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How Congo kindness helped to save African missionaries

It might have taken more than half a century, but after 57 long years, a Ballinasloe Franciscan Sister has eventually got the opportunity to meet some of Ireland’s Peacekeepers, who indirectly helped save the lives of her and her colleagues in West Africa in the mid-sixties, writes Ken Kelly.

And it was all thanks to an article in the Connacht Tribune over two years ago, reflecting on the army life of Tuam resident Tommy Gavin, when he was a member of the 33rd Battalion and later the 38th Battalion serving in the Congo in the 1960s.

That brought back the shocking memories experienced by the Franciscan Sisters, among them Kerry-born Sr. Theresa O’Sullivan who joined the Franciscan Sisters in Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, and trained as a nurse.

She subsequently qualified as a midwife – and along with two colleagues, Alice Nealon from Mayo and the late Margaret Rudden from Cavan, was assigned to a Missionary Hospital, in West Africa, run by the Franciscan Order.

The sixties were a time of trouble in the Congo. Irish soldiers were sent there as members of the United Nations Peacekeeping force. Their first encounter in 1961 was the Niemba Ambush, in which nine Irish soldiers lost their lives.

But the Irish had become very popular with soldiers from other countries, who were on duty there, where their personalities, humour and generosity was appreciated by their colleagues.

Many miles away, in West Africa, the Irish trio of nuns were caring for the poor, the injured and the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The year was 1966. Conditions were unbearable but in an amazing turn of fate the three nuns were saved from almost certain death, indirectly, thanks to the reputation of the Irish peacekeepers in the Congo.

And having met up with some of those veterans at the Annual Commemoration Ceremony of the Irish United Nations Association, in Renmore Barracks, Sr. Theresa O’Sullivan recalled some of the experiences she had encountered during her 18 years nursing in West Africa.

“I could never express sufficiently how grateful I am to have the privilege of meeting you, and having the opportunity to thank you, for what you did for me and my companions, in West Africa 57 years ago,” she said.

“When I read the report (in the Connacht Tribune), it brought up very many memories of my time spent working in West Africa and especially, when my two companions and I got caught up in a dreadful experience of conflict.

“I had always hoped that one day I would get to thank a member of the Irish Army, who served in the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo in 1960-64. I hadn’t thought it would take this length, but the interview was a most welcome opportunity for me to do just that,” she added.

And she explained how the Irish peacekeepers had unknowingly saved her life and those of her fellow Sisters.

“In 1966 I found myself, along with two comrades, caught up in a raging Ethnic Conflict. We were very young and very frightened,” she said.

“One night we were taken into a Police Barracks for protection. There was murder all around us. By that time, we were worn out, as we had been ‘on the run’ for a number of days. We had come face-to-face with the attackers. The heat was dreadful, and we couldn’t even get some water.

Retired UN Irish Peacekeeper Tommy Gavin from Tuam pictured with Sr Theresa at the annual IUNA Commemoration Ceremony in Renmore Barracks, Galway.

“You can well imagine what it is like – you have experienced it yourselves, when hundreds of young men are rounded- up, given very dangerous implements and issued with very potent drugs,” she told the veterans.

“We sat on a bench in the yard of the Police Barracks that night, thinking about our families back home in Mayo, Cavan and Kerry and the manner in which they would hear of our deaths.

“Three Police Officers came to us and checked that we were Irish. They then told us they would protect us, because when they were in the Congo, as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, they served along with the Irish Army.

“They said that the Irish soldiers used to play cards with them and shared their cigarettes and Guinness from their own rations.

“Clearly they hadn’t forgotten about their experience.

“They were talking about you – you veterans who are here tonight and who served in the Congo 63 years ago” she told a stunned audience.

Continuing, Sr. Theresa said that, in the Missionary Hospital, they had frequent interactions with army and police because they came to the health facility for treatment for themselves and their families.

They always accompanied their wives for whatever care they required, and hundreds of their children were born in her hospital.

She then spoke of her two companions of that unforgettable night. Sadly, Margaret Rudden from Cavan had passed away while Alice Nealon from Mayo is in England, has been very ill for a number of years and is unable to speak – a possibility that it is trauma related.

Sr. Theresa sympathised with the families, relatives, colleagues and friends of all the Irish soldiers who lost their lives, while serving at home and abroad.

“I’m sure that the sadness and experience is, to some degree, still with you. We never fully recover from trauma of this nature. What we can do is support and encourage each other” she said.

Sr. Theresa – who went on to spent 18 years in Africa before returning to Ballinasloe – recalled that traumatic night and said were it not for the great reputation of the Irish peacekeepers abroad, she and her colleagues could possibly have been killed.

“Those words of that Night will remain with me for ever. Were it not for your humanity and generosity, I would never have heard them. And now, in future, instead of thinking of that dreadful night so many years ago, foremost in my mind will be the memory of this very happy evening here” she told the many UN Veterans present and their families, to a standing ovation.

Main photo: Sr Theresa pictured with some of the Irish UN Peacekeepers who served in the Congo in the sixties, at the annual IUNA Commemoration Ceremony in Renmore Barracks, Galway.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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