A JILDY SOLDIER – Pte Patsy O’Neill

A JILDY SOLDIER – Pte Patsy O’Neill
Patrick ‘Patsy’ O’Neill, 2015. (Photo by his daughter Maureen O’Neill)

A JILDY SOLDIER

Interview with Emergency veteran Patsy O’Neill

By Wesley Bourke

Published in Winter 2015

Over our first four issues we have been fortunate enough to have been able to bring you the harrowing eyewitness accounts of several veterans who took part in World War II. Recent months have remembered the sacrifice made during the Battle of Britain in which Irish aviators played their part. At this time, we should also remember that 75 years ago, while war raged around the world, Ireland declared a State of Emergency. This resulted in a massive expansion of the small Irish Defence Forces which prepared to defend the island from a looming invasion. There are still veterans from this time in Ireland still alive today. Their service should also be remembered. It is only when a grandparent passes away that we realise the stories we grew up listening to will never be told again. This editor is fortunate to have one grandparent left alive; this is his Emergency story.

Emergency is Declared

Patrick ‘Patsy’ O’Neil from Glebe House, Crumlin Village, Dublin, was born on 1 August 1921. Patsy has seen many changes in Ireland from the early days of the Free State, the birth of a Republic, and on to the Celtic Tiger. In Ireland the war period was known as the Emergency; a State of Emergency was proclaimed by Dáil Éireann on 2 September 1939, allowing the passage of the Emergency Powers Act 1939 by the Oireachtas the following day. It allowed for measures such as censorship and internment.

Remaining neutral, Ireland braced itself for war. Money and equipment was scarce. Food, fuel, tea, cigarettes were all rationed. Turf battalions were formed to make sure homes, schools, and hospitals remained heated in urban areas. Air-Raid wardens patrolled the streets at night enforcing a black out. The worst outcome was prepared for with gas masks being issued to the general public.  Patsy recollected:

‘At the outbreak of the war I was studying carpentry in Bolton Street College. There was much talk of the war in Europe. As German armies moved east and west nobody knew whether Ireland would join the Allied powers or wait and see if the Germans would come over to us’.

On the outbreak of World War II Patsy joined the rapidly expanding Irish Army At the wars’ outbreak the Irish Defence Forces (at the time consisting of the Army, Air Corps and the newly formed Marine and Coastwatching Service) was small in size. The regular Army only numbered 5,915 regulars and 14,470 in the reserve. By 1943 the Defence Forces reached a peak of 56,000 regulars while a reorganised reserve, known as the Local Defence Force (LDF) numbered 106,000. Volunteers like Patsy were known as E-men (Emergency men) or Durationers (those who had enlisted for the duration of hostilities). A private soldier received fourteen shillings a week less ten pence deduction for laundry and haircutting.

Patsy Enlists and life in the Curragh Camp

With this expansion, the Army was reformed into two divisions and two independent brigades. The 1st Division, under Major General M.J. Costello, had its headquarters in Cork while the 2nd Division, under Major General Hugo McNeill, had its headquarters in Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. The independent 5th and 8th Brigades were based in the Curragh Camp, Co. Kildare and in Rineanna (today Shannon Airport) Co. Clare, respectively. Patsy joined C Company 25th Infantry Battalion, 5th Brigade. The Curragh Camp, which is still a military base today, is a large military camp south of Naas beside Newbridge and Kildare towns. Its common plains are well known for horses and sheep. For a Crumlin man, Naas (a large town in North Kildare) was considered the frontier.

“As German armies moved east and west nobody knew whether Ireland would join the Allied powers or wait and see if the Germans would come over to us.”

‘Sheep shit and soldiers are what I remember about the Curragh Camp. The only nice thing about it was the trees as you drove in. There was no doubt about it; training was hard. We were expecting war. We enjoyed it all the same. There was camaraderie amongst everyone. We were issued with the British pattern uniform, helmet and forage cap. We had another name for the forage cap which I won’t repeat. You’ll see pictures of other Irish soldiers wearing a German style uniform. This was the Vickers helmet that had been issued back in the 30’s along with a German style uniform. No wonder some pilots that crashed here got confused. You made friends with men like 62 Sanders. We called them by their last name and their army number. The Curragh had a picture house and the units put on shows and sporting competitions to help pass the time. We were issued the Lee Enfield .303” rifle. Lovely weapon. The drill on this rifle was really impressive. I remember it clearly. On parade was the best “Fastuigh –Beaignill” (the Irish command for Fix Bayonets). When you saw a whole battalion doing that movement together in one motion it was an amazing sight. We were very Jildy’. (Jildy was a slang term at the time for good appearance)

With the rapid expansion the Defence Force ordered new armoured vehicles, weapons, aircraft, and patrol boats from abroad. With the war on, the numbers required did not reach Ireland. To augment its arsenal, the military modified truck chassis’, such as Ford and Dodge, and turned them into armoured cars. For the infantryman many of the weapons still in use were of a World War I vintage.

