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Mass graves in Rwanda and trying to break the Jadotville seige: Listen to these pieces of Defence Forces history

The Military Archives’ Oral History Project was launched earlier this year.

90416634_90416634 The Captain's Guard of Honour, pictured here at Cathal Brugha Barracks Source: RollingNews.ie

THE HISTORY OF Ireland’s Defence Forces has become vividly accessible in recent years as the Military Archives make more material easily accessible to the public.

This year, in addition to the release of the latest tranche of pensions records from the revolutionary period – the latest tranche revealing stories from Leo Burdock’s IRA past to the previously-unknown involvement of women during key events - the archives launched its Oral History Project in November.

This was established in 2015 with the aim of ‘digitally recording memory, oral history and tradition associated with the Defence Forces since its inception’.

The plan is to amass massive interviews with former and serving members of the military and make these available online.

Compiling the tapes

TheJournal.ie spoke to Noelle Grothier, a civil archivist with the Defence Fences who is spearheading the project, about how the archive is being compiled.

She explained how there had been sporadic attempts at a recording the force’s history on tape over the years, but all efforts akin to this were reserved for individuals seen as being of national importance, rather than experiences of rank-and-file members.

A concerted effort began in 2015.

Grothier explained that the starting point for this were the curators in museums attached to barracks around the country, who have personal knowledge of interesting stories of soldiers who have passed through, would be able to highlight medal recipients, and even veterans who may have served as far back as The Emergency and are still alive today.

Takes time

This volume of work involved – like with any archive – is vast, and the process of conducting the interview takes time.

“The record times for interviews varies,” Grotheir said, “Sometimes they might not have any previous experience with interviewed.”

Sometimes the chats will take place in a series of short sittings, but can sometimes stretch on for hours and cover an soldier’s entire career.

The project is intend on gathering as many interviews as possible, but we some taking precedence depending on how unique a soldier’s story was – and this is definitely the case in the first of three interviews which Gotheir highlighted.

It was previously scarcely known that Ireland had troops in Rwanda – albeit one single Commandant, working on the frontlines of a refugee crisis amid one of the bloodiest genocides in modern history.

Commandant Michael Walsh

Walsh served in the Artillery Corps before later joining the military police, from where in 1994 he was seconded to work with aid agency Goal in Rwanda.

He told the project about his time spent working in a refugee camp in Goma during the Rwandan genocide, with the grim reality ranging from mass graves to learning medical procedures on the spot.


Source: military archives/SoundCloud

Corporal Séamus McDermott

After working in the Corps of Engineers, McDermott volunteered for overseas service and found himself in July 1916 in the Congo.

He was part of efforts to lift the Siege of Jadotville, where Irish soldiers were surrounded and vastly outnumbered. His team came under fire from a fighter jet during their attempts to reach the troops.


Source: military archives/SoundCloud

Regimental Sergeant Major Geraldine Browne

Browne, who served in Lebanon and is currently Air Traffic Control instructor in Casement Aerodrome, is the Defence Force’s highest-ranking NCO (non-commissioned officer).

She told the project of how the military has become a different environment for women since she joined in 1990, and the challenges they face compared to their male counterparts.


Source: military archives/SoundCloud

The entire collection of interviews can be explored here.

If you or a family member have a story to tell for the collection, they’re invited to email militaryarchives@defenceforces.ie or call 01-8046457 (the archives reopen on Thursday 4 January). As the project is still in its collection phase an immediate reply may not be possible.

Fish and chips meets Black and Tans: Details revealed of Leo Burdock’s IRA service >

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