Irish in foreign fields


The recent death in combat in Afghanistan of an Irishman serving with the British Army serves to highlight an increasing pattern of Irish enlistment into the British Armed Forces. Peter Molloy examines the issue.


When Ranger Justin Cupples lost his life in a bomb attack early on the morning of 4th September this year, he became the 117th member of the British armed forces to die in Afghanistan since 2001. Read between the lines, however, and there’s something far more striking about the death of the twenty-nine-year-old infantryman than merely a statistic.

Ranger Cupples was Irish. He died in action wearing the uniform and insignia of an Irish unit within the British Army. Born in America to Irish parents, Cupples had returned home to live in County Cavan before joining the British armed forces.

For some, the presence of an Irishman in the British military might seem a unique anomaly, but in reality, statistics recently released by Britain’s Ministry of Defence confirm since April 2008, as many as 16% of new recruits entering the British Army through recruitment centres in Northern Ireland were from the Republic. This is an exponential increase on the 10.5% recorded for the same period last year. Regiments in the British Army with specific Irish identities have already seen extensive operational service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Irish born soldiers from north and south of the Border have become casualties of that service.

Since 2003, the Royal Irish have deployed to Iraq twice – including a leading role in the initial invasion of the country – with sub-units also seeing combat in Afghanistan. Now, at the beginning of October, the Regiment is in the process of returning from a six-month tour in southern Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province, where they have a played a leading role in mentoring the fledgling Afghan National Army, as well as conducting combat operations aimed at thwarting a renewed Taliban insurgency.

At least one tenth of the Regiment’s 1st Battalion complement of 600 troops are estimated to come from the Republic of Ireland, and last week – speaking by satellite phone from their base in Helmand – some of those Irish soldiers discussed their service in the British Army.

Captain Steven Swan, a deputy company commander with the Royal Irish from Dublin, has served with the British Army for nearly four years. A Business Studies graduate from Dublin Business School, he entered training as an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst in 2004. “I think young men are attracted to the action and the danger and adventure, and that’s probably the factor that drew me in.”

“I’m not saying it to everyone I meet that I’m in the [British] Army. There’s still a sense of suspicion around my area that it’s quite a negative thing”

“For an Irishman to be here in Afghanistan is quite extraordinary. [At home] everybody’s fascinated, wants to hear the stories. As far as negative reactions, there are people there that I’ve gone to school with or I’ve worked [with] in the past – I realise their backgrounds, and respect their judgement on it – you just try to steer away from the subject when you’re back at home.”

“I originally thought the issue might be [larger] – it’s the British Army, the old enemy – but any objections that I’ve had have just been people asking ‘Why not the Irish Army – is not that good enough?’, rather than any issue with it being British. You just explain to them that it’s the professionalism, the action, the world tours, the training that drew you towards there, and they can hopefully see the difference when you explain it like that.”

There was a similar attraction for his fellow Irish officer, Lieutenant Stephen Burns. Unlike his colleague in the regular 1st Battalion, Lieutenant Burns is a reservist officer in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish, a part-time Territorial Army unit, which has contributed a significant contingent to the Regiment’s current operational deployment.

Raised in Limerick, Lieutenant Burns moved to the UK as a teen, where he eventually joined the Royal Air Force in 1994 as a regular enlisted gunner. Serving throughout the rest of the decade on deployments as diverse as Bosnia and Cyprus, he eventually left the military in 2000 and returned to Dublin to pursue a Business and IT degree from Trinity College.

However, finding he was missing military life more than he had expected – “I was getting a bit fat and lazy to be honest” – Burns made the decision to return to service by enlisting in the reserve component of the Royal Irish Regiment and committed himself to making the long commute across the Border from Dublin to Belfast for training each week.

Comparing his prior experience serving in the UK-wide based RAF Regiment with serving in a unit with a very particular identity and regional affiliation, Lieutenant Burns highlighted what he sees as the positive features of his specifically Irish unit.

“I actually find that the guys would be a lot closer in the Royal Irish. When they go home on leave, they will meet up and still socialise and so on.”

Lieutenant Colonel Ed Freely, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, was effusive in his praise for the performance and character of his Irish soldiers. “There’s a humility, cheerfulness – as well as the professionalism – which isn’t as evident, I suggest, as in English regiments. Every day I work alongside an Afghan Brigadier General – we are the fifth battalion he’s had mentoring his brigade – and it’s something he has noticed in us.”

Speaking about soldiers from the Republic of Ireland serving with the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Freely remarked that; “We’ve always had a high quantity of men from the South of Ireland. I think what we’re seeing now is a heightened interest from the South, and we welcome that. They make great soldiers. [Our job] requires real character and strength, and the boys from Ireland, North and South, left and right-footed, are extremely good at it”.

