Soldier’s Farewell (2006)
In 1980, while a Captain in the Irish Army, I was transferred to Custume Barracks, Athlone, for disciplinary reasons. I was placed under the watchful eye of a very strict Commanding Officer, Comdt (now, Colonel (retd)), Eiver O’Hanluain.
On one occasion my CO decided that I needed some practice in the art of public speaking, so he tasked me with making an historical presentation in barracks. My pleas that I was too busy running a Senior Non-Commissioned Officers course fell on deaf ears. A few days later my CO presented me with a book about the War of Independence, pointing out the story of the Scramogue ambush as my lecture subject. When I read the article that night, I was fascinated by its contents. It told of how, Comdt Sean Leavy, (Old IRA), and his men, had ambushed a small convoy of the 12th Lancers, then stationed at Strokestown Castle, Co Roscommon, killing all eleven Officers, NCOs and Troopers, including their CO, one Captain Peake.
I had a bright idea, a way of avoiding the daunting prospect of standing in front of an audience to deliver a formal lecture. I would devise a military exercise, on the very same spot, for the Senior NCO course, without telling them its history. I would give them the scenario that their platoon was cut off behind enemy lines and that the last order they received over the radio before it packed up, was, to ambush any convoy leaving Strokestown heading for Longford. I convinced the Boss that this was part of a logical sequence in their training, a Tactical Exercise Without Troops, which followed on from classroom lectures.
On a reconnaissance of the ambush site I discovered that the man who had organised and commanded this very successful, but little publicised, battle in our War of Independence, was still alive. When I met him I was amazed at his shy, gentle manner, large frame, massive hands, and full head of neatly cut white hair. I was all the more surprised that although this humble, quiet-spoken man had witnessed, and indeed taken part in many horrific actions, he related them to me without either pride, or anger.
One morning, two weeks later, while the un-suspecting students were preparing their plans and battle orders at Scramogue cross-roads, my training staff was constructing a sand-table model of the ambush site in a small public house nearby, which was owned by Sean Leavy’s son, Ciaran. That afternoon, with the class sat around the sandtable, I explained that it would have needed three of their solutions put together to comply with all the principles of ambush as previously taught. I then gave them a detailed account of the historical event that had taken place on that same piece of ground nearly sixty years before. I was able to show them a British Lee Enfield rifle and Captain Peake’s sword, which Comdt Leavy had captured.
To crown the occasion, I told them that the very same Comdt Sean Leavy was the gentleman, over there, on his own, in a corner of the bar, where he had sat un-noticed throughout the talk. He turned his wheelchair around to face them, wearing his medals as I had asked him to. I felt a choking emotion, and tears in my eyes, as the students, who were themselves experienced, and in some cases decorated soldiers, walked up to him, saluted him smartly, and shook his hand warmly. In a quiet moment later on, I asked him if I had told the story correctly. “Ah, you did” he said, “but you threw me many roses”!
I went back to visit him on a few occasions after that, and on my last one he asked me a favour. He said he would be dead within the year, and could I please put an Officer’s cap on his coffin. Even though I knew full well that the regulations stated that, an Officer who dies in service would have his cap and sword placed on the Tri-colour draping his coffin, but, that a retired Officer is only allowed the flag; I promised that I would honour his request.
At his funeral, six months later, I placed an Officer’s cap on his coffin, together with Captain Peake’s sword, which I borrowed from his son’s house. During the funeral Mass, my CO, realising what I had done, angrily pointed out to me that he was not entitled to this. With an emotional and defiant voice I whispered, “Sir, maybe he’s a bit more entitled than you or me”. His normally stern and stoic features softened into a grin of complicity.
This story was broadcast on the RTE Radio, “Sunday Miscellany” programme on 16 July 2006 and can be heard on their website (http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sundaymiscellany
An omission due to the need for brevity was the fact that after the funeral on 21 Mar 1981, Ciaran Leavy, Sean’s son, brought me over to their house and pub, just opposite the graveyard, and presented me with the Lee Enfield rifle that his father had captured in the ambush in 1921, saying that his father had left instructions that it was to be given to me.
Just after the broadcast Col O hAnluain rang me, announcing himself as my “stern and stoic-featured CO”, to congratulate me on a job well done. He also pointed out that when our NCOs course approached, saluted and shook the hand of Comdt Leavy, he overheard him say, “Now I can die happy”
Na Fianna Éireann Fíor inár gCroíthe Neart inár Láimhe Comhsheasmhacht inár dTeanga.