets and the Gustav sub machine guns with their leather ammunition pouches for the security detail, who would ride with us and keep everything safe, even the pile of rubber ponchos, thrown in on top of the weapons and ammo.
When everything was loaded, we clambered on board as best we could. Army lorries are high, and there was only one dangling rope to assist us in the climb up.
The first couple on board helped the rest of us until everyone, including the four riflemen, Sgt A and Cpl B of the security detail, both armed with Gustav sub machine guns, was loaded.
Sgt A and Cpl B sat opposite each other at the tailgate, looking cool
We weren’t going very far, an hour and half’s journey maybe, but those wooden seats, and the seeming lack of any suspension, made it a very uncomfortable trip.
Manor Kilbride is off the main Blessington Road, and then off that main road and the next one. The firing range is right at the foot of Seaghan Mountain, one of the roundy topped humps of the Dublin foothills.
There are whitewashed barracks buildings below where the truck parked, but we didn’t go down.
The drill was the opposite to the one in Griffith barracks earlier, gravity assisted us young men with disembarking from the high army truck, so we poured out in a green flood. We then unloaded the rifles and ammunition
Sgt A and Cpl B dispersed their security detail, in a loose ring around the weapons and ammunition. One of them was placed behind a low wall facing the only approach road. I imagined a scenario where the IRA or somebody, came speeding up the road in a van or a car, and our guy had to open fire, wow, what a scene that would be.
I was picked in the first six to fire, the others from the platoon who weren’t ,were fell in by Cpl O’N and marched down towards a twenty or 30 feet long, grassy hump about 200 m away called the ‘Butts’.
I was trying to work out the topography, whilst unloading the rifles et cetera.
There were the butts almost under the mountain, and then at regular intervals, and parallel to it, the same length, grassy humps, flattened out on top.
Everything seemed to be happening at the second grassy hump up from the butts.
There were eight or nine three star privates and Corporals from Our company milling around the weapons and ammunition.
We were organised into work parties, preparing six firing points along the grassy hump. There were filled sandbags everywhere, so we laid them out, just like we trained on in Dublin, a sandbag and a poncho to lie on. All we were short of was a Balubakat to shoot at.
When our firing points were ready, we were each issued with a rifle and then numbered off 1-6 and ordered to stand at ease behind our allocated firing point.
We were given a lecture by Lieutenant F on the deadly nature of the bullets that we were about to fire, and on how we were to deport ourselves when we had live ammunition in our weapons.
It was everything that we had practised up to this point, except that we had never handled real bullets before.
After his little talk, he called us to attention and then ordered us into firing position.
I was counting the 1,2,3 in my head as I went down, but I could see along the line of shooters, that our assumption of the position was a little bit raggedy.
When we were on the ground, he went among us distributing clips of live ammunition and on the order ‘load’, I opened the bolt, pushed the bullets down into the magazine, closed the bolt pushing a live round into the chamber, and flipped on the safety.
For the first time I saw that there were large white rectangular targets up above the butts’ mound. I was sure that they hadn’t been there before.
They were typical targets, a large white rectangle with concentric circles radiating inwards and an obvious bull’s-eye, not unlike a big dartboard.
Now each of us had either a three star or a corporal kneel down beside us and direct our attention to the correct target, the one straight in front of us.
Lieutenant F then called out “at the target directly in front of you, 200 yards, five rounds, rapidfire, fire.”
My coach directed me to flip off the safety, flip up the rear sight, and set it for 200 yards, line up the lowermost centre of the rear sight aperture, with the tip of the foresight blade and the lowermost central point of the target.
The lowermost centre was military speak for the centre, the Bull.
Then he said “take your first pressure”. I gently squeezed the trigger to the first stop.
Then he said “make sure your alignment is correct, take a breath and hold it, get ready for the kick and squeeze the trigger”. I breathed in and squeezed.
It wasn’t a bang like in the movies, it was a moderately loud crack, and the kick wasn’t huge, I felt it but we had been told about people breaking their shoulders, it was nothing like that.
“Now reload and repeat the process” my coach told me.
Even without a Balubakat to shoot at, I fired my five rounds and then opened the bolt as I was told, held the weapon vertically, and it was inspected to make sure that no bullets were left in the breech.
My coach then directed my attention to the target area, because the target itself was gone again, but then it popped up and someone was holding a black circle up to indicate where my bullets had hit.
He said I hadn’t done badly, just slightly down and to the left of the bull. The next five were for grouping, in other words getting your five rounds in the same place.
And so we went through forty rounds and I was told that I did pretty well.
When we finished it was lunchtime so we put the rifles in the truck and we were marched down to the whitewashed barracks, where another army truck waited with big stainless steel pots of stew, boiled rice, some sort of cake and tea.
We were given green plastic mugs and stainless steel mess kits, into which steaming piles of stew were loaded, after which cake and rice went in on top of the stewy remnants.
We didn’t care; we were starving and a little bit of stew flavoured dessert was not going to kill us.
After lunch it was our turn in the butts, so Corporal O’N marched us down and instructed us on how to operate the targets.
They were housed in a concrete emplacement under the mound, yet another remnant of the British occupation.
There were six target mechanisms which were pulled down or pushed up on pulleys as required.
The targets were made of canvas so they were changed after every twenty rounds, when, assuming that some of the bullets had hit, would be in pretty bad shape, shredded in places.
After each five rounds we took the target down, had a look at where the bullets had hit, used paste and paper patches to patch up the target, pulling it back up and marked the area with the black marker on the end of a pole.
