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1924:5 – A Defence Forces soldier pictured in regulation drill dress in the winter of 1924/5. Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

Irish history 'For the first time since the Civil War, soldiers found themselves in combat'

Dr Eoin Kinsella shares an excerpt from his book documenting the evolution of the Irish Defence Forces.

LAST UPDATE | 10 Jul 2023

In this excerpt from his history of the Irish Defence Forces, published by Four Courts Press, Dr Eoin Kinsella discusses the origins of Irish participation in UN peacekeeping missions, which began in 1958 and has continued unbroken for more than six decades.

DURING THE SECOND World War (or the Emergency as it was known in Ireland) the Irish government elected to remain neutral, though in reality, it provided varied logistical assistance to the Allied powers, including key meteorological information that ensured D-Day was postponed until weather conditions were more favourable.

The Emergency witnessed the greatest mobilisation of manpower in Irish history and saw personnel numbers in the Defence Forces rise to more than 42,000 by 1942, a remarkable turnaround from the doldrums of the 1930s, when there were less than 6,000 in uniform. Yet between 1945 and 1958 the Defence Forces once more suffered from declining levels of investment and struggled to attract new recruits.

1926–06–20, (Wolfe Tone Commmemoration, Bodenstown, IE-MA-GPN-022-035) Defence Forces soldiers pictured on 20 June 1926 at the annual military ceremony at Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, in honour of Theobald Wolfe Tone. Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

On the international stage, Ireland found itself on the margins of the emerging Cold War world order, dominated by tensions between the US and USSR, two global superpowers with nuclear arsenals. Irish foreign policy pivoted to embrace multilateralism and engagement via the United Nations, established in 1945, which offered a chance for the Defence Forces to find a new purpose under the umbrella of UN peacekeeping missions.

Adequate resourcing

That pivot was initially delayed by Cold War politics, however, as Ireland’s attempts to join the UN were blocked by the USSR until 1955. Yet the adaptation to multilateralism had its limits. Invited to join what would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in January 1949 the government had formally declined; not, however, on the basis of neutrality as a principle. As a senior official at the Department of External Affairs observed, the possibility of joint military action with Britain was deemed too unpalatable:

It is impossible for Ireland, as long as Partition lasts, to participate in a joint security treaty with the state responsible for the unnatural division of this country.

The delay in UN membership and the decision not to join NATO both contributed to the retrenchment of the Defence Forces and hampered its development in the 1950s. Supplies of military equipment from Britain and America were virtually non-existent, as both nations largely concentrated on maintaining their own forces and supplying their partners in NATO.

1927–08–21, (Griffith-Collins commemoration, IE-MA-GPN-023-017) A firing party from An Chéad Chath under the command of Lt Seán O’Connor, accompanied by buglers, during a ceremony on 21 August 1927 to commemorate the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

There were also suspicions that the British were intentionally withholding equipment, as one report to the Minister for Defence made clear:

For years past we have asked the British each year in our annual forecast to supply a few modern tanks. Our requests have never been met and it appears evident that the British are not prepared to sell us modern vehicles, even though they have sold them to non-NATO countries such as Sweden and Switzerland.

Those suspicions were not well founded: the British military attaché in Dublin reported to London that there were three reasons for Britain’s reluctance to supply equipment: rearmament of Commonwealth countries, rearmament of NATO countries, and the ‘refusal of the Irish Republic to take part in any form of collective defence’.

Forced to look beyond its traditional suppliers, the Defence Forces secured permission from Oscar Traynor, serving his second term as Minister for Defence, to explore alternative sources. A military mission to Sweden in 1952 procured 4,000 Gustav submachine guns and eighteen Bofors light anti-aircraft guns, while mortars and Energa anti-tank rifle grenades were purchased from France and Belgium.

1927, IE-MA-GPN-028-012 National Army infantry practising their tactical drills while training at the Curragh in 1927. This formation was known as the ‘V-shape’ or ‘Arrow Head’, and was used while crossing open ground to provide maximum security to the front and to the rear. (Courtesy ofMilitary Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks (Courtesy ofMilitary Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

Exclusion from the United Nations until 1955 denied the Defence Forces an early opportunity of participating in the first multilateral peacekeeping missions, a stated ambition of the United Nations and a commitment which the Defence Forces had in view from a very early stage. In January 1946 the British commanding officer in Northern Ireland, G.C. Bucknall, reported that Chief of Staff, Dan McKenna, envisaged that when the Defence Forces were ‘trained and equipped to modern standards, they would be prepared, within their small capacity, to undertake international obligations.’

