Saturday, February 18, 2017

Congo Memory Night

Veterans of Ireland's involvement in the Congo Campaign of the early 60s gathered at Kilcullen Community Library on Thursday night to remember and to reminisce, writes Gerry O’Donoghue.

The Memory Night, curated and facilitated by Mary Orford, drew a capacity audience of local veterans, families and interested listeners.

In her introduction to this latest oral history event, Community Librarian Julie O' Donoghue stressed that history was more about people than about events. Mary Orford, who has considerable expertise in curating such events, assembled an evocative and sometimes moving series of contributions from local veterans as well as facilitating some from the audience.

‘Congo’ Joe Mallon spoke of the innocence and sense of adventure that these young boys felt as they marched away and how his father, not a ‘soft’ man, searched the entire Curragh Camp to find his son for one last goodbye. Francie O'Brien had the audience spellbound with his rendition of Raglan Road, and in fits of laughter when he described how an old soldier conned him out of his spare underwear! (You would have to be there!)

Barbara Geraghty evoked the mixed feelings of excitement, fear and pride as she described her father's departure and subsequent return and displayed photos to illustrate her contribution. There was an eerie silence as Billy Redmond demonstrated his skills as a Morse Code operator. He reminded the audience of how primitive communications were back then with no link to Ireland except those facilitated by amateur radio operators. Billy was the fastest Morse Code operator in the entire Congo and was responsible for maintaining contact between all the widely separated units.

Noel Bergin described how but for having to complete a training course which he was directing, he would have been in command of the detachment ambushed at Niemba. His good friend Kevin Gleeson was there instead. One of the most moving contributions to the event was John Dreelan's passionate tribute to Commdt Quinlan, the officer in command at Jadotville. John was the medic at Jadvotville and he said that the depiction of Quinlan in the recent film was uncannily accurate.

Weapons, uniforms and equipment of the period, displayed by members of the Irish Vintage Military Vehicles group, enhanced the understanding of the enormity of the task undertaken by these men and boys.

The formalities concluded with poetry and song contributions from Mary Orford, Joe Mallon and Francie O'Brien. As at all these events there was a great buzz over the tea and biscuits as old comrades, many together for the first time in years, relived the good times and fondly remembered fallen comrades.

Mary Orford is to be commended for capturing the very essence of memory and oral history in what was a spontaneous but wonderfully curated event. Kildare Library and Arts Service, and Kilcullen Community Library in particular, play a key part in keeping local history alive and in providing space and time where memories can be shared and appreciated.