The mystery was explained.
Being in the butts was a bit boring except for the odd ricochets, zinging off a stone that had been left behind in the removal process. You could actually hear them spinning through the air, and the spouts of earth as the bullets hit the much churned up mound behind the target.
I really enjoyed the day.
I was a few months away from being sixteen, I looked ridiculous in a military uniform and it was lunacy to give a child a loaded weapon, but I felt like John Wayne.
A few weeks after the live firing exercise, our platoon was presented with the two star patches for the sleeves of our tunic, greatcoat and the Brassard.
The same methodology applied to the 303 was used to teach us how to use the Bren medium machine gun, the Gustaf sub machine gun, the Browning Automatic Pistol (B AP), Grenades (First World War Mills bombs), 81 mm Infantry Mortar and the 84 mm Anti-Tank Recoilless Rifle, which was unique in that it was the only modern weapon that we trained on, everything else was Second or even First World War vintage.
We learned all about these weapons using the same tried and trusted method of constant repetition under expert tutelage, and finally a live firing exercise.
There was an old armoured car in the Glen of Imaal. It had been blown to pieces innumerable times over the years, and repaired with steel plating, to be blown to pieces again and again.
The 84 mm anti-tank recoilless rifle is a singular weapon. It is like a short bazooka and the explosion of the rocket, when it hits that target having being fired from 100 Yards, was significant.
The mortars were First World War vintage and given to the occasional mis- fire, as happened to us, again in the Glen of Imaal.
The bomb fizzed a bit, plopped out of the tube and landed on the ground 20 feet away from the firing crew.
We had not trained for this eventuality but we all ran away anyway.
There was a regular army ordinance officer with us, who walked out to the bomb, stuck some plastic explosive and a detonator to it, led the wires back a safe distance and blew it up.
Those who have ever seen a British Army Second World War movie will have noticed the matte black machine gun, with the curved magazine sticking out of the top, used by one of the Tommie’s.
That was the Bren gun, a squad automatic weapon of World War II British Army vintage.
It had a rapid rate of fire, and spare ‘easy change’ barrels, because they had a tendency to melt when being fired.
It had a bipod foldable stand just back from the muzzle, upon which it could be rested during live firing.
When six Bren guns are firing together, the noise is incredible. The shooters tend to slip into a world where nothing exists, but the aperture through the back sight, the tip of the foresight blade, the bull on the target, the bucking of the weapon, and the wall of noise.
So a ram leading his ewes across the 200 yard firing point whilst the half-dozen Bren guns were firing at the 400 yard point, could walk him and his lady friends into trouble.
When meeting a stream of high velocity bullets at a 90° angle, that stream will be invisible, and with all the noise coming from 200 yards away, that particular hump on the ground would seem a reasonable place at which to cross.
There is no real way of knowing what goes through the heads of sheep when they are on the move. All indications are that they are driven exclusively by desires, desire to eat, desire to mate, desire to sleep et cetera et cetera.
The one thing we were sure of that day, was that the last thing that went through the head of that lead male sheep, was a burst of 303 calibre bullets, as he walked into our withering enfilade machine gun fire.
PK was the sixth of the six of us, so it was his burst that ended the life of Mr Ram, and scattered a fair amount of this head, and his harem among the hills surrounding the firing range. The girl sheep to find other mates, and his bits and pieces to feed the carrion crows.
Once the spotters had seen the hapless sheep approach the line of fire, they had tried to stop us, but we were in the zone, fingers on the trigger, feeling that weapon buck like a live thing against our shoulders, and hearing nothing but the rapid rrrrrrrrrrrriipppppppp of the bullets as they left the muzzle in an almost continuous stream. So by the time we stopped, he was already an ex-sheep.
As we were to see a little later, he was also a headless one, the bullets had taken it clean off, I felt a bit sick seeing it, I think we all did.
Our NCOs and officers exhorted us, to piss on the barrel if in combat we didn’t have a spare, and the one on the gun was overheating. They were always talking about do such and such in battle, or in combat.
“Use the battle sight on the rifle, keep firing at the enemy”, “use the thenar area of your hand to speedily release the Bren gun magazine, and grab it at the same time, to quickly load another one”.
Nobody had even heard the term thenar before, it’s the fleshy rise on the palm side at the base of your thumb, and what difference could a second or two make?
And then the best of all, “fixed bayonets”.
I always thought that, should the unlikely event of combat arise, I would prefer to shoot myself rather than go bayonet to bayonet with anyone.
Obviously our enemies would not be sheep, but seeing the mess that bullets leave behind; combat seemed a very remote likelihood for any of us to willingly partake in.
One sunny Sunday morning, we were practising grenade throwing; pull the pin hold the lever down, release it, count 1-100, 2-100, 3-100 and throw, by executing a 180° arc with your outstretched throwing arm, releasing the grenade between the 120th and 160th degree.
Counting to 3 left four seconds on the fuse, after which it will travel at least two seconds to its target, leaving a scant two seconds before it explodes, which was considered to be too short a time for the enemy to throw it back. And adding the 100 to each second, ensured that they were in fact seconds.
When you are talking about an armed bomb in your hand, it’s best to be as clear as possible about timing.
When it came to F’s turn to throw, instead of releasing at the end of the arc, he released halfway through, and the grenade went over the wall into the old British army married accommodation, which had since become corporation flats.