‘Ireland’s participation in a joint UN team has been requested’

The practicalities of participation in the developing concept of UN observer or emergency peacekeeping missions came under consideration at the Department of Defence from at least January 1954. At the Departments of the Taoiseach and External Affairs, however, staff shortages and more pressing priorities that arose during Ireland’s initial engagements at the UN ensured that those initial preparations were never completed.

In November 1956 Peadar MacMahon, long-serving Secretary of the Department of Defence (1927–57) and a former Chief of Staff reminded his minister, Seán Mac Eoin (another former Chief of Staff), that ‘legislative and other action would be necessary before the Defence Forces or any part thereof could participate in an International Police Force’. MacMahon also drew his minister’s attention to a memo submitted by Lt Gen Liam Egan, warning that extensive study was needed to prepare and provide adequate training, organisation, and tactical doctrines for any troops sent overseas. The perennial problem of acquiring matériel would also have to be addressed, perhaps even exacerbated, by the need for gathering stores of equipment suitable for different climates.

MacMahon’s efforts did prompt some initial study of the requirements for UN service. When canvassed in the summer of 1957, the Defence Forces were surprisingly hesitant to support overseas deployment (then most likely with the UN Emergency Force in Egypt), citing low strength and the lack of enabling legislation. Nonetheless, instructions were issued by the government in September 1957 to prepare the required legislation, a formal endorsement of the principle of the Defence Forces serving overseas with the United Nations.

IE-MA-GPN-059-018 Supervised by an officer, National Army soldiers practise their shooting skills at a firing range at the Curragh Camp. One appears to be glancing nervously over his shoulder. Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

In June 1958 a telegram from Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the UN, New York, landed in Iveagh House, home of the Department of External Affairs. Labelled ‘most urgent’, it conveyed a request from the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, for five officers of Major or Captain rank, to join the UN Observer Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL).

The advice from the diplomatic staff in New York was to grasp this opportunity:

We, for our part, would like to express the hope that this opportunity to participate in a useful and practical task of the United Nations in a vital area for world peace will not be missed. This is the first time that Ireland’s participation in a joint UN team has been requested … our successful participation would open the door to sharing in further efforts of this kind for which our position in the organisation is admirably suited.

The government’s response was immediate: ‘Please inform Secretary-General agreeable in principle. Details being settled and will wire later. Request no publicity until details settled.’ Four days later five officers, led by Lt Col Justin McCarthy, departed Dublin Airport for Lebanon. At Hammarskjöld’s request, they were joined by another 45 officers across August, September, and October.

1926–11–25, IE-MA-PRCN-0016-01-09 (Nov 1926) Menu for the Thanksgiving Dinner hosted by Company G, 29th Infantry of the United States Army and attended by Lt Seán Collins-Powell while on the Military Mission to America. Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

The contention that the officers deployed with UNOGIL were military observers in a non-combat role, along with a relatively liberal interpretation of the 1954 Defence Act, meant that the ongoing lack of legislation empowering the government to send Irish soldiers abroad was not deemed a stumbling block. When UNOGIL’s operations were wound up at the end of the year, 48 Irish officers returned home, while McCarthy and Capt Pat Jordan were redeployed to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO).

Ireland the peacekeeper

Ireland’s participation in UNOGIL marked not just its entry to international peacekeeping, but the beginning of an unbroken period of service with UN-mandated missions that has lasted more than six decades. In practical terms, it enhanced the state’s reputation at the UN and provided a valuable opportunity for the Defence Forces to adjust to the command and control structures of UN missions, which maintained operational independence from constituent military forces.

Public reaction to Irish involvement with UNOGIL was extremely positive, perhaps most noticeably in the successful recruitment campaign of 1958, which briefly raised the Defence Forces’ strength above 9,000.

