Minister of State Paul Kehoe, was among a host of local leading figures and VIP guests who attended the St. Patrick’s day festivities for Irish members of the UN Interim Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on Saturday.
Minister Kehoe made the traditional presentation of Shamrock to many Kilkenny troops at the Irish Battalion’s Headquarters in Tibnin, who received their mission medals on the same day.
“Your presence here is a great source of pride to Ireland,” the Minister told them, “it is the difference between life and death for so many hundreds and thousands of people living here. We may be a small nation but we are a proud nation. Your work and your actions here are a reflection on Ireland.”
The Minister was also pleased to have the opportunity to see his niece, Kilkenny based Private Shelley Kehoe (21), who has been serving there since last November.
St. Patrick’s Day is a cause for huge celebrations for the local people in Tibnin, Lebanon, who lobbied strongly to have the Irish Battalion of UNIFIL reinstated to their area last year.
“There is something about knowing that the local people want you there, because that’s not always the case,” Lieutenant Ciaran Dillon told the Kilkenny People at the celebrations this week, “the people of this surrounding area fought to have us placed here. Some of them even speak English with an Irish accent, so you get that sense of home a lot of the time.”
The Irish troops first entered Lebanon as part of a UN peacekeeping force in 1978 and have since forged very strong relationships in the region.
The Irish returned to Lebanon last May to a warm welcome from the local Lebanese.
Ali Saad, the public relations co-ordinator of the South Lebanon Red Cross, grew up in Tibnin, living alongside Irish Peacekeepers.
“I come from a poor family. Only for the Irish I could not have had the future I have now,” he told the Kilkenny People this week, “The Irish have had a lot to do with the position I’m in now; my future and the future of my children, the way I think and the way I feel. It is our wish to continue this part of the history.”
It has long been tradition for the Irish members of the UNIFIL mission to engage in humanitarian and community work in their area of operations. Currently some members teach English lessons to local people, provide the local hospital with water supplies and recently troops supported the installation of a generator to aid local electricity supplies.
According to Kilkenny man and 105th Infantry Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Brennan, the deep friendship between the Lebanese people and the Irish is at the heart of Ireland’s strong UNIFIL position in the region.
“Our job is to monitor the Blue Line and keep it secure and to provide a level of normality in the villages and that’s it. It’s straight forward and high tempo for us all the time. Its go, go, go; no one gets rest. It’s every day, seven days a week. We’re here now four months and this is when it gets hard and people want to go back to their families, but you have to see out the time and do the job, just as good at the end as at the beginning.”
Lieutenant Colonel Brennan also praised members of the 105th Infantry Battalion for their dedication and responsibility to their mission so far.
Kilkenny native Captain Laura Keane (29) was amongst a number of Kilkenny soldiers celebrating St. Patrick’s day in Camp Shamrock.
“It’s my first time in Lebanon, but I was overseas before,” she told the Kilkenny People, “I was in Kosovo for six months before. It’s a completely different job and different type of atmosphere. I’m really enjoying it. The trip is flying by.”
Captain Keane who went to Kilkenny’s Loreto secondary school, has been serving since last November with the 105th Infantry Battalion UNIFIL, the 50th Irish unit to serve in Lebanon, patrolling the disputed border area between Lebanon and Israel.
“Your training to go overseas essentially starts from the day you leave the cadets,” said the cavalry officer.
“I went home on leave to Kilkenny in January and I suppose I thought January would be a quiet time to catch up with people after Christmas but it turned out to be the opposite. I was run off my feet meeting up with all my friends and my boyfriend and my family. My mother cooked Christmas dinner again for me in January and everyone gathered so it was really nice.”
But being away from home is perhaps the most difficult part of every Irish Peace Keeper’s job.
“I find that being away from home and being away from the luxuries that you would have at home in Kilkenny is difficult,” Captain Keane admits, “Your living conditions are basic enough here, but you make what you can of it and then when you go home on leave it makes it all the more enjoyable.”
For Captain Keane, the Saint Patrick’s day celebrations, in the camp are very important for a number of reasons.
“There’s an awful lot of effort put into it,” she said, “It’s a very special and proud day for us and it’s also a landmark in our trip towards our finishing date in May.”