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Back in my early teens, a friend invited me to stay with him in the Curragh in County Kildare, Ireland.
The Curragh is a 5,000 area of largely open grassland which is primarily associated in Irish minds with horse breeding, racing and training – and plenty of grazing sheep. It also boasts an Army base, the Curragh Camp. The latter used to house the British Army, but it was transferred to the newly formed Irish Army after peace was (more or less) made.
Some of the scenes in the move, Braveheart, were filmed there.
One evening – it was after dark - when we were cutting across the damp grassland on the way to a cinema, I was completely taken aback to find a barbed-war enclosed floodlit compound, complete with watch towers and armed soldiers, off to one side.
Together we crept as close as we could to gaze upon this extraordinary sight, and then hunkered down just outside the floodlit area. We were transformed into secret agents. We were on a mission though quite what that was seemed a little unclear. But we knew we mustn’t be detected. There were machine guns in those watch-towers (and if there were not, there should have been).
It looked like a classic WW II prison camp out of every movie you’ve ever seen. And that is exactly what it was. But this was the late Fifties, so who were they holding there? This was very exciting, and thoughts of the movie faded, as we gazed upon the real thing.
It turned out it was several hundred IRA who were not yet reconciled to the idea that a treaty had been signed with the British in 1921 – and the fight against them was supposed to be over.
I was reminded of all this by a story in the BBC magazine of June 27 2011. Ireland had been neutral during WW II, and it explained that the Curragh Camp had held both British and German internees – as well as some IRA – and that the British and Germans, at least, had been allowed out to the local pubs, have visitors, and generally to pass the time as best they could without much restraint. The Irish soldiers were armed, but their ammunition was blank. It was a very Irish solution to a tricky diplomatic situation.
The sole American internee was a pilot called Roland “Bud” Wolfe who had been serving with the RAF in an Eagle Squadron flying Spitfires, but who had been forced to bale out over Ireland. He had been cheeky enough to escape from the camp – scarcely difficult under the circumstances - but the British, concerned to maintain good relations with the Irish, and who still occupied Northern Ireland (a situation that hasn’t changed), had sent him back.
“Not the done thing to escape when they’re not really imprisoning you old chap. Bad form, don’t you know.”
Bud Wolfe tried to escape again, but was caught. The Irish security services may appear casual but are surprisingly effective. He was finally released in 1943, and he went on to serve again in WWII, as well as Korea and Vietnam, before finally dying in 1994. Probably of exhaustion. This was a warrior.
As we speak, attempts are being made to excavate his crashed Spitfire from a bog in Donegal.
Though Ireland was neutral throughout WW II (1939-1945 as far as Europe was concerned) more than 100,000 Irish served with the British Army during that time. Some say it was because of a shortage of tea in Ireland during the war.
One, John Lentaigne, was a relation of mine. He was a young officer in the Rifle Brigade and was killed at the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa fighting against the Afrika Korps. He was awarded the Military Cross.
His name, picked out in gold, was carved into the paneling at our school, Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, England. He was a warrior too; and he is remembered. As he should be.