F climbed up on the wall and called down to the terror-stricken woman below who had been hanging out her washing, “sorry missus, can I have my grenade back”?
After a year and a half, I passed my three star tests and was presented with the triangular sleeve patch for my uniform.
As a three star private I could participate in security patrols, and take FCA recruits for drill and arms drill training
In the summer of 1971, the British Parachute Regiment shot and killed eight unarmed civilians on the Catholic Ballymurphy estate in Belfast, and then In January of 1972, they were again unleashed on a peaceful, civil rights, anti-internment rally in Derry, where utterly out of control, they shot twenty-eight un-armed civilians, thirteen of whom died.
These acts of barbarity turned peaceful Republicans in the North, into potential IRA recruits, ambivalence in the south into active Republicanism, and the island of Ireland into a tinderbox of anti-British sentiment.
This is not a history lesson, but parallels to 1916, and the heavy-handed attitude of the British army, to whom they saw as ‘simpleminded subjects of the crown’ are unavoidable.
In the immediate aftermath of the Bogside massacre, the British Embassy in Dublin was burnt to a shell at the culmination of an otherwise peaceful protest march, by 20,000 people.
Other British institutions such as the passport office was attacked, but the crowd was beaten back by Irish riot police.
In Dublin and Shannon airport, baggage handlers refused to handle baggage from British aircraft and airport staff refused to refuel them.
Anti-British feeling in the south reached almost hysterical levels, and there were real plans mooted by some within government, to annex Derry as the only way, they saw, to protect the Republican population of the city.
I was six months away from seventeen when these events happened, and on the next Tuesday night parade in Griffith barracks, we were told that we could be called for full-time duty at any time.
The plan as we understood, it was to move the regular army to the border at Finner camp in Donegal, in Monaghan and in Dundalk, and the FCA were to take up their duties in Dublin and other centres.
That state of high emotion lasted for a year after bloody Sunday.
The usual casual pace within our Company was replaced with something approaching a frenetic one.
We all had to have regulation army haircuts (I suppose to make us look older,) I was particularly miffed because I had just used a Peter Marks voucher, given to me by my sister Pat, to have my hair ‘done, ‘rather than cut.
We also began training on the regular army FN semiautomatic assault rifle, and the GPMG medium machine gun.
Initially we had regular army NCOs instructing us on the new weapons, which was then handed over to FCA NCOs and three-star privates to instruct the lower ranks.
Practically every weekend, we had live fire exercises and platoon and squad, combat drills, including orienteering, camouflage, and coordinated Regular Army and FCA manoeuvres.
It used to be that Regulars and FCA were kept at arm’s length at all times, to them we were sandbags, and to us they were arse-holes.
I do not know if there was ever any realistic intent to annex Derry, but in America and with our new best buddies in Europe, much was made of this anti-British militarism in Ireland, blamed entirely on the British military heavy-handedness.
And when the British announced that the doddering old puppet of Ted Heath and Derek Wilford, the retired Chief Justice Widgery, would chair an inquiry into the murders in Derry, the ironic laughter rang around the world.
Their imperious inquest, of course found that the Parachute Regiment was perfectly right to shoot these twenty-eight gunmen, even though, as with Ballymurphy, no weapons were found, despite the clumsy efforts of the RUC and the Army to plant nail bombs on the dead and wounded.
It took the twelve year Saville enquiry, whose report issued in 2010, to find, that the Parachute Regiment gunned down those twenty eight people in cold blood, laying the foundation for criminal proceedings against the surviving soldiers.
They didn’t even bother to pretend over Ballymurphy, the army whitewashed it, calling every one of the dead a gunman, even though not even one weapon was recovered. They forced the families to take criminal actions against the individual soldiers, legal proceedings which drag on to this day.
The three full-strength companies of the Battalion had to stand guard in Griffith barracks 24/7, so every two months Our Company’s turn came, and everyone above two stars was obliged to attend as rostered.
Most of us were in school, so a letter from one of the officers to the school head, was generally enough to give us the time off from our studies.
I drank a lot of tea, ate a lot of biscuits, read a lot of books and smoked a lot of cigarettes, during those times. I also earned quite a lot of money, £21.76 per week, no tax.
As part of our new training regimen, we were instructed in riot control. Boxes and boxes of riot gear consisting of helmets with visors, flak jackets, gas masks, Perspex five foot Shields and long batons arrived to the company headquarters in Griffith. And at the drop of a hat, it seems, riot control was taught.
Whilst on annual camp in Gormantown Co Meath during the summer of 1972, we were rousted out of our beds at 1;00 AM, issued with flak jackets, helmets with visors, Perspex riot shields, gas masks, backpack radio and batons.
We were then loaded into trucks and driven to Butlins holiday camp, where a group of kids from Northern Ireland were being ‘reconciliated’ in the old holiday complex. I was made de facto, radioman and on the ground liaison between, whoever was in charge.
I couldn’t wear a helmet because of the headset, so I was positioned in the middle of our formation.
Obviously being reconciliatified wasn’t particularly to their liking, so they rebelled and began burning the chalets.
We were given a true taste of Northern Ireland republicanism that night.
We lined up anonymously behind our ‘big boy’ riot gear, facing this baying band of sectarian hatred. They were not just haters of the British; they hated us‘free-staters’ ’just as much.
We stood for two hours, facing them, our shadows cast by the burning chalets, distorted on the ground behind us, perhaps, into the monsters that they felt we were.
