Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe
by Declan Burke
Chapter 4 - The FCA Years
The brass button in my hand has a harp and the letters "I" and "V" embossed on it.
The "I" and "V" stand for "Irish Volunteers" and that button was on my FCA uniform, along with several others serving to keep the uniform closed and the breezes out. Its golden shine was from frequent and diligent applications of Brasso.
I was fascinated by the FCA, the initials in Gaelic for Local Defense Force. At one stage I thought I might become a cadet and a Commissioned Officer in the Irish Army.
I did not get commissioned in the Irish Army although I reached rank of 'Field Grade Officer' (major and up) in the Military of another country, but 'sin scéal eile'.*
As soon as possible I enlisted at the old Workhouse where the FCA had its headquarters. That was 1954 or 1955. I was 16 years old at the time, and I was thrilled. So were my companions as a bunch of 8 to 10 of us joined up that day. We were an enthusiastic group.
Captain Patsy Kennedy was our Officer Commanding (O/C) till a bleeding ulcer cut him down while still a young man as ulcers did in those days and then we got Michael Leydon as O/C, and he was married to a local woman.
We got kitted out with a uniform, boots, leggings, beret, greatcoat and the rank of one star private, the lowest form of military life. We learned to march and drill and how to handle a rifle. We learned 'small unit tactics' and most importantly we learned how to shoot the Lee-Enfield .303 Rifle.
Then the Headquarters burned down. The old Workhouse went up in flames one night and there were dark suspicions of arson, never proved, and we lost our handy dandy Drill Hall. The Barracks in Athlone became our focus, but I did not care as I had found my military niche, I was a marksman. This meant I could sew a special insignia on my sleeve designating me as such.
My rifle was World War One vintage (and was probably left behind by the departing British in 1921). I thought the one assigned to me was a something special. I still remember its serial # 679917.
There was a good deal of prestige associated with rifle shooting and the team was ferried around all over to different venues. Michael McCullagh and Paddy Murray were my companions. Paddy, then known as Patsy, was the nephew of (then) Captain Cummins, (an FCA officer, as distinct from the regular Irish Army) and Michael is well known to this website.
Our summers were spent at Finner Camp, several miles outside Bundoran, County Donegal. We got paid regular army rates, and a princely sum that was.
The distance to Bundoran, hamburgers, chips, entertainment, dancing, girls and gambling (ranked in order of importance) was over four miles.
One could hoof it or take a taxi for a half-crown, and on the wages we got, more often than not, it was 'shanks' mare'. Not that the taxi was all that comfortable as those blokes packed as many fares into their vehicles as they could hold. They would also troll for fares on the way, in the hope some footsore FCA man would weaken and pay to join eight or nine of us packed like sardines in the back and front seats. As well, the drivers would turn off the ignition and free-wheel down the hills to save petrol.
But we were young and that all passed.
The shooting range at Finner was magnificent especially if you were 'gun crazy' like most of us were. I was in my element and the chore of lugging heavy ammunition boxes down a steep hill to the range was bearable as I would get to shoot my trusty rifle and get a chance at the Bren Gun (a semiautomatic rifle/light machine gun) and the Vickers medium machine gun. That was my first acquaintance with a weapon where you used a map to aim with at targets miles away.
Old # 679917 was a freak of mass production, a truly accurate product with an effortless four inch group at 100 yards using open sights. It also had a kick like a jackass and my ears rang for several days after each shoot. There is to this very day (fifty years later) a bump on my collarbone and jaw from that recoil.
However, I can still hear the heartbeat of a baby in its mother's womb, so apparently I did not suffer the (monetary) damage to my hearing that other army shooters were afflicted with.
I could hit the bull's eye five times out of five at 500 yards with 'iron sights' on my rifle. I was in my element.
The really big competition in those days was the All-Ireland shoot at the Curragh in Kildare each year for teams of six, a Commissioned Officer, two NCOs and three Privates and in 1960 we were really hot.
Paddy Coen from Taughmaconnell and another soldier and I made up the three Privates and Joe Finn was our Officer.
We went to the Curragh in fine fettle having swept the Western Command finals, and we were strong favourites for the big Competition when fate took a hand and our officer had to absent himself on family emergency leave. Oliver O'Grady stepped in but Oliver was merely a very good shot, not the phenomenal one that Joe Finn was.
We came in second in the country next day in the final round. It was nothing to be ashamed of but a bitter pill to swallow, nevertheless.
The following year I was again shooting well and winning in competition but somebody found a regulation which stated a doctor could not compete in weaponry, according to the Geneva Convention.
I graduated in Medicine from UCG in 1962.
This (not so) old soldier promptly faded away, at least temporarily.
But the memories linger on for this one time member of the Ballinasloe Battalion of the FCA.
I was 'born' into the Irish military as a one star Private and I retired as a two-star General … no, that is not the word ... ah, yes …Corporal, that's it.
There was one unlikely life lesson I learned in the FCA.
It happened in the Gambling Emporium in Bundoran the last summer I was there. I became enamored with the roulette wheel and developed a method to beat the house and make money while I gambled.
In fact I wondered at the foolishness of the providers of the roulette wheel with its almost even chances of doubling one's cash.
Red and Black were evenly distributed on the wheel except for one chance in six which was yellow and paid at those odds.
I calculated that if I could sustain an occasional loss I would steadily make money by doubling up each time and it would be essentially painless as red and black were virtually half the numbers the ball must fall into.
Things went swimmingly for the first few nights and I made good money. Then came the last pay day of my current stay at Finner and I taxied (which I could now afford) into town, intent on making a killing at the wheel. I may have hummed "The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" on my way there.
Luckily, to warm up I started very low but soon I was putting up £20 (a fortune in my economic state) and losing. I quickly rounded up my buddies and they having heard of my prowess as a gambler readily ponied up the £40 I needed. (I somehow neglected to tell them how desperate I was).
To my immense relief, my £40 bet won, but I profited only 6 pence on the whole series of transactions (my original bet).
The fact is that there was an almost 50/50 chance I could have lost that wager too.
The wheel is an inanimate object and did not know it had awarded red and yellow seven or eight times in a row and had no obligation to land on black just to 'pull my irons out of the fire'.
Realization dawned on me that gambling was not the road to riches I thought it was and I have gambled only lightly since.
Another life lesson I learned in the FCA was to be more humble.
I got promoted to the lofty rank of Corporal and my former Private friends started 'taking the Mickey'.
I reacted immaturely and started throwing my weight around a bit. Just to keep those fellows in their place, you understand. It caused some resentment, to put it mildly.
One evening when I was free, I took off on foot for Bundoran.
About a mile along the way, I changed my mind and decided to make an early night of it, so I returned and found a totally absorbed group in one end of my hut. (We were quartered in Nissen huts of 'The Emergency' vintage those days)
I quietly joined the group and saw what was going on. Liam Cunnane had taken my uniform and removed the marksman insignia from the sleeve and neatly attached it to the seat of the pants! I stood by and let him finish the job and just as the cheering started it died down when the participants saw I was fully aware of their transgression.
I implied there were fearsome penalties for messing up a uniform but I would forebear to mention the crime to 'higher-ups' out of my inborn sense of mercy, provided I was waited on hand and foot forever. (Were there penalties? Hell, I don't know. It was sufficient only my jokesters believed there were severe ones)
No more did I help carry heavy ammunition boxes down the steep hill to the shooting range.
Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.
* 'sin sgeal eile' in Gaelic means 'that's another story'