The cancellation of a planned holiday in Achill by 70 boy soldiers from Northern Ireland was headline news, and the stuff of controversy, 55 years ago. But the high-level, behind-the-scenes consultations that led to the cancellation have only finally been made public this week with the release of declassified State Papers from 1964.
The incident involved the British Army, the Department of External Affairs, the Irish Army, the British Ambassador and – not least – Bord Fáilte, which had its knuckles rapped for rushing too hastily into a project without considering the possible consequences.
It had all started so positively. Bord Fáilte, eager to foster tourism from Northern Ireland, had persuaded the British Army Command in Ballymena to send its junior soldiers, boys aged 15 to 17, to spend their summer camp on Keel Sandybanks. There, they would engage in fishing, mountain climbing, canoeing and water skiing. What could possibly go wrong with such an arrangement?
The only difficulty, that of transport, had been sorted out. Initially, the group had sought a quotation to hire two CIE buses to transport the teenagers, but the quoted figure was ‘out of the question’. Bord Fáilte then asked the Department of Defence to provide military lorries to take the youths from the border to Mayo, but the request was turned down on regulatory grounds. Finally, the British Embassy agreed to arrange transport on a military lorry, stripped of its military insignia, with the youngsters dressed in civilian attire, if this was acceptable to the Irish authorities.
But news of the plan then began to leak out. Reports appeared in the Sunday papers of convoys of British army lorries crossing the border, ‘loaded with troops’, heading for Mayo. The fire of Republican sentiment was stoked with news of this incursion on Irish soil by what were loosely labelled British soldiers.
The Republican Publicity Bureau in Belfast dispatched a telegram to British HQ in Ballymena: “You and your command are not welcome in Ireland. Suggest you go home.”
The Sinn Féin office in Ballina announced that there would be a public protest in Achill to coincide with the planned visit.
And then the slogans began to appear.
From Newport to Achill, roads and bridges were daubed with ‘Go Home, British Troops’, ‘No More Black and Tans’, and ‘British Army not wanted here’.
It was a turn of events that, in the view of the organisers, had gone too far. The British Ambassador advised that it might be best to cancel, because the boys’ holiday might be spoiled by any incident that would cause embarrassment, while he was at pains to praise the reaction of the responsible citizens of Achill Island.
Meanwhile, on Achill itself, news of the cancellation was met with anger and resentment at those who had orchestrated the hostility to the visit. John McMonagle of the Achill Head Hotel pointed out that 90 percent of the tourists in Achill were British, adding that the slogans had been painted by outsiders who never had to leave the country in search of work. Harold McDowell, secretary of the Achill Tourism Association, said the daubing had not been done by islanders but ‘by corner boys from a neighbouring town’.Within days, most of the signs had been obliterated and replaced with ‘British Troops Welcome’ messages.
But it was too late, the die had been cast, and it had been decided that the young soldiers would instead take their holidays in the Mourne Mountains.
In a stern rebuke from the Department of External Affairs, Bord Fáilte was told to ‘ensure that any schemes touching on sensitive political fields will in future not be embarked upon without prior political approval’.