By Thomas Somers
“Get off that bleedin’ square – where do you think you are?”
The order, delivered in a strong Dublin accent and at a high decibel level had the opposite effect on me to that which it would appear was intended – it caused me to freeze on the spot.
I was immediately confronted by a regular army sergeant, who having asked me what sort of a fool I was, proceeded to question my IQ level together with my apparent complete ignorance of military custom and practice, which I subsequently learned, decreed that a soldier should never be on the square unless on parade or under foot drill instruction. The sergeant, having delivered himself of a lengthy tirade, eventually calmed down and cautioned me against any repetition, which would most assuredly earn me a spell in the guardroom.
The year was 1965 and I was a 17-year-old FCA recruit attending my first summer training camp at Cathal Brugha military barracks in Dublin. Having been advised by a couple of “old sweats” that the role of kitchen orderly was a cushy number, which gave ready access to plenty of food and would excuse me from daily parades and sessions of square bashing, I made my first mistake – I volunteered.
I quickly learned, however, that scrubbing pots and pans, washing copious amounts of dirty delph and cutlery and peeling vegetables for approximately 300 young FCA soldiers on a daily basis was anything but cushy. This was of course prior to the introduction of mod cons such as vegetable peelers and dishwashers into military facilities and when all such work had to be carried out by hand.
One of my many duties was to collect messages from the canteen for the regular army cookhouse staff and in my haste to please and as the main barrack square lay between both locations, it seemed to me that to follow a straight line was the most logical thing in the world – hence my “interview” with the sergeant.
My interest in the FCA, otherwise known as ‘An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil’, was aroused when in June 1965, I had attended a commemoration ceremony for two IRA volunteers who had lost their lives in a local ambush in June 1921. The guard of honour on the occasion was provided by the local FCA company who looked resplendent in their grey/green uniforms and carrying Lee Enfield rifles.
As I knew some of the men involved, I made enquiries from them about joining, and so, soon afterwards became a member of C Company, 9th Battalion whose headquarters was at James Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny City. Meetings and training took place at the local FCA hall on Wednesday evenings and usually took the form of a parade, roll call and basic military instruction including the care and use of the Lee Enfield rifle.
Shortly after joining the company, names were taken for attendance at the annual summer training camp, which was scheduled for August and for which I volunteered, thus some weeks later I found myself at Cathal Brugha Military Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin – my first time away from home.
In the 1960s and 1970s, membership of the FCA and attendance at summer training camps was effectively a rite of passage for many young men, particularly those from rural areas of the country. For many like myself, the summer camp provided an opportunity to experience a different world beyond the narrow and mundane confines of their everyday lives and as most camps for the Leinster region took place in Dublin, it enabled them to explore the big city and experience its nocturnal delights at first hand and free from disapproval and potential censure.
The FCA was established as a result of a re-structuring of the Defence Forces in the years following on from the “emergency”, which might be known to some as World War 2. Its predecessor, the Local Defence Force (LDF), which had been established at the outset of the “emergency” and which at one point numbered up to 100,00 men being stood down in 1947. This new force was meant to be closely integrated with the Permanent Defence Forces and at its peak numbered approximately 20,000 members.
Upon my arrival at Cathal Brugha Barracks and getting myself assigned to cookhouse duties, I aligned myself to a couple of other country lads who had experience from previous camps and we began to enjoy trips into the city centre – generally the Parnell Square area where numerous pubs and dancehalls were located. One drawback, however, was the requirement to be back at the barracks for the midnight deadline.
This resulted in several promising evenings having to be terminated abruptly, in order to catch the last bus back to Rathmines. Although there were many stories of fellows ignoring the curfew and returning to the Barracks at all hours, we three didn’t take any chances in order to test the truth or otherwise of these rumours.
Eventually and like all good things in life, the summer camp came to an end and we regretfully found ourselves back at home – albeit with the undoubted bonus of two weeks’ full army pay in our pockets. However, as is the way with youth we quickly picked up the pieces and moved on with life.
I now sometimes reflect nostalgically upon that first summer camp and in doing so can’t help pondering whether the decision to stand down the FCA in 2002 as a result of yet another review and re-organisation of the Defence Forces was the correct one. I reflect on the fact that membership in many cases imbued a sense of self-esteem and camaraderie and pointed many of these young men towards a direction in life that hey may not otherwise have taken. It also resulted in the forging of lifelong friendships together with an appreciation of the value and importance of the concept of voluntary service, a concept which regretfully appears to have almost disappeared from our modern world.