“I think young men are attracted to the action and the danger and adventure, and that’s probably the factor that drew me in”

The concept of Irishmen as members of the British armed forces is far from being without precedent.
Noteworthy figures and 9leaders in British military history from the Duke of Wellington to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery have either been from Ireland, or have had backgrounds closely connected with this country. The names of Irish regiments past and present from the Connaught Rangers to the Royal Irish Fusiliers are inextricably linked with record of distinguished conduct and valour from Waterloo to the Somme.

Nor is more modern Irish service in the British military a singularly exceptional occurrence. One of the British Army’s first combat fatalities during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a junior non-commissioned officer originally from Ballyfermot in West Dublin. Lance Corporal Ian Malone was twenty-eight and a member of the Irish Guards when he was shot dead during Coalition efforts to take the southern city of Basra in early April of that year.

Malone – whose military career had begun serving with a Dublin unit of the reserve FCA – was interviewed shortly before his death for an RTÉ documentary examining the issue of Irishmen in the British military, where he gave his take on serving in the British Army.

“At the end of the day I am just abroad doing a job. People go on about Irishmen dying for freedom and all that. That’s a fair one. They did. But they died to give men like me the freedom to choose what to do.”
Less than six months after that interview, Lance Corporal Malone was buried in Dublin with full military honours in a ceremony which included the accompanying music of regimental pipers from both the Irish Defence Forces and the British Army – a poignant commentary on the dual personal and professional backgrounds of the Irishman.

It’s also important to note that contemporary Irish foreign military service is by no means confined to the armed forces of the UK – and examples of that service are relatively easy to find.

Last year, the non-combat related death in Afghanistan of Ciara Durkin – a Galway native serving with the US National Guard – drew significant attention from Irish media sources.

Yet despite all of this, it remains Irish service within Britain’s armed forces that continues to draw reactions – ranging from bemused puzzlement, to occasional outrage – in a manner that no other foreign military service seems to even vaguely inspire.

Recent ongoing correspondence on the issue in the letters page of an Irish national newspaper revealed views that varied from vehement condemnation to support and praise for Irishmen in British uniforms.
Most of the Irish soldiers interviewed for this article were far more pragmatic about any potential controversy their service in the British Army might inspire Tipperary-born Ranger Michael Gleeson, a recent recruit to the Royal Irish nearing the end of his first operational tour, was sanguine about the issue. Having had his first experience of military life serving in a reservist artillery unit of the Irish Defence Forces, Ranger Gleeson joined the British Army in 2007.

Like nearly all of the Irish soldiers interviewed, his principal motivation for joining the British military was the wider opportunities for operational service it offered. “It was good working with the Irish Army as well, but at the time…they weren’t really deploying as much as the British Army, so I decided this would have the better career options. I considered the [French] Foreign Legion as well, but it was hard to find anything written which wasn’t negative about the lifestyle in that unit, and so it came down to the British Army.”

Ranger Gleeson acknowledged that “at home, I’m still kind of cautious…I’m not saying it really to everyone I meet that I’m in the Army. There’s still a sense of suspicion around my area that it’s quite a negative thing, but all my friends and family know I’m in the Army, and they’re all very supportive of me – I haven’t had any negative things said.”

In company with other soldiers interviewed, Ranger Gleeson commented that any significant opposition from friends or family to him joining the British Army stemmed from the fact that that service would almost inevitably take him to trouble spots like Iraq or Afghanistan, rather than from any fundamental objections towards the British military itself.

“It’s more just a case of ‘why would you want to let someone shoot at you’ than ‘why would you wear the British uniform’”.

The situation in Helmand is still extremely volatile – even in recent weeks, three more British soldiers have lost their lives, two of them members of the Parachute Regiment serving alongside the Royal Irish Regiment. Although Ranger Cupples remains the unit’s only direct fatality during this current tour, the Royal Irish have seen significant combat over the last few months.

In July, a roadside bomb attack against a soft-skinned Land Rover injuried several soldiers including at least one, Ranger Martin Delaney, from County Dublin. Despite all this, the interviewed Irish soldiers were unanimous in a sincere belief that definite progress is being made in the effort to counter the Taliban and bring some stability to the country.

Captain Swan found that “locals actually trust us more and that they give us information more…they want to see development and we’ve certainly built up their trust. [It’s] much more satisfying than just dropping bombs.”

“I have a couple of members of my team that were in Musa Quala last time and they’re fairly amazed at the situation we’re faced with there when we returned. This time round, I spent most of my time working with contractors to rebuild a mosque that had been blown up during a previous tour.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Lieutenant Colonel Freely. “It’s been an enormous success. I have seen my boys operate now in the most arduous conditions…they have exceeded my expectations in terms of their service, and that service has been very testing – not just in combat daily, but also acting as diplomats and ambassadors. It’s much more than just plain soldiering – it’s acting in a very intelligent and sympathetic manner.”

The established pattern for overseas deployment means that once fully returned to the UK, the Royal Irish are unlikely to undertake another operational tour such as to Afghanistan and Iraq for at least two years. In the meantime, the minds of most soldiers interviewed were concentrated on getting through the remainder of the tour safely, before returning to homes across Ireland for some much deserved leave.