COBH,ENVIRONS & THE TWENTY YEAR ITCH by Donal Kennedy


Reading Jude’s Blog “Republican Cobh” commenting on Kieran McCatrthy’s account of East Cork Volunteers from 1913  to the recent Northern War – the longest in  Irish history I believe, revived two brief experiences of Cobh and environs when I was myself a Volunteer with Oglaigh na hEireann’s Second Line Reserve (aka An Forsa Cosanta Aitiuil)

I joined that force in 1957, barely 44 years after the foundation of the Oglaigh, and each of our brass buttons had an embossed Harp between the letters I and V (for Irish Volunteers) and our cap badge carried the legend Oglaigh na hEireann in the centre of the pre-historic Gaelic symbol the Sunburst. As the Volunteers had since 1913. 

At the time the President and Taoiseach, most Cabinet Ministers and shadow cabinet members and all Army officers of the rank of Colonel and above were veteran 1916 insurgents or veterans (on the Irish side) of the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921. 

I’m not , generally, a liar but I lied about my age (15) when I joined and never considered it a sin. Probably most recruits did the same. Summer Camp in 1958 and 1959 were at Dun Ui Mhisteal. (Fort Michel) on Spike Island in Cork Harbour. The Young Irelander John Mitchel had, very briefly, been a guest of Queen Victoria there, one mile from the Cove of Cork.

Queen Victoria later visited the Cove, which renamed itself Queenstown in her honour. But in my day it had reclaimed its old name and Gaelicised it into the bargain. 

Anyhow I joined the FCA in Rockwell College. My father had retired from the Land Commission a few years earlier on health grounds and had only recently been made permanent so had a piddling pension of £3.00 per week, which stayed that way until Charles Haughey ( whose own father had retired from the Army on health grounds) boosted such pensions to make allowance for inflation. My uncle, a priest, offered to help out (at a discount given the clergy) by paying my fees at Rockwell, an excellent school which I didn’t appreciate at the time. Within a month an FCA “platoon” was established there, with a strength of a Company of 100 Oglaigh (literally “Youths” for all were teenagers).

It broke the feeling of incarceration, with trips to rifle ranges, and ham sandwich lunches which I regarded as gourmet meals.

Anyway, our platoon, together with platoons from Christian Brothers’ College Cork, the “North Mon” and “Pres” in the same City all had summer Camp on Spike Island. There was one Cork Platoon “An Buion Gaelach” which trained through the language.( A well known journalist , whose revisionist slant on our history seems inspired by the lies of Dublin Castle a century ago, soldiered with that “Buion” a year or two after my time.) Perhaps under his influence Cobh will revoke its current name and revert to Queenstown or be re-crowned Queenstown II after a visit of the current British Monarch, the idol of today’s Anti-Sinn Fein Society in the Rebel County.

Each evening we would catch the ferry from Spike Island to Cobh, where I learned, at 16 ,to drink pints in the “Rob Roy” and other  pubs, and occasionally danced in a ballroom with knots in its timber floor. My dancing was of poorer quality than the floor and my chat-up lines naive and gauche. It was not a good idea to drink four pints of stout before taking a ferry, but I met a fellow from Howth who was in the Naval Service at Haulbowline who twisted my arm and bought me the pint that had me throw my guts out after the ferry, the walk up to the Fort, and putting my head on my pillow,

Anyhow I remember in Spike Island one lunchtime hearing the Radio Eireann News whose first item concerned a Republican named Hands who was shot by the RUC during a border encounter. A couple of the Cork FCA guys were sorry for the young patriot, but a Regular Corporal, felt no pity. He told us he had patrolled the Border, wearing Ireland’s green and Britain’s Khaki, a mercenary, subhuman attitude I still despise.

In a snug in Cobh I heard a woman of a certain age lamenting the decline of the town in the twenty years since since “the Royal Navy” had  departed, and thought that perhaps it had been too long and too broadly open to British Seamen. 

At the time merchants in Bantry Bay were campaigning (in vain) for a visit from the British Fleet, which had also been accommodated in Castletpwn Bere there until 1938. No doubt  there were many sisters of the Cailleach Beara* suffering from the Twenty Year Itch.

The Hag of  Beara, of ancient legend, boasted in her old age of the number and quality of her legion of former lovers.

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