Words: Kilkenny Observer and Leo Quinlan
Photos at City Hall by Pat Shortall
For two and a half centuries, the Tholsel has been the nerve centre of Kilkenny’s civic life. The city’s mayors have been elected there, charity drives and major developments launched there and sports and political legends, from Eddie Keher to Constance Markievicz, honoured there.
However, it is doubtful there was ever a more exhilarating event than that held there on Monday, June 3, when Commandant Leo Quinlan gave an inspirational and emotional talk to more than 60 people.
The audience was made up of the general public, but most chairs were occupied by members of the Irish army, the majority of whom were UN peace-keeping veterans.
So who is Leo Quinlan? He is a retired Irish army commandant and son of the legendary man of the same rank, Pat Quinlan, who led the heroic and now world-recognised textbook defence of Jadotville in the Congo in 1961.
Over 60 years ago the men and boys of A Company 35th Battalion fought a five-day battle that has become known as the Siege of Jadotville. These men and boys served with honour.
Jadotville was unique in Irish military history. No other unit ever faced a similar battle. All came home alive.
A United Nations Force of approximately 20,000 troops from over 24 countries was deployed in the Congo in 1961. Its commander, based in Leopoldville, was General Seán MacEoin from Ireland. In the breakaway province of Katanga, the UN Force was commanded by Brigadier General Raja from India. The main strength of this brigade, located in Elizabethville, was made up of three battalions from Ireland, India and Sweden.
In late August 1961, a Swedish/Irish force of 300 men was sent to the mining town of Jadotville, 80 miles from Elizabethville, to protect the white population. It was found that the white population needed no protection and in fact were strongly anti UN. The Swedish/Irish force withdrew back to Elizabethville and this prompted Belgium to request more troops to be sent back to Jadotville. UN HQ in New York ordered troops to be sent but the Swedes and Indians refused. It was left to the Irish to comply and A Company moved to Jadotville on September 3.
The 154 men found themselves in a dangerous situation and prepared defensive positions. At 4am on September 13, without informing the Irish troops in Jadotville, the UN attacked Katangan positions in Elizabethville. Three and a half hours later, the Irish in Jadotville were attacked in reprisal and a five-day battle ensued.
It is estimated that as many as 3,500 enemy were pitted against the 154 Irishmen. They attacked in waves of 600, supported by heavy mortars and a jet bomber. The Irish defence plan decided by Commandant Pat Quinlan was to hit the enemy far out with mortars and machine guns; allowing them to get close to the Irish trenches could mean the Irish would be overrun by sheer weight of numbers. This tactic worked well although at night the enemy were able to get within 40 yards of the trenches and on one occasion Private John Manning was wounded by enemy fire.
ACTS OF COURAGE
During the five days of battle, the Irish soldiers, average age 18.5 years and outnumbered 20 to one, performed many individual acts of courage.
However, with food, water and ammunition depleted and no support forthcoming from Elizabethville, A Company negotiated a ceasefire – which was then broken by the Katangans – and the Irish became POWs for five weeks.
On return to Ireland, they were initially hailed as heroes but within a year they were ignored by the army brass and the Department of Defence.
This attitude can probably be explained in a paper written by a former Director of Peace Operations in the US War College in Pennsylvania about modern UN Peace Operations which has a number of references to Jadotville as follows:
• Company A 35 BN (UN), deployed to the Congo in June 1961 and its performance was the subject of a 2016 Netflix movie, The Siege of Jadotville, as well as three books, a radio and a TV documentary. Sadly, the UN has never recognized this unit and approximately 40 unit members survive out of the 154 men who fought at Jadotville. Ironically, this unit’s performance is exactly what a report by General Cruz of Brazil and many other recent documents bemoan is lacking in today’s peacekeepers, ie peacekeepers that are well-trained, well-led, are prone to action, possess moral courage, and uphold the United Nations values (integrity, professionalism and respect for diversity)
• The prevailing school of opinion is that while A Company had tactically defeated a much larger enemy force at Jadotville, the Irish Defence Forces buried all record of the battle, presumably because the entire UN operation in the Congo was a fiasco and too much publicity would tarnish the UN and the Irish Army. The ceasefire agreement that was broken by the Katangese was seen in some quarters as a surrender by the Irish authorities and this was used to sweep this exceptionally brilliant defensive action under the carpet for decades.
=The story of this action by Irish soldiers continues to gain significant international interest. It has been taught in various armies around the world and in the past two years it has been presented (through the US Army War College and the British Army) to senior officers from over 100 countries and to organisations ranging from veterans’ associations to historical societies, corporate and educational groups and international police associations.
Perhaps it is now time to admit the mistakes of the past and award medals to those men of Jadotville who were recommended by Commandant Pat Quinlan and his officers for bravery and leadership in the largest battle the Irish Army has fought alone against a foreign enemy since the formation of the State.
PRESENTATION TO MEDIC JOHN
Following the talk at Kilkenny’s city hall, John Dreelan, who served as a medic with ‘A Company’ in Jadotville was presented with a certificate by Mayor Joe Malone and Chair of Kilkenny County Council Michael Doyle. Mr Dreelan was accompanied by his wife Ann, family and friends.
Mayor of Kilkenny Cllr Joe Malone told The Kilkenny Observer that both he and Cllr Michael Doyle will be seeking a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin to discuss the Siege of Jadotville.