Hand-picked by the General Staff for deployment to Lebanon, the performance of the 50 officers who served with UNOGIL bolstered the reputation of the Defence Forces among its international peers.

That burgeoning reputation, in addition to Ireland’s lack of colonial history on the African continent, marked the Defence Forces as ideal candidates to participate in a UN-mandated mission in Congo (ONUC) in July 1960. Internal strife and interference from Belgian troops had brought the newly independent Congo to the brink of disintegration.

Screen Shot 2023-07-07 at 15.24.17 Dr Eoin Kinsella's book is out now

When its government sought UN assistance, Hammarskjöld once more requested Irish participation, this time in the form of a battalion ‘with light arms and supporting services’. Enabling legislation was swiftly passed by the Oireachtas and Taoiseach Seán Lemass assured the legislature that Irish troops were being deployed purely for peacekeeping purposes.

32 Infantry Battalion was activated on 2 July 1960 with a strength of 685 all ranks. A, B and C Companies were drawn from Eastern, Southern and Western Commands respectively, with the Curragh Training Camp providing HQ Company. The main body of troops deployed from Baldonnel to Congo on 27 July, airlifted by the US Air Force.

1924_5, IE-MA-GPN-023-015 1924:5 – A Defence Forces soldier pictured in regulation drill dress, with 1908 pattern webbing and Lee Enfield rifle. This was one of a series of photos of the various uniforms taken by Training and Operations Branch on the grounds of General Headquarters, Parkgate Street, in the winter of 1924/5. Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks Courtesy of Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks

Maj Gen Seán Mac Eoin, appointed Chief of Staff in January 1960, later recalled that the speed with which the Defence Forces were required to deploy caught the General Staff somewhat off guard. But the opportunity to revitalise the Defence Forces after the crippling inertia of the preceding decade could not be turned down:

The request for a battalion was quite staggering, and I must confess … I was prompted entirely by the state of affairs in the Army at the time … We said to hell whether they were well prepared or not, it was worth it to give 700 men an opportunity of this experience.

When the UN requested a second battalion just a month later there was little hesitation on the government’s part, though there were reservations at GHQ:

The meeting of this challenge – the participation of a country with an unprepared army in the tropics – was magnificent, and in fact it was that very response that resulted in what a good many people, including myself [Mac Eoin], thought a bit rash. This was the sending of a second battalion off a few weeks later.

Within the space of five weeks, there were just under 1,400 Irish troops in Congo, a staggering 16 per cent of the Permanent Defence Forces. Lt Col Richard Bunworth, OC of 33 Infantry Battalion, would later recall the adjustments required for UN service:
“We lacked experience, and consequently, it was difficult for all of us to visualise what a UN Peacekeeping Mission entailed. To be equipped with and trained in the traditional infantry weapons, yet circumscribed in their use by the well-known and accepted UN policy of avoiding the use of force, if at all possible, in solving the many operational problems, was a situation difficult to understand in its finer points”.


ONUC was on the ground in Congo from July 1960 until June 1964. The Irish troops of the 12 battalions, infantry groups and armoured units deployed to Congo across those four years entered a volatile and often dangerous situation, especially in the first 18 months of the mission.

Acclimatisation to a new continent was hindered not just by hostility, but also by cultural differences and an inability to communicate effectively with members of the different Congolese tribes.

The first Irish battalions deployed without anyone in their ranks who could speak French, Swahili, or Lingala.

Peadar MacMahon’s warnings about the need for climate-appropriate equipment had effectively been ignored. 32 Infantry Battalion deployed in ‘bulls wool’ uniforms entirely unsuited to a tropical climate. A promise from the UN of more suitable attire for the battalion never materialised, a symptom of the UN’s broader failure to adequately prepare for troops on the ground in Congo.

Though also supplied with Gustav submachine guns, 32 and 33 Infantry Battalions were mostly armed with obsolete Lee Enfield rifles. ONUC’s operational objectives were not always clearly defined, and armed clashes with different factions on the ground in the Congo were frequent. For the first time since the Civil War, Irish soldiers found themselves in combat operations.

Dr Eoin Kinsella is the Managing Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography. The Irish Defence Forces, 1922–2022: Servant of the Nation, is available from Four Courts Press and all good bookshops.


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