Pictured on left, Private Patrick ‘Patsy’ O’Neill, C Company 25th Infantry Battalion, on guard in the Curragh Camp circa 1941. (Image courtesy of family)

‘The Enfield was my favourite. They weren’t all in good condition as some were old and had to have repair work done. Ten-round black magazine and one up the breech. One of my proudest days was being awarded the marksmanship badge. With the Enfield you didn’t pull the trigger, you squeezed it gently. I also did a course on the Lewis and Vickers machine guns. With these machine guns; like today, you had to have a crew. The Lewis was on a bipod and had a round magazine whereas the Vickers was on a tripod and was belt fed. They were impressive weapons to use’.

25th Infantry Battalion was mainly tasked with guarding K-lines and Tintown. These were the camps where the Allied, Axis and Irish Republican Army (IRA) internees were kept during the Emergency period. Ireland of course was neutral so any Allied or Axis sailors or aviators that happened to crash or end up on Irish soil were interned. Over the course of the war some 170 aircraft crashed or force landed on Irish territory. Along with the surviving aircrew sailors such as the 164 German seamen rescued by the MV Kerlogue in the Bay of Biscay found themselves in the Curragh.

‘In the camps all the sentry posts were elevated. So you would have full view of your section of the camp you were guarding. There were two men in each box. Nine boxes in total. A guard house on the gate. There were also PAs (Poliní Airm the Irish for Military Police) knocking about which you had to watch out for. It was very monotonous. You got very tired both physically and mentally doing this day in day out. The guard commander used to do spot checks on us to see if we had fallen asleep. Two hours on four hours off. One thing all prisoners had in common was giving you the sign for a cigarette. We knew it as getting a fix. A friend might say ‘give us a fix’ and it would break your heart to break a cigarette in two’.

There was a big difference between the Allied, Axis and IRA internees.

‘We rotated around the German, Allied and IRA camps. Now there was a different arrangement for the different prisoners. The Germans and Allies used to get day passes and as the war went on some even got jobs in the local areas in Kildare town, Newbridge or Kilcullen. The Germans were an intimidating bunch. I remember one time escorting a German officer down to the Military Hospital. I was ordered not to let him out of my sight. Now I was only 5,4”, looking up at him he didn’t look too impressed’.

The IRA on the other hand was locked up 24/7 and did not have the same privileges as the Allied and Axis internees. ‘They did terrible things back then and the government were determined not to let them get up to anything while the war was on. In saying that the IRA was always trying to tunnel out of their camp. There were some very ingenious engineers in their ranks. We’d watch them for days and weeks digging away and then catch them just before they finished it. It kept them busy and we were amused so we didn’t mind. One or two did manage to slip past us though’.

Nowadays the Curragh Camp is only 40 odd minutes in a car from Crumlin on the motorway. Back then it took a little bit longer. As the war continued however leave home for soldiers even in the neutral Irish Army was not very frequent.

‘For the most part we didn’t get much leave. It all depended on how the war was going in Europe. My sisters came up a few times to Newbridge on the bus. I would go and meet them and they’d bring some food or a clean shirt. If they brought food this was the best. The food in camp was terrible. I remember the Company Quartermaster Sergeant counting out three potatoes that were black. That was dinner. We lived off loaves of bread, butter and jam. The canteen in the camp sold everything for a penny. A bun and a cup of tea or a piece of Gurcake. Now if you had 2pence you could get a Wad; this was a big cake with cream in the middle’.

Ireland may have been neutral but this did not prevent both military and civilians suffering fatalities and injury. During the Blitz in Britain, on several occasions; German Luftwaffe bombers mistakenly ended up in Irish airspace and jettisoned their payload. Bombs fell on Borris in Carlow, Wexford, Dublin, and the Curragh. In Borris three people were killed. The worst raid came on the night of 30/31 May 1941, on Dublin’s Northside. Thirty-eight people lost their lives and seventy houses were destroyed on Summerhill Parade, North Strand and the North Circular Road.

