Charlie's true grit in bloody conflict

By David tucker

Published 20/02/2016 | 00:00

Charles Kearney, far left, with U.N. and Congolese forces.

THE widow of a Wexford man who played a heroic role aiding Irish U.N. forces in the siege of Jadotville in the Congo more than 50 years ago says she hopes that a film starring Jamie Dornan about a little-known military action in a forgotten conflict will present a true account of what happened.

Northern Ireland born Dornan will play Comdt Pat Quinlan from Waterville in Co Kerry, the pipe-smoking 42-year-old commander of A Company of the Irish Defence Forces, who led his men against extraordinary odds, when they were besieged by thousands of Katangan tribesmen and heavily-armed foreign mercenaries in the Congo.

'I think it will be a great thing to do,' said Judy Kearney, who lives at Forth Mountain, and whose husband Charles (Charlie) risked his life to aid the Irish U.N. forces and who was personally thanked by Comdt Quinlan for his role in helping the Irish U.N. troops at great risk to his own life. The drama 'Siege of Jadotville', which was filmed in Ireland and South Africa, is due for release this year.

While the massacre of Irish troops at Niemba by Baluba tribesmen in the Congo in September, 1960, has been seered into Irish consciousness, the heroic actions of the 150 soldiers of A Company, 35th Battalion against overwhelming forces in Jadotville in 1961 which, after years of suppression, have only relatively recently been given their proper place in the national arena.

'It will be interesting, but it depends how true it is.. it's important to know who did what,' said Judy.

Charles Kearney, who hailed from Camolin, came to the aid of captured U.N. Irish soldiers before and after the siege of Jadotville and was himself captured and faced execution at the hands of the rebels.

Later, he re-built bridges destroyed in fighting between the Katangese and the U.N. forces.

'Charlie was never in uniform,' said Judy. It's something that she is keen to stress, and she has even written to Defence Minister Paul Kehoe to correct the impression in official circles that her husband had been in the army.

Charles died in 2012, two months short of his 80th birthday and is buried at his ranch Lion Kop, near the Victoria Falls, in Zambia.

At his funeral, officiated over by a local Catholic priest, both the Zambian and Irish flags were flying.

Charles's coffin was draped in a U.N. flag topped by a beret donated by McKee Army Barracks as a tribute to his selfless role in the Congo Emergency. Despite living most of his adult life in Africa, Charles remained a Wexford man at heart. His sister is buried in Gorey and his father in Camolin where another relative, Brendan Turner, is still farming.

In the 1960s, Charles went to the Congo. It was a decision that was to place him in mortal danger and bring him face to face with the protagonists in one of the savage African conflicts of that time.

Commandant Quinlan takes up the story in a letter dated November 28, 1961.

'Mr. Charles Kearney...was in very rumunerative employment with the firm of Swanepole in Jadotville, Kataganga, in the Congo in 1961.

'On the 13th of September, 1961, the Katangese Army with the assistance of and encouraged by a large majority of the white population of Jadotville and led by white mercenary officers attacked a company of Irish United Nations troops stationed at Jadotville.

'Mr. Kearney's firm were very active in this attack on Irish troops and Mr. Kearney resigned his position immediately, in protest

against this attack on his countrymen.

'At his first opportunity he reported to UN Headquarters in Elizabethville where he gave valuable information on the situation in Jadotville and the location of the Irish prisoners.

'His unselfish act was true to the tradition of Irish chivalry.'

After the Irish troops at Jadotville surrendered, Charles took part in a reconnaissance mission with three Irish officers, close to a Katangese military camp where they believed the 184 Irish U.N. soldiers under Commandant Quinlan were being held.

There were great fears for the prisoners' safety as a planned exchange of captives had not taken place.

But as the recce party neared the camp they too were surrounded and taken prisoner.

A contemporary report says: 'They never slept a wink all that night as they listened to a mob outside the cell howling for their blood.'

The next day, the order was given for them to be shot, however, President Moise Tschombe intervened to quash the execution order and they were transferred to the town of Kolwezi where the other Irish captives were being held.

All were released on October 25.

A highly complimentary letter from then U.N. Secretary General U Thant praised Charles for his devotion to the cause of the U.N. over and above the normal call of duty.

The Secretary General said this had earned Charles the high esteem of his colleagues and the gratitude of the United Nations.

U Thant said that regardless of the risk to himself, Charles drove and worked bulldozers in an emergency operation to restore bridges on the Jadotville Road.

'It should be of considerable gratification to know that your ready response to a cricitical situation helped greatly in restoring communications and so enabled ONUC troops to pursue their objectives with minimum delay.'

Noel Carey, from Blarney, who was then a young lieutenant with UN forces says that he frequently refers to Charles Kearney in lectures to military and historical societies, but had no contact with him since the events of 1961.

'I knew Charles - we thought his name was Myles - as he was invaluable before and during the conflict at Jadotville, keeping us up to date by mercenary and Katangan forces,' said Noel. 'He certainly put his life in danger, lost his job and was taken prisoner almost being executed, and spent four weeks incarcerated in a prison in Kolwezi with us. He was a remarkable man, a real patriot and a hero.

'It was wonderful to read about an outstanding human being and to fit another part in the jigsaw of what happened to a number of key players in those difficult days in the Congo,' said Noel, adding that Charles never got the recognition he deserved.

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