There was no appetite at any level, for dealing with them violently; we simply stood our ground under a hail of small bits of timber, potted plants and decorative edging.. They did not have petrol bombs or rocks, so eventually they got bored or tired and went off to bed, so we made an honourable withdrawal.
I had listened intently to my radio throughout the entire riot, and I hadn’t heard a word.
It was a confusing event; obviously the Republicans in the North of Ireland did not see us as their saviours. Or maybe they just didn’t like Butlins or riot troops.
I was part of the security detail providing protection for the infantry weapons, issued to all three of Our Company’s platoons for a night exercise in the Glen of Imaal.
Travelling to a range with weapons already issued was unprecedented,.
Prior to mounting the trucks, we were given a stern warning about our deportment with these rifles while we travelled. They were to be held between the knees muzzle upwards and they were not to be fiddled with.
Each weapon was checked meticulously by an officer to make sure every one of them was safe. That each weapon was selected for single shot mode and that each weapon had the safety on.
The security detail was bigger also, there was MK, NK, DS, Cpl B, Sgt A and me in one squad, and there was a second squad in the other truck.
I was thinking that something big was happening; it was so outside of normal.
We only left Griffith at around 4 PM in the afternoon, so we got to the Glen at around 6:30 PM, it was a hot sultry evening, and the midges were out in force.
There were some NCOs and officers that I had never seen before, and there were some regular army personnel.
We de-trucked where a forest track was crossed by a small river, scaring the shit out of some French hill trekkers, who had chosen that spot to make camp for the night.
There was much milling around and shouting, as riflemen fell in to their respective platoons and NCOs and officers consulted maps, and took compass bearings.
An army jeep arrived carrying a huge fifty calibre machine gun on the back, and a captain with his driver in the front.
They stopped near our CO and the captain consulted with him for a moment, and then whilst driving away he tossed two flash bangs into the ranks of number one platoon, as they were taking up point position on the forestry road.
Of course that was not a fair thing to do, and the flashes and loud bangs in their ranks, somewhat discombobulated those men.
Apparently the captain was an adjudicator from the regular army, they really hated the FCA.
Shortly after the explosions that reverberated around the mountains and the blinding flash’s, the poor French campers appeared, almost with their hands over their heads asking in a timid way “Que ce passe-t-il?” .
They came out of the woods behind me, where the otherwise thick government forestry of green fir trees, thinned out towards the ford. And all I could think to say was “Excusez nous, c’est rien.”
Having been so reassured, they went timidly back to their tents.
Forming up a company, and ensuring that they are all facing the right, or even the same, direction, with or without the added distraction of thunder flashes, is quite a task, But, eventually order was found, and the company was ready to move off along the forest track.
There were a lot of rifles to protect so we were positioned strategically, MK and me in the rear, corporal B and Sgt A moved up and down the column and the others in the vanguard.
It must have been coming up to 7 PM by the time we were ready to move out
Our place on earth was rotating away from the sun, but at Irelands latitude it still shone brightly, so we set off in bright sunlight, the entire company spread out in three platoons along the road.
MK and I covered the last platoon on the left side of the trail. Number two platoon was 50 m ahead of our point man but on the right side, and number one platoon 50 m ahead of them back on the left side.
We were ordered to maintain vigilance to the left to the right and to the rear, which we did, but still nobody knew yet what we were doing or where we were going to do it.
Two hours or so up the forest track; we halted and were given the visual order to hunker down.
The forest on our left had thinned out to nothing but grassy hillocks, large boulders and the odd whitened and dead, older deciduous trees, remnants of Ireland’s ancient forest.
When we moved off again, it was cross-country and uphill. I wasn’t sure if whoever we were stalking had reconnaissance aircraft or helicopters, because if they had we were sure to be spotted.
After another hour of scrabbling through rough country, where we skirted the summit of a low mountain and followed the edge of the new state forest below us, we were there, or almost.
Day light was fading fast but we could see that there was a house below, quite a grand house, or it once was.
We were told to hold where we were, number one platoon were going forward to take the objective, which they did without further ado.
Beside the house was a field, possibly 2 acres of flat land bordered by raised ditches.
By the time the house was secure, darkness had descended, but we could see that several flashlights
In the flashlight lit darkness, number one platoon had taken up firing positions on our end of the field
Then without warning a flare hissed up from behind the firing line, burst in the sky right above the house, casting its hard light over everything below, as it began its fizzing drift, slowly down to earth.
The rifles and the GPMG of number one platoon now opened fire and in that vivid light, we could see that targets had been set up in the field.
That flare suddenly going off, followed by the crackle of rifle and machine gun fire from just below us, is a flash bulb memory for me, the suddenness of its happening and the total surprise, seared it into my memory forever.
Live ammunition had been issued, and obviously the live firing exercise was part of our orienteering and night manoeuvres. There were tracer rounds in the machine-gun that crossed and crisscrossed through the targets in the field and on the end ditch boundary.
What a sight and what noise, eighteen assault rifles and one GPMG blasting away for 30 seconds or so, the odd ricochet zinging away on its new trajectory.
As abruptly as it started, it almost stopped. The flare burnt out, plunging us now into pitch darkness, tongues of fire licked out once or twice, as one or two of the rifles fired their last bullets. Late cracks and that was that, silence and the smell of cordite heavy in the air.
Then we saw flashlights come on again, while the weapons of number one platoon were made safe and empty.
The same went for number two platoon; they were moved down and into position on the ditch.
