SHOULDER TO SHOULDER Pictured are six proud Mayo army men who will be cheering on the green and red this Saturday from Syria, from left: Sgt Aidan Barrett, Ballina; S/S Joshua Kelly, Foxford; Cpl Darren Clarke, Kiltimagh; Cpl James Gibbons, Louisburgh; S/S Joseph Doherty, Belcarra and Lt Owen McNamara, Achill.
When Joe McQuillan throws the ball in for the start of the All-Ireland final next Saturday, the cries of ‘C’mon Mayo’ will echo around the rocky plateau of the Golan Heights.
Camp Faouar in southwestern Syria has been the home of the 63rd Infantry Group of the Irish Army since April 7, when they took up their role of the Force Reserve Company in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force mission (UNDOF).
The majority of the 129 soldiers deployed are from an Chéad Chathláin Coisithe, 1st Infantry Battalion, based in Dún Ui Mhaoilíosa barracks, Galway and among them are six proud Mayo men who will be cheering on the green and red this Saturday.
Corporal James Gibbons from Gurteen, Louisburgh and Lieutenant Owen McNamara from Keel in Achill Island are two of the Mayo contingent and they told The Mayo News that while they may be 5,000km from Croke Park, All-Ireland fever is already starting to build along the Syrian and Israeli border.
“The majority of us are from Connacht so there are a good few guys from Galway and Roscommon, there is plenty of craic about the game,” James said .
“The thing we don’t have here is the mad scramble for tickets like at home but there will still be a lot of excitement ahead of the 11th [of September]. Bar a couple of Dubs, the bulk of the group here would be on board supporting Mayo in the final. Even the Galway and Roscommon boys are slowly being converted to the Mayo side,” he joked.
The Irish UN peacekeepers have a room in their base where they have two televisions and a projector where they can watch the GAA via GAAGO. It is where they watched the semi-final defeat of Dublin and they both admitted that it was sweet getting one over their Dublin colleagues for a change.
“It was unbelievable to watch it alright,” said Owen. “The Dubs here don’t know much about football but it doesn’t stop them slagging us.
“The first half we had our heads in our hands but the lads stayed strong and as the second half went on there was more interest from the other guys in the base. Near the end they were nearly shouting on Mayo as much as ourselves. I think everyone was happy to see the Dubs getting beat.”
The Irish Infantry Group’s main task is to operate the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) throughout the UNDOF mission area which means they may have to leave the compound at 15 minutes notice. Even if it’s in the middle of the All-Ireland.
“On the day of the final we will be busy putting up the Mayo flags around the camp and we will be in our Mayo jerseys. Hopefully we will be able to watch the full game through and not be disturbed by anything here in the area of operations. If we get the shout and there is an operation that will have to come first but hopefully on the day Mayo will come first,” said Owen.
The area was evacuated during the Syrian Civil War and Irish troops only returned to the area in 2018 and Owen explained they are still rebuilding the camp. As well as being part of the QRF, other duties include armoured force protection, patrolling and mobility, communications, engineer search and clearance, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, medical and operational expertise.
Since their deployment they have completed multiple operations by day and night including armed patrols throughout the mission area, armed escorts of United Nations personnel and search and clearance operations of United Nations positions destroyed during the ongoing civil war.
Owen is four years in the army but James has close to 14 years of experience and this is his third tour of duty to the Middle-East having been deployed in Lebanon in 2011 and 2018.
“This is my first trip to Syria and a change of scenery but is a really good trip. It is different in terms of what you do in Lebanon but equally as engaging and rewarding,” he explained.
This will be the first time that James or Owen will be away from home when Mayo are in the final and James admits he will miss the excitement of the day.
“Even if I didn’t get a ticket from the club I would still head up to Dublin on the day of the game and you might get lucky and meet someone with a ticket outside McGrath’s or somewhere like that. This will be the first time I won’t be home for the final and while I’ll miss the atmosphere of the game, it could be a lot worse.
“We are lucky in a way we are able to watch the match and we’ll be able to celebrate among Mayo men if we win. Now it wouldn’t be the same kind of celebrations had we been at home in Louisburgh or Achill but we will celebrate all the same.”
The boys are quietly confident that Mayo will do the business on Saturday and by the time they arrive back home on October 7, the celebrations in the county will still be in full swing.