‘One sad story I remember from 1941 was when we were all playing football one day and got the call to report to the hospital to give blood. There had been a training accident in the Glen of Imaal in Wicklow. 16 lads had been killed. When the bodies came in, we had to carry in the bodies. There was blood all over the truck. We all got a reality check that day’.

‘The Blackwater Manoeuvres

For most of the Emergency, C Company 25th Infantry Battalion was stationed in the Curragh. However, it regularly took part in exercises outside of their area. Taking the young men to parts of the country they had never heard of or been to. Cork, the Blackwater River, Castle Annagh Camp New Ross, Abbeyleix, Bawnjames. The exercises took part around potential scenarios Ireland may face in case of an invasion. In the early days of the Emergency nobody knew if invasion would come from the Germans in order to gain a backdoor into the United Kingdom or from the British who with the Battle of the Atlantic, had their eyes on Ireland’s strategic ports.

‘In the summer of 1942 we took part in several big manoeuvres. Now we marched everywhere back then. There wasn’t enough transport anyway. Our objective was to cross the Blackwater River. The march down took us through places we’d never heard of or been. We were regularly allowed bivouac in old estates like Silversprings House Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. That was in July. We then went on to Wexford where we stayed in a camp in Bawnjames. We didn’t mind marching through the countryside. It got us out of the Curragh and away from guarding prisoners and out soldiering. We could buy things like good food off the locals and the girls were always very pleasant to us’.

Members of 25th Infantry Battalion taking a break from manoeuvres at Silversprings House, Pilltown, Co. Kilkenny, 25 July 1942. Patsy is seen in the centre row second on the left with a cocked helmet. (Image courtesy of Irish Military Archives. Image colourised by John O’Byrne)

The Blackwater Exercise in 1942 involved elements from all the commands in Ireland. The 2nd Division, along with elements from 5th Brigade, moved south to attack the 1st Division in based in the Munster region. One of the largest obstacles in their way was the Blackwater River; a natural defensive barrier around Cork City. They remain the largest military exercises the Irish State has ever conducted.

‘The Blackwater manoeuvres took place in August and September of 1942. We had to cross the Blackwater River with full battle dress. Most lads couldn’t swim so we had to form human chains. The current would try and grab your legs. Sometimes a chain would break upstream and lads would come drifting down and we’d have to catch them. We didn’t catch them all’.

Crossing the Blackwater. (Image courtesy of Military Archives. Colourised by John O’Byrne)

The exercise was followed by the largest-ever military parade which was held in Ireland in Cork City on 13 September.

Patsy’s Emergency Medal.

As the war raged on around the world the Axis powers began retreating. An invasion of Ireland became less and less likely. The Defence Forces were still on high alert. German U-Boat activity off the coast was monitored, rationing and blackouts continued. For the Army, training was maintained and those Allied and Axis aircrews and mariners that still managed to end up in Ireland had to be rounded up and interned. Internment continued until the end of the war, but bit by bit the Allied personnel were allowed drift off either making their way to Northern Ireland or catching a boat from Dublin bound for Britain. The internees had nowhere to go even if they wanted to. 

End of the Emergency and Demobilisation

By 1945 the war in Europe was coming to a close. Although the Emergency in Ireland continued until 1946 the Defence Forces began to scale down.

‘Near the end of the war I was given indefinite leave to finish my apprenticeship. My Commanding Officer called me in and explained because the war was winding down I was approved to go finish my trade so I would have it finished for when I was discharged. Now I had just completed my NCO’s course and I wanted to get my corporals stripes. With demobilisation looming there was no need for any more corporals. Alas back up to Dublin I went to finish my studies on full pay. I was lucky to get such an opportunity. I reported back to the Curragh 18 months later for demobilisation. Battalion after battalion was paraded and stood down. I was handed my discharge papers and the offer of a Martin Henry suit. I took two shirts, two trousers and a pair of boots instead for work. I never got to find out whether I passed my NCO’s course or not. Everyone was being demobilised. For our service we were awarded the Emergency Medal and the Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, gave us a 100 pound. That was it, the Emergency was over’.

Patsy still lives in his home in Walkinstown, Dublin, aged 94.

This article first appeared in An Cosantóir – the Irish Defence Forces magazine in February 2012.

Posted in: County Kildare, Curragh Camp, Irish Army, Irish Defence Forces, Irish Veteran, Óglaigh na hÉireann, Second World War, The Emergency 1939 - 1946, World War Two

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