And we were ordered to move down to where they had been.
In the illumination of the flashlights we could see that there was at least one army truck parked a little up the track from the house.
So that’s where they got the ammunition, we could hear and see a little of number two platoon load ten rounds into their magazines and take position.
Then up went the flare and crackle, crackle, crackle went the gunfire hissing and zipping through the air, the tracer rounds trailing their phosphorus tails behind them.
Targets that had been almost shredded began to smoulder, and ricochets pinged and zinged again off the rocks in the field.
The ragged cracking went on the same amount of time, and then trailed off as number one platoons had.
Again we saw and heard the meticulous checking of each weapon, making sure that they were safe. And then move them off their firing positions and down behind the trucks.
It was our turn but MK and I were excluded, our ammunition was strictly for security.
We moved down behind number three platoon, and watched while the rounds were issued to each man.
Then we heard the solid metal movement of the W spring in the magazine, as each loaded the live rounds and then locked the weapon, waiting for the command.
Up went the flare, the scene was illuminated and the sky torn open by the enfilade crackle of number three platoons assault rifles and GPMG.
There had never been talk of ear defenders back then. I had seen boxes of them, a green industrial type, in the armourers’ stores, but they had never been issued, nor asked for.
The noise of that many weapons, from our position, just behind the firing line was quite deafening, and my ears rang for hours afterwards.
It was after 11 PM by the time we finished and we discovered that the army hadn’t let us down with sustenance.
There was a second truck which had our tea on board, they must have come from the Glen of Imaal camp, they were certainly regular army.
Tea, as the Irish army called the evening meal, consisted of a mess tin of stew, followed by the same mess tin filled with some sort of vanilla sponge, rice and jam, sounds familiar. Further followed by a green plastic army mug of tea with sugar and milk, whether you liked it or not. Army cooks didn’t take special orders in those days.
A vegan diet would have probably consisted of an empty mess tin, an empty green army mug and a fag.
On Halloween night in 1972, I was part of the guard in Griffith barracks. We took over (mounted the guard) at 6 PM and were due to finish at 6 AM the following morning.
The teenybopper Irish music news, had been full of the upcoming Gilbert O’Sullivan concert in The National Boxing Stadium, Dublin’s pre-eminent venue for pop concerts in the 1970s, before the Point and the RDS Pavilion, was immediately next door to Griffith barracks. They actually shared a boundary fence which ran along one side of the main square in Griffith.
When I arrived for duty at 5:30 PM, there were already small knots of young girls, hanging around outside that Stadium in their miniskirts and bum freezers, hugging them-selves against the cold wind of the late October evening.
The first order of business on any guard duty was tea with the day shift. The lads going off shared any bits of news from their twelve hours.
This night was all about Gilbert O’Sullivan and the concert next door. We were to expect large crowds and a possible assault on our main gate by the teenybopper army following him.
That should be interesting I thought, all those young girlies trying to overwhelm us.
After tea, I took two of the lads on a perimeter patrol which took forty-five minutes or so.
We were back in the guardhouse, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and joking about the ‘clear and present danger’ afforded us by the ‘young wans’ out on the street.
Its gas you know, with the exception of Cpl O’ D who was twenty, the rest of us were barely seventeen, so those ‘young wans’ were probably about our age. We just appeared older because we had rifles, flak jackets and short hair.
By 7:30 PM, the S. Circular Rd outside the Stadium and Griffith barracks was impassable due to the throngs of predominantly young girls, waiting for the arrival of their idol, or the opening of the doors.
We had taken the precaution of closing the main gate, lest our red and white lifty up pole be breached, and we gazed with bemusement at the crowd outside.
The doors of the concert venue opened shortly thereafter, and it thinned somewhat, but there were still several hundred people, left on the street.
I was in the gatehouse, steadfastly maintaining a state of high alert, with my shiny black boots up on the desk, cup of tea to hand, smoking a cigarette, enjoying the coziness of the pot bellied, turf burning stove and reading my book, when Cpl O’ D rushed in, his face and neck flushed as red as his hair and mutton chop sideburns, yelling.
“Nelson get your feet down and go and roust the rest out of the guardhouse, to report to the front gate immediately”
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“The Gardai (Irish police) have made an urgent request to bring Gilbert O’Sullivan in through the barracks, and to the stadium via the side gate.”
“Fuck, I didn’t even know there was a side gate.” I said.
“I have the key; it’s kept in the guard commander’s office.”
“Right I’m on my way, are we to retain weapons?” I asked further.
“Yeah, but in safe mode, no matter what, we are not to present any threat to the public”.
The lads in the guardhouse were playing cards, listening to music on a tinny sounding tape player, or lying down reading and smoking on the army bunks.
They were all below me in rank, so I went into my American Marine fantasy role.
“Right girls, up and at em, main gate now full kit, weapons in safe and locked.”
“Fuck sake Jem, where’s the fire?” said someone.
“No fire” said I just thousands of really dangerous birds out on the street.”
“Come on, move it!”
Cpl O’ D was on the phone in the gatehouse when we arrived back.
The crowd outside were definitely focused on the stadium rather than on our gate, it’s just that the overflow around the fringes, pressed against military property.
O’ D was finishing up his call, saying “yes Sir” a lot, and nodding.
When he finally hung up the heavy black bakelite apparatus, he lifted his very red face to us and outlined a plan as follows.
