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Meeting the Irish Soldiers Who Fight in the British Army

Why would someone from a neutral republic want to sign up in another country?

Donnall Ryan (right) and Matt (All photos by David Kileen)

John Lennon Airport is an odd place to meet an Irish man in full military gear and a green beret. The bearded Scouser who coined the phrase "give peace a chance" might have been baffled at a young man from a neutral republic signing up for an army constantly engaged in combat missions.

Tired from his early morning flight, Captain Donall Ryan initially threw me. A posh Dubliner from the exclusive suburb of Howth, his mid-Atlantic accent took a second to place. A card-carrying member of the British Army, Donall still lacked the polish of "proper army" and looked a bit dishevelled as he apologised over being late as he tried to find his car.


Driving against rush hour traffic towards Shropshire, our Gurkha driver chatted happily about how brilliant the army was, the subsidised housing, visas and why he chose the Royal Irish Regiment as his home.

"Family regiment", "good banter" and "cameraderie" were phrases that I would hear repeated during my time with the Royal Irish regiment in their Ternhill base near the Welsh border. The barracks was a grim series of red brick buildings, a former RAF base near the bright lights of a small provincial town called Market Drayton.


Inside a building that looked more like a tennis club, I got my first brush with British "officer class" culture, a bizarre world far removed from my life in Dublin.

Ryan and his mate Matt from Newry, South Armagh – a region known as "bandit country" for its active IRA cells – ordered our lunch, which came out on fancy china, and was placed on a table surrounded by silver.

Matt, who studied geosciences in Aberdeen for a year, left university to work with horses before joining the British army. His decision to join has meant he rarely returns to his parent's house in Northern Ireland.

"Newry is just an area I'd rather not go. I'm not worried but my family are and it's more for their sake that I don't go back. We can meet in other places," he said looking a little uncomfortable.

Matt, who was born during the troubles, questions identity politics in Ireland and talks about the tens of thousands of Irishmen who died during WWI as we head to room surrounding by military paintings.


"There's a change, the historical reflection and people being willing to talk about the history of Irish men in the army. Look at the amount of men from both political camps who sacrificed their lives in the Somme, for them it wasn't patriotism it was fighting against a greater evil, fascism. What is Irishness anyway? I don't think it can be confined to a passport and a strict ideological criteria," he said.

Men who fought in the First World War returned to a post-1916 Ireland to muted applause. While some were seen as traitors, others left the army to train with the IRA. For Ryan, the transition was a logical use of their military skills.

"If you went off with the British Army in 1914 and then came back in 1918, a lot had changed in Ireland. You would have come back to your homeland and heard stories about what the British Army did to Mary's house down the road. It's no surprise really that those men put their military training to another use when they came home."

Captain John Cronin

Over in the regiment's large storeroom, we met another man from the Republic, Captain John Cronin a commissioned officer, who joined the army at its lowest rank, coming in as an Irish ranger over 20 years earlier.

"I've been promoted 11 times," Cronin, from a working class estate in Cork city, said proudly. He namedropped his BA and MBA as we move back to talking about the IRA and Irish republicanism. "I wasn't brought up as a republican, I was brought up with 'the Brits' etc, but it wasn't drilled into me. Equally it wasn't okay to talk about joining the British Army," he said.


Cronin, who has been in the army for 25 years, was on seven tours of Northern Ireland, and was a rare southern Catholic in an army accused of colluding with Loyalists. The old soldier is contemplative when it comes to his time in Northern Ireland.

"I remember asking myself the question, should we still be there? We weren't there for an ideology or people wanting a republic. We were there because a certain element on both sides were making a lot of money and had a lifestyle attached to the war. Johnny 'Mad Dog' Addair – people like him got a certain celebrity out of it. Let's be frank: anyone who drags someone out of their home in the middle of the night with a balaclava on and puts a pistol to their head… it's just bullshit," he said.

Cronin's reservations about his time in Northern Ireland seem far removed from the young rangers we met from the Republic preparing for their December deployment to Afghanistan.

Ranger Daly, from Cork, said watching Ross Kemp inspired his decision to join the army in 2012. "I was glued to Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. Even if people don't like him as a person, he has some balls on him, more than the keyboard warriors who give out about the world," he said.

Like many young men from the Republic, questions of a united Ireland are far from Daly's mind. He does, however, describe himself as a "proud Irishman".

"Being honest with you, if we did get back the six counties it would be more trouble than it's worth. I think it all depends on how you're brought up. Some people are brought up with these ideas on republicanism or unionism. In the north it's beaten into them that 'we're British we're proud to be British'. I just think, 'all right, there's no need to rub it in my face'. We aren't brought up like that in the Republic," he said.


As the regiment prepares to deploy this December, 30 percent of it is made up of soldiers from the Republic. They follow a route that has polarised those both north and south of the border for decades, if not centuries. The regiment's recruitment tool of "#irishwarrior" appeals to a dated stereotype no longer evident in a country where most young men are likely to pick up IT degrees than weapons. Despite this, Daly feels there's something to the "fighting Irish" reputation which explains why every year young men leave their homes to join the Queen's army, instead of going to college of joining peace keeping missions with the Irish Defence Forces.

"The Irish are just naturally good at fighting. I really think that. Some of our regiment were away with the Grenadier Guards and their Commanding Officer came up to our lads afterwards. 'How have your guys got so much aggression? I can't get my lads as motivated.' My mate quipped back: 'You can't teach someone to be Irish.' It's hilarious. Such an Irish answer. But I do think there's something in that."


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