Leaving the front line
For 15 edgy minutes the United Nations’ armoured car and the enemy tank faced each other, two feet apart, the commanders of each threatening to blow the other into kingdom come.
The tank had just encroached on territory that had been retaken by UN soldiers following a battle with Israeli De Facto Forces led by Major Hadad. Shells came raining down on UN positions in the South Lebanon village as the armoured car, commanded by Noel Byrne of Castlebar, moved to confront the lumbering Israeli tank.
The tank commander ordered his men to put a shell up the breech. Noel Byrne made a similar command to the Senegalese gunner in the armoured car. For a silent, freezing moment the two commanders stood still, eyeball to eyeball … until the tank man blinked. In a guffaw of laughter he said: “we’ll call it a draw.” Then he retreated.
It was the first of many serious incidents Noel Byrne was to experience as leader of Irish troops in Lebanon under the command of the United Nations, and the confrontation with the tank commander was one of several in which the De Facto forces continually tested the reaction of the UN contingent.
In retaking the village, the UN lost four soldiers, two of them Irish. But the militia and the Israelis were to learn that, despite provocation, the UN troops were determined to impose their will … and were respected by the enemy for that.
Noel Byrne’s mental rigour would be put to the test in many other altercations during his seven overseas trips with the UN. Living in Castlebar for over 20 years, Noel retires officially on December 16 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after 40 years service. And while army life has its ups and downs, he would strongly recommend it to anyone who likes an adventurous life, in which skills in management and leadership are required, and where there are lots of opportunities for worthwhile jobs.
Each of his missions to the Lebanon was a fascinating experience. The military and political scene changed so many times that every tour was different and every day within every tour also different. No day passed without the risk of a bomb being left somewhere, or an explosion, or an attack of some sort.
“The problem with Lebanon was that you had different militia springing up for different reasons, many of them with different agendas. You were left in the situation of trying to decide which group was which and for which cause. Affiliations and affinities changed fairly rapidly,” he said.
Sadly, it was the local community that always suffered, the local people left to bear the brunt of the political agitation and the military action by others coming in from outside. They had to endure all the harrowing problems of death and destruction and displacement for such a long time.
In addition to their valiant soldiering, the Irish became well known in UN missions for their humanitarian work. In Lebanon they took charge of an orphanage, and when they found that the children were not being given correct milk, they persuaded the Norwegian Government to sponsor a number of cows. The animals were flown in and the children given their proper diet.
“We had become so much involved in the community that the local people would regularly invite us back to their houses for a meal. This, from a people who had few possessions and lost most, yet insisted on us coming for a meal,” said Noel.
The diplomacy of the Irish was nowhere more evident than in the visit of President Mary McAleese to her troops, the arrangements for which Noel Byrne was asked to co-ordinate. Amid the various communities of Sunnis, Shias and Christians certain protocol had to be observed in welcoming a woman whose gender is not in the vanguard of the fundamental values of some sects. Even to shake hands with a woman is contrary to the beliefs of many. But in this instance they found the President so personable that all of them temporarily overlooked that one ‘principle’ in order to greet her with outstretched hands.
Diplomacy was also paramount when Noel led a convoy from Beirut that was stopped by Palestinians, who had a certain foothold in Lebanon. They ordered all of the French drivers in the convoy to line up, and threatened to kill them because of some dispute they had had with the French Government.
“I talked to the leader who turned to have a few words with his driver,” said Noel. “Some minutes later the driver returned, and the leader asked if I was Irish and did I drink whiskey; whereupon he produced a bottle. The two of us sat down cross-legged on the side of the road, drank the whiskey and bargained for the lives of the French … and it worked.”
Noel Byrne tells the story to emphasise the importance of dialogue in such altercations. The Irish were different to most nationalities in that regard. They could talk to the antagonists. “We would keep talking and listening rather than resorting to military might.”
On the island of Cyprus before it was divided, a lot of tension flared between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The smallest thing could trigger an incident. An animal from a Turkish-owned farm could stray into Greek-owned land and stir up hostilities. UN troops were kept busy patrolling Turkish villages to prevent interference by the Greek community.
Initially, you have got to gain the confidence of the people involved, and retain it by being absolutely neutral at all times, said Noel. Always, you were better off to get a bit of dialogue going between warring factions, rather than bringing in the heavy in the first instance.
A native of Enniscorthy, Noel Byrne joined the Cadet School in 1966 after completing his Leaving Cert. Commissioned as a lieutenant, he joined the Cavalry Corps, in Plunkett Barracks in the Currragh. One of his first posts was in running a refugee camp in the Glen of Immal for 5,000 refugees escaping from the troubles in the North.
There was a spell spent training cadets at the Curragh before moving to Longford where the Cavalry Corps had been located and out of which he worked for the best part of 20 years, developing the squadron and ensuring that the border was patrolled 24/7, engaging at times with subversives, and with the British Army occasionally.
They did not have much contact with the British Army, but in Cyprus he was recognised by two members of the British Forces with whom he was on a UN mission. They had seen him at the border. “It was ironic that I was serving with them in Cyprus, but when I returned we were on different sides of the border.”
He came to Castlebar in 1983 as commanding officer of the 5th Cavalry Squadron. Two years later he left for overseas and when he returned, his wife, Eithne, and sons Diarmuid, Ronan and Tim, had decided to settle in the Mayo capital.
One of the more difficult UN missions in which he was immersed was the de-mobbing of government-backed Sandinista soldiers and the Contra rebels in Nicaragua following a treaty. Getting into the country provided problems, let alone disarming soldiers.
“It was extremely difficult because the complete infrastructure of Nicaragua had collapsed. There were poor road systems, and swamps everywhere. People were uneducated. Food was scarce, and they were plagued with mosquitoes. The only means of getting around was by helicopter.”
Yet, it turned out to be one of the most successful missions the UN had undertaken. Over a nine-month period they demobilised half a million soldiers, took weapons off them, put them in civilian clothing, gave them vouchers for food and sent them back into the community.
“In one of the camps we had some 20,000 Contras at one stage. Some of them had been in the jungle and out of communication and it had to be explained to them who we were, and what we were doing.”
While flying over the country during Italia ‘90, a fault forced their helicopter to land in the jungle. The locals retreated into the bush at the sight of the helicopter, and the crew followed them, but none could speak Spanish. “I had a few words,” said Noel, and pointing to a football, said ‘futball’.
“‘Ah, Jack Charlton,’ came the reply.” Even out in the hot, humid jungles of Central America, Jack’s name resonated among the villagers.
Noel said that at one stage the Irish were involved in 37 different countries - including Bosnia, where he also spent some time - and still had a considerable number of people working in far-flung places stretching from Russia, to Africa, to America.
“Unfortunately, in the world we are living in we are going to have conflict of various shapes and forms, and the UN has to go in to try to pick up the pieces and give the local people an opportunity to rebuild.”
Noel has now left all of that behind, swopping peacekeeping duties for radio work in the more tranquil clime of his adopted town. For some time he has been presenting a popular weekly sports programme on CRC. He is also the Castlebar correspondent for The Mayo News, and plans to undertake further projects in the near future.