Commandant Q. himself had ordered O’ D to use his men in any way possible, to assist the Garda Siochana, with getting the rock-star Gilbert O’Sullivan safely in to the Boxing Stadium. To wit; at precisely 7:45 PM a Garda car and a limousine will approach the Stadium from the Rialto end of S. Circular Rd, acting as a decoy for the real Garda car and car which will come from Kelly’s corner.
We were to open the main gate just as they arrived, and then provide a safe corridor for the singer to the side gate, should it be required.
We were not to endanger the public in any way; we were to protect our weapons and Gilbert O’Sullivan only. Presumably, we as human ‘young fellas’ could get torn apart by all the mots outside.
Hopefully the crowd would surge towards Rialto, allowing our cars easy access.
Commandant Q. had synchronised his watch with the Garda commander, and then with Cpl O’ D.
Cpl O’D checked his Timex, we had two minutes.
It wasn’t exactly going over the top, or preparing ourselves for an attack, but it was rather exciting.
At thirty seconds to zero hour, we would deploy three lads on either side of the main gate.
Just as we so deployed, the screaming crowd surged up towards Rialto, so much for synchronisation of watches I thought.
Bang on seven forty-five, Cpl O’ D swung the big gate inwards, just as a Garda patrol Ford Cortina arrived, followed by a black London taxi of all things.
The timing was so synchronised that they hardly had to apply the brakes, and the cortege swept in, with a little wave from the great man himself in the back of the taxi.
We were a bit disappointed, so perfect was the decoy, that the crowd never even noticed the police car followed by Gilbert’s sneaking in the back way.
None of us got a chance to hold back the baying crowd of ‘young wans’; certainly it would have been an interesting sensation.
We closed the gates again as Cpl O’ D, directed the police across the square over to the gate, and he walked over with the key to open it for them.
When the superstar was safely in the green room, the two Gardai and the taxi driver parked their cars in the shadows, away from any prying eyes outside the main gate. They stayed with us in the guardhouse, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and listening to the concert for free.
It finished at shortly after ten. For over two hours the air had throbbed with the roars of the crowd, and the super amplified music and song. I had never been a huge fan, I had heard his number one’s played over and over on Ireland’s nascent pop music radio,. But he was like the Bay City Rollers, too teenybop for my liking. However for the duration of his concert, I tapped my foot and sang along, we all did, with the songs that we knew so well.
One of the Garda was around twenty years old, so not much older than us. But the other one, an ancient grizzly old veteran of thirty something, looked at us with our guns, rather quizzically.
Around 11 PM a security guy from the stadium, came over to tell us that Gilbert was ready to leave, so they drove their cars up to the gate, collected the singer and then, rather disappointingly I’d imagine for O’Sullivan, he was whisked back out the main gate onto a cold, uncaring, unoccupied and litter strewn S. Circular Rd.
We turned out again and received a little wave in thanks, but there was no need for an armed escort, all the girlies were gone.
One Saturday at lunchtime, we were on our way to a weekend camp in the Glen of Imaal, when the truck carrying the rifles, the ammunition and the security detail, burnt its clutch out, outside Cripps shoe shop on Terenure cross.
Of course this great big green army truck stuck in the middle of the road at a busy junction, and at one of the busiest times of the week, caused pandemonium.
Lieutenant O’ F, the officer in charge of the security detail, was in the second truck which overtook us and parked.
He strode purposefully back to our broken down one, his Gustav sub machine gun slung around his neck and held at high port.
He told Sgt A that the driver had gone to telephone the truck people in Cathal Brugha Barracks, in Rathmines to get a replacement.
Rathmines was not far from Terenure, so we shouldn’t be delayed for too long, but we had all these rifles with ammunition sitting in the middle of a busy Dublin thoroughfare.
We would need to deploy to form a security perimeter, in case something bad happened, he felt.
Sgt A was not terribly keen, but it was an order from a Lieutenant, so we had to obey.
I was dispatched across the road to the corner up from the Sunday world offices; I was to go prone (lie down) and cover access from the Rathfarnham end.
The other three lads were similarly dispatched, the idea being to cover all approach roads.
It was literally a question of me excusing myself to pedestrians and motorists, holding my weapon at high port, muzzle up, slanted across my chest, while I shouldered my way through the crowd waiting to cross, and then I jay walkingly skipped across the road to my post.
I’m quite sure that I look like a complete gobshite, as I went prone at the corner, my weapon pointing down towards bushy Park.
I was going out with a girl from school at that time. She lived in Loretto Churchtown, not far from where I was lying on the footpath. In fact we had gone to see Jesus Christ Superstar in the cinema opposite only a few weeks before.
Explanations for frightening Saturday shoppers, raced through my mind to have one ready in case she saw me. None presented itself.
People were walking by, looking down at me and no doubt wondering why this very young soldier person was lying on the path with a gun.
Two ‘ould wans’ with shopping bags, stopped, looked down at me, and asked “are youse the Irish army?” And “why are you lying there son, is there something wrong?”
I wasn’t sure if I had the authority to tell anyone what we were doing, but I answered “Ah no, no problem, I’m grand, just one of our trucks broke down outside Cripps and it’s got all the weapons and ammunition on board”
Jesus fucking Christ, I could have bitten my tongue off, I had just told these two women that a truckload of rifles and ammo was broken down, and I even told them where it was. Fuck! I thought.
“Nah, there’s no problem we’ll be gone soon, it’s grand don’t worry” I said and how I hoped that would be the case, and that these two didn’t find the Lieutenant and say something like “hey, we believe all your rifles and ammunition are in a truck outside Cripps and it’s broken down”.
