From the Limerick Leader archives: Home from the Congo

Grainne Keays speaks with veterans of the 1960s African conflict after rediscovering unpublished homecoming photos

Grainne Keays


Grainne Keays

From the Leader archives: Home from the Congo

A kiss for daddy: A returning Limerick peacekeeper greets his family at Sarsfield Barracks after returning from the Congo in January 1961

IN the heat of an argument, did you ever hear anyone called a “Baluba”? Did you give the word a second thought? Probably not.

For many of us, it is one of those words that has seeped into everyday usage (for those given to hurling insults, at least) without us knowing why. However, this word was thrust most disagreeably into the Irish consciousness in November 1960 when nine Irish soldiers on peacekeeping duty with the UN in the Republic of the Congo were killed in the brutal attack at Niemba by a 100-strong party from the local Luba (or Baluba) tribe.

Twenty five Balubas died also in the encounter. Historian, John Dorney, remarks: “The heavy casualties, as well as the manner of the deaths – the Irishmen were hacked and clubbed to death – caused great shock in Ireland, but also a certain amount of odd pride.” The manner of the killings also ensured that ever since the Balubas have become synonymous in this part of the world with all that is boorish, ignorant and even barbaric.

Tragically for all concerned, the attack was the result of a case of mistaken identity, the Balubas it seems believing that the peacekeepers were, in fact, European mercenaries hired by Katangan secessionists, with whom they were engaged in a bloody civil conflict. The mercenaries had previously burnt down several of the Balubas villages, hence the ferocity of their retaliation.

Recently, while trawling through our photographic archive, we came upon some wonderful images of soldiers returning from a tour of duty in the Congo which we bring to you today and hope that for some they bring back memories of a very proud phase in the history of the Irish army and for others it will raise awareness of one of the army’s first and best campaigns.

Previously known as the Belgian Congo, the Congo gained its independence from Belgium in June 1960 and, as so often has happened in the past when a country gained independence from a colonising power, the resultant power vacuum led almost immediately to a vicious civil war.

The UN mission was to prevent the secession of the province of Katanga from the Congo, as Katanga had important mineral resources which were seen as vital to the prosperity of the fledgling country. The crisis in the Congo took on international significance as the Katangans were backed by the Belgians, the Congolese under Patrice Lumumba by the Russians and, later, when a rift came in the main Congolese force, the Americans backed the removal of the Russian-backed Lumumba. Dorney said the Congo became, in effect, a front of the Cold War.

Irish soldiers applied in their thousands for the chance to serve with the UN. Contrary to what one might expect, it was married men with large families who were most anxious to travel and not young, single men looking for adventure. Financial considerations accounted for this. The Limerick Leader reported at the time that the wages for serving in the Congo were expected to be about double that for a soldier serving at home - around £27 per week for a six-month tour of duty. One veteran of the Congo mission, who does not wish to be named, explained to the Leader that though many volunteered, only the best marksmen were chosen to go. For instance, those who won the All-Army Shooting Competitions in 1961 were asked to serve in the Congo without necessarily having volunteered.

All those destined for the Congo were sent first to the Curragh where no special training was given, bar shooting exercises. The vaccinations were very severe. Our veteran recalls TABT (a combined vaccine against Diphtheria, Tetanus Toxoids, typhoid, paratyphoid A, paratyphoid B and Poliomyelitis) was administered by injection in the arm, the limb invariably swelling up hugely, becoming desperately sore and making it impossible for a time for some to even put on a shirt.

Our veteran served with the 2nd infantry; his commander was “Rocky” Sullivan. He first landed at Elizabethville and was housed at the Kolwezi camp for his first night or two, with the remainder of his tour from late 1961 into 1962 spent at Camp Reuiwe. The Canadians were responsible for the mail which came and left though the camp’s airstrip.

The Limerick Leader, at around this time, carried a story about the disappearance of gifts posted from Ireland to the peacekeepers. Our veteran friend confirms that this was indeed a problem.

Many of his friends and family sent him parcels but the only gift to reach him in the Congo was a box of chocolates sent by his sister - a disastrous present in the Congolese climate. The chocolates were liquid in the box when they arrived, seeping out of their wrappers. The chocolates were duly placed in the only cold room (there were no fridges) in the camp. When the sweets had set, they were attacked with gusto by the men who had to put them in their mouths, papers and all, and spit out the papers when they had succeeded in abstracting the chocolate.

The main duty of the soldiers was to prevent the Congolese, who tended to live nomadically in camps, from moving towards each other, joining up with other camps, and forming significant threats to the peace. The Irish soldiers patrolled the district every day and noted where each camp was located.

If a camped moved it was imperative to discover to where they had gone and make sure they were not congregating in threatening numbers.

When asked if he enjoyed his time in the Congo, the former soldier replied that he did, very much, and that it was a great experience. He feels that at just 18 years of age he was too young to see the dangers although he did say that “uncertainty” hung over them every day - “you never knew what tomorrow would bring.” Luckily for him, he escaped the worst engagements.

After Niemba, the probably the second most infamous episode in the history of the Irish peacekeepers in the Congo was the Siege of Jadotville in September 1961.

"A" Company of the 35th Battalion was attacked by Katangan Gendarmerie troops near the town, a major centre for mining. 157 ill-equipped Irish soldiers under Commandant Quinlan, resisted the Katangese assaults for six days, while Irish and Swedish troops unsuccessfully attempted to reach them.

Eventually, “A” Company was forced to surrender after ammunition and supplies ran out, but not before inflicting about 300 casualties on the Katangese and their mercenaries.” They were held as prisoners of war for approximately one month. Fortunately, there were no Irish fatalities. They appear to have been protected to a degree by the European mercenaries and were eventually traded in a ceasefire agreement.

In December 1961, Irish troops were involved in heavy fighting in the Battle of the Tunnel, a UN attempt to re-open lines of communications into Elizabethville. Three Irish soldiers died in that engagement. Again, Irish troops are said to have given a good account of themselves.

In December 1962, the Katangans signed a treaty giving up their aspiration to independence and UN forces occupied the main towns, including Jadotville. The UN force remained deployed in the Congo until 1964.

In all about 6,000 Irish soldiers served in the Congo between 1960 and 1964; 26 did not come home alive. Though frequently under-resourced, without a clear mission and, sometimes unsupported (particularly at Jadotville), the Irish soldiers served their country with honour.

Historian John Dorney also remarked: “The Irish Army tends to view the Congo mission as a watershed, its coming of age as a modern force and establishing itself as a credible component for future UN peacekeeping missions.”