Queen Meadhbh of Connaught and Cú Chulainn, the famous Ulster warrior, decorate the walls of Camp Shamrock. The Celtic figures were painted by Captain Tommy Dillion while he was stationed at the UN base in southern Lebanon.
Capt Dillion’s bright murals sit alongside a depiction of an Irish peacekeeper receiving a flower from a local child. The Banksy-style art was designed by Private Danny O’Donoghue during his spare time on deployment.
Despite its Celtic name and artwork, Camp Shamrock is a European melting pot where 330 Irish soldiers serve alongside members of the Polish, Hungarian and Maltese forces as part of the 500-man Irish-Polish Battalion.
The battalion is stationed in Lebanon as part of the UN force known as Unifil, the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. Most members of the Defense Forces will serve with UNIFIL during their careers and on several occasions – Sergeant Major Stan Hurley is currently on his 18th tour of Lebanon.
Despite retention and recruitment issues in the country, overseas deployments remain popular and are priorities for Defense Force manning.
After returning from a deployment in Congo, Captain Deirdre Fahy of Cork City spent only four months in Ireland before deploying again to Lebanon last November.
“Deploying overseas is what you train for,” says Capt Fahy, director of the Irish-Polish Battalion’s Tactical Operations Center. “It’s an opportunity to put into practice everything you’ve learned. It gives people a real sense of purpose.
The Defense Forces Commission report released earlier this month notes, however, that if resources are not increased, “this will significantly limit the ability of the Defense Forces to sustain their overseas commitments.”
Days at Camp Shamrock begin at 6:30 a.m., when most troops begin their duties. Everyone must be back at base by 8 p.m., except on patrol.
Irish and Polish chefs cook every other day. On the menu this week, Mexican chili fajitas with beef and chicken. (Irish troops sometimes serve alongside Italian peacekeepers and their pizza and coffee are popular – “We made them Irish coffees in return,” says one officer.)
A sign reading “Fáilte go Siopa Ali” is attached to the front of the on-site shop for Irish troops. Owner Ali has run a shop for Irish peacekeepers since 1982 – “I was still a teenager,” he says.
“He speaks Arabic, French, English, Hungarian, Finnish and a little Irish,” an officer explained. “He will get you everything you need.”
Base stores sell commemorative bottles of the famous Lebanese Ksara wine for members of the Irish-Polish Battalion, who have a choice of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chateau Blanc de Blancs. Irish troops will not be able to taste any wine until they complete their deployment.
Following an alleged assault in November, an alcohol ban while deployed to UNIFIL was introduced for Irish troops. A similar ban has been in effect for other overseas deployments, such as Syria, due to local sensitivities around alcohol.
The informal dining hall bar for off-duty troops has since been closed. “Before, it was great in the evening,” said an officer wistfully.
While most Irish troops are stationed at Camp Shamrock, others are based in outposts along the Blue Line which separates Israeli and Lebanese controlled territories. The line is not a formal border but a withdrawal line for Israeli forces which have invaded Lebanon on several occasions.
Peacekeepers are on two-month rotations at UNP 6-52, which sits in something of a hot spot along the Blue Line. The UN outpost is in territory previously controlled by Israel and next to the town of Maroun al-Ras. The city is a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militia known as Hezbollah.
The militia suffered heavy casualties in the city during heavy fighting with Israeli forces during the 2006 war. In tribute to those who died, Iran funded the construction of a park which has been named so imaginative Iran Garden and overlooking UNP 6-52.
Visitors to UNP 6-52 will likely be greeted by Bella and Lily; they are two of the four stray dogs that the Irish troops picked up at the outpost.
“They’re great for detecting people on the road before troops do,” says a UNP 6-52 officer, “but they don’t really have a military purpose, they’re for morale.”
The health of the dogs is monitored by a veterinarian at the Unifil headquarters in Naqoura.
Private Alan Cosgrave from Limerick is stationed at UNP 6-52 on his first overseas deployment. “My mom is at home crying, but my dad is happy to have a break with me,” he says.
“You’re not home, but you’re home,” Pte Cosgrave says of life in Lebanon. He says the most experienced Irish peacekeepers are always willing to sit down and explain more of the history of the areas you patrol.
“Patrols are your best chance to see what’s going on with your own eyes and to see the different villages and towns,” says Pte Cosgrave.
While there has been relative peace in southern Lebanon since the 2006 war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the area monitored by peacekeepers remains unstable.
Last May, Irish peacekeepers were forced into bunkers as Israeli and Palestinian forces exchanged fire after the outbreak of war in Gaza.
There has also been a recent upsurge in altercations between residents and UNIFIL patrols. Videos circulated online of people stomping on UN vehicles and pelting them with rocks, while a Ghanaian soldier was injured in the latest attack in late January.
The incidents took place in Hezbollah strongholds such as the town of Bint Jbeil (which is surrounded by a ring road that Irish peacekeepers dubbed “the M50”).
“It is difficult to characterize the altercations”, explains Lieutenant-Colonel Fiacra Keyes, the officer commanding the Irish-Polish battalion. “Unifil brings a lot of money to the area and it is in no one’s interest for them to leave.”
Local mayors said those who attacked UNIFIL patrols represent a minority and are neither coordinated nor controlled by groups such as Hezbollah.
Lt. Col. Keyes admits the incidents may well represent a form of protest by locals with genuine privacy concerns about large UN tanks moving along their roads, which, combined to dire economic conditions in Lebanon, could fuel tensions.
Irish troops generally use smaller, less intrusive vehicles than other forces and Lieutenant Colonel Keyes notes that an Irish patrol has yet to be involved in any of the recent attacks on peacekeepers.
The best peacekeepers are veterans and Irish troops have a long history in southern Lebanon, he said. “We’re not afraid to come out and say hello and that’s appealed to the local communities here.”
“Covid restrictions have made overseas deployments more difficult,” says Capt Fahy. “You don’t have time off either, which is the biggest change.”
Camp Shamrock had a small Covid outbreak in November and December and booster shots are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
The UN has taken a conservative approach to quarantine periods for peacekeepers to ensure they do not infect the local community.
Peacekeepers are currently required to undergo mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Lebanon, in addition to the two-week quarantine they complete in Ireland prior to deployment. The quarantine period is to be reviewed by the UN in March.
The lack of leave has added to the pressure overseas deployments are already putting on troops with families, who remained on deployment over Christmas.
“It’s very difficult,” says Commander Ian Harrington, Chief of Staff of the Irish-Polish Battalion. “You basically hand over the management of a family to one of the spouses. It is difficult for them and their sacrifice at home may not be recognized as much as those of us who serve overseas.