Thankfully they went down Rathgar Road away from the officer and NCO, and it appeared that they didn’t ring the IRA to tell them about the potential weapons bonanza, that might have fallen into their laps.
The Sgt and the Lieutenant mingled among the posts, during the time that we waited for the truck.
At one stage I saw them in conference with a policeman, who had probably come up from Terenure Garda station to investigate the sudden appearance of armed soldiers at the crossroads.
Dublin isn’t Belfast, and Dubliners were not used to seeing soldiers with guns on the streets. However I have to say that they adapted very quickly, and a lot of people looked down and said “hello son”
If I had lain there much longer, I’m quite sure that somebody would have brought me a cup of tea and a sandwich.
My girlfriend didn’t show up, and the coming and going and the to-ing and fro-ing of the population of Terenure, came, went and to-ed and fro-ed, just as they would without us lying on the ground in their midst.
It took about an hour and a half for the replacement truck to arrive, about half an hour for the unarmed lads in the other truck to transfer the rifles, after which the security screen was drawn back in. I didn’t have to jay walk back, the lights were with me,
We clambered up, the driver closed the tailgate and we were away.
The whole episode from breakdown to departure had taken just over two hours.
As we departed, I looked back at the crossroads returning to normality, as if we’d never been there.
The year’s urgent activity in the wake of bloody Sunday petered out early in 1973. The guarding of Griffith barracks was stepped down to night time hours only, and we went back to the odd live fire or orienteering exercise, and our annual two-week summer camp, for which we were paid.
The paid guard duties became few and far between, doled out by senior NCOs to themselves and their mates.
Obviously we were not going to war with Britain, and it’s just as well.
They would probably have loved nothing better than to mow down lightly armed Irish soldiers, with their helicopter gunships, their tanks and their artillery, weapons that they had in as much abundance, as we had in dearth.
Presumably the Americans, the UN or somebody would have come to our rescue.
With my triangular 3 star badge on my sleeve, I trained recruits in close quarter drill, in arms drill and cross-country orienteering.
I also became a regular member of any security detail, whether it was for arms drill in Griffith barracks or live firing exercises at any of the army ranges.
MK and I were always first to be picked for details where weapons or live ammunition were used.
On one such night exercise in the Glen of Imaal, we were put at the rear of the company column, as we wended our way through the countryside, in pitch blackness and torrential rain.
In the atrocious conditions, we struggled to keep in contact with each other let alone the rear platoon.
Word came back that we needed to ford a river, and that we should provide ‘static cover’ for the company as they did so.
We were told that somebody would come back for us.
We could hear the muffled curses as the, soaked to the skin, soldiers crossed the freezing river.
Somebody came and hissed at us, that the company was across, and that we should now follow. Cover would be provided by a squad from the last platoon.
I whispered to MK, that we should move out and that I would cover him.
I heard him walk by me and I rose to follow.
The river was only a few feet away, so I sensed rather than saw him go into the water and I followed.
It was freezing, rib high and reasonably fast flowing.
The water was so cold that I could hardly breathe, but I held my weapon above my head in the requisite manner, and together MK and I made the far shore, where we found Sgt A, kneeling waiting for us at the end of an actual ford of steppingstones.
We hadn’t been told that such a thing existed, and in the pitch darkness we missed it by a foot.
Apart from the cold water shock, I don’t think we were any wetter than anyone else once we emptied the water out of our pockets and ammunition pouches.
Sgt A (an old hand at such things) had told us in Griffith barracks before we left, that heavy rain was forecast in the mountains for that night, and that we should stow our cigarettes and lighters in the liner of our helmets.
American Army surplus field jacket are not waterproof by any stretch of imagination, in fact they soak up water like a sponge and anything in the pockets will be turned to mush in heavy rain.
As MK and I hunkered down yet again behind number three platoon, I watched the water cascade off the slight peak of my helmet, and I was very thankful for that piece of advice.
That night’s orienteering exercise, in those appalling conditions was for Our Company, a resounding success.
Apparently we made all our objectives and arrived back at the rendezvous with the army trucks, on time, soaked to the skin but otherwise intact.
There were big stainless steel ‘dixies’ of steaming milky sweet tea, to be dipped out with our green plastic army mugs, and dry cigarettes to be recovered from our helmets and smoked in cupped hands.
Two lads from another Company unintentionally infiltrated a graveyard, one broke through the thin crust overlying an ancient grave and down he went to lie with the skeletal remains, while the other realised where they were and bolted.
In May 1974, tensions heightened again when the UVF detonated bombs in Dublin and Monaghan. They killed thirty-three and injured more than three hundred.
Allegations were made, and taken seriously by several inquiries, of British state collusion in the bombings, although no-one has been charged so far.
The attacks showed how vulnerable the south was to a terrorist attack, and obviously, the government of the day reasoned that utilities might be targeted, in a concerted campaign.
The army was put on high alert along the border, using surveillance and patrols in an effort to seal off the southern side.
Of course there was no guarantee that UVF cells were not already operating in the south, so the FCA was called upon again to provide security for vulnerable targets, such as army barracks, generating stations and railway lines.
And so the last year of my enlistment was taken up with guard duties, leading patrols as an acting corporal, along the north south railway line through Rush and Gormantown, in Griffith barracks and at the ESB power generating station at the Pigeon House Road.
There was a Sergeant D, who did not attend every parade as I could see, but he was obviously very senior. He never took any part in the training of recruits or senior privates, and when he did show up it was always in his field uniform.
As I was a pretty good shot and showed a lot of interest in things military, and some promise as an acting corporal. I was considered for the Battalion firing team.
That’s what Sgt D did; he practised his shooting on the small range in Griffith, and he was the head of the battalion firing team.
One Tuesday evening during the parade Sgt A, took me aside and asked me if I wanted to go to the range on the following Sunday.
He explained that there was no live firing exercise scheduled for that day, but some people from the firing team were going to Gormanstown to practice, and if I wanted I could go along.
I agreed right away, so he told me to wear my field uniform on Sunday and that we would be leaving midmorning.
My recruit drill instruction was taken by one of the other three stars on the day, so I hung around the company office with Sgt A, corporals B and O’N.
At around 11:30, Sgt D drove down to the company lines in his private car and picked us up.
I was very much the junior and sat between Corporals B and O’ N, while the three NCOs talked NCO stuff.
I remember the two Sergeants and me smoking, and the complaining from the two Corporals.
We got to the short range after about an hour, and there was a few officers and NCOs from other companies, hanging around, their cars parked nearby.
I was the lowest rank, and the youngest by at least four years, and I wondered whether they had brought me along to act as gopher for them.
I also wondered where the weapons were.
Once we arrived, Sgt D got busy organising people into first second third shooter and then, well you could have knocked me over with a feather.
He opened the boot of his car, and there they were three or four Gustav sub machine guns, with their leather magazine pouches, the same amount of FN’s and the same amount of BAP’s with their holsters and ammunition belts.
Someone else had the rounds for the FN’s, so we all got busy loading magazines.
There were more than enough weapons for everyone to have one and fire at the same time.
There seemed to be no shortage of live rounds, we fired thousands that day, shredding several full-size brand-new targets.
There was even quick draw contests with the BAP.
I got the chance to wear the belt with the holster, and draw the pistol like a cowboy.
The Gustav is meant to be fired in short bursts, otherwise it pulls away.
One of the Corporals from another company, decided to see if he could empty a whole magazine on fully automatic into a target.
As everyone knew he would, he ended up firing into the sky, and we all laughed.
One of the Gustav tests in competition is to fire two magazines against the clock, hitting the target of course.
I was allowed to have a go, and Sgt D instructed me on sticking the second magazine in my belt, rather than trying to fish it out of the pouch, and that it was okay to drop the spent magazine straight out of the gun onto the ground.
I don’t remember my time, but they all congratulated me, so it must have been pretty good.
Firing at such close quarters to the target, gives a real sense of the destructive power of guns.
I did not want my body, or anybody’s body to be shredded by gunfire.
I think that I was brought on that day out ‘with the boys’ as an induction into their private gun club.
I remember being conflicted; I was too young to be hanging around with these grown men with their guns.
We must have run out of ammunition at around 5 o’clock, so we packed up and headed back towards Dublin.
Everyone, me included was hungry, so they decided to stop at the pub in Swords to have a bar lunch.
This sounded really strange to me. I had been a part of so many security details because weapons were being taken out of the armoury in the barracks.
Even within the barracks, if arms drill was being taught, we mounted a security detail. Now here we were about to park, admittedly right outside the pub and I fully expected my babysitting the car as the quid pro quo for my day out.
But no, they brought me in and someone of them even bought me a few pints and a chicken in the rough.
In fairness, we could see the car all the time from the pub, but I wondered was there official sanction for this?
An army career for me was considered, more by others than by myself I must admit.
I had taken to the quasi military life of the FCA like a duck to water. I loved it and I was very good at learning in a military-type way, even though it ran contrary to my self perceived individuality.
In the five years of my enlistment, I had not missed any parades or scheduled assignments, such as camps, live firing exercises or guard duty.
I had been a model soldier, never in trouble, quick in the uptake and eager to step forward to volunteer.
My uniform was always impeccable, and apart from the time that I had to be told to hide my red zip up cardigan under my field jacket, no comment had ever been made in inspection or any other time.
Apparently, all this military nous eminently qualified me for a career in the army.
My superiors in the company and even in the battalion had hopes that I would take my corporals exam, and from there follow their recommendation into officer cadet training either FCA or regular army.
Our CO called me in for a, highly unheard, of unless you were deeply in the shit, face-to-face meeting, where I actually sat down instead of standing at attention for a dressing down, or at ease in front of his desk for most other reasons.
He told me that the company and even the battalion were keen to sponsor me for officer training, once I had passed my corporals exams.
I was a bit overwhelmed, and I didn’t think that I could turn to family for advice, so I didn’t.
I’m not going to say that I studied terribly hard for my leaving cert examination, but it was coming up in June 1975, and I needed headspace.
I think that I was maturing also, and the FCA was for kids.
I took it upon myself to eschew the military life, based primarily on the ridiculous aspiration that I wanted to grow my hair long like Neil Young, Tom Petty, the Eagles Bob Seeger, the Doobie Bros and Lou Reed.
The NCOs and officers of our company, thought my reasons ridiculous also.
Everything I have from those days is in a cigar box somewhere.
Da’s button stick, my company and command sleeve flashes, my rank insignia, I think a brass button from my greatcoat, my official discharge notice printed on white linen backed paper and a couple of black and white photographs from riot control training in Gormanstown. That’s me with the radio.
And so it ended; my military career was over! And I did grow my hair long, so there!