Colonel Michael Smyth is a Cavanman through and through. He was born in Cavan Town, his family used to live in what is now the Sally West clothes shop on Main Street. His mother, Bridget, and father, Philip, ran the drapers, PA Smyth’s, and lived in the converted Erskine hotel... the globe-trotting colonel talks to PAUL NEILAN about his life away from home.
Growing up in the 1960s Cavan, 34 Main Street’s Michael, in the middle between two older brothers and two younger sisters, was a keen boy scout - even his first overseas ‘mission’ was with scout leader Fr Torlac O’Reilly, camping in France.
There’s a little jump between being a boyscout and being Irish Army Colonel and Nato liaison, but Michael says he “kind of fell into the defence forces”.
“I wasn’t really too interested in the army, I was looking at going into the bank, which a lot of people did then, for security.
“I had been in the FCA for about two years, I hadn’t been particularly impressed with it, the level of soldiering, this was back then, remember, the reserve forces are far more professional today,” Michael tells the Anglo Celt from his base in Belgium, more on which later.
With the then-FCA not winning the war for his heart or mind, The Bank became a job-for-life ‘professional’ prospect for young Michael.
However, a friendly but firm nudge from a relative put him on a different, other-worldly path, positively knocking the banking plan off its axis.
“My aunt was the career-guidance teacher and she saw this ad for the Defence Forces she said ‘If you don’t apply for this I’m not going to help you with anything else.’ So she filled out the form and I signed it, and more or less that’s how I got into the military...”
Basic training developed and steeled him, daily, for the challenges ahead.
“Initially, it was tough, it was very tough, and the idea is that when they take you in they want to weed out people as soon as possible, so you’re put through the mill very quickly.
“In all aspects; physical, mental, testing your ability for discipline, your ability to take orders - it was a grinding experience for the first couple of months but it made me all the more determined not to be beaten, ‘Not on this, I’m going to make this’, you know?”
His determination got him through, and he graduated to become a trainer himself in the artillery school in Kildare. Then came the 4th Field Artillery Regiment in Mullingar.
“I had about fifty or sixty soldiers to look after in training for about six months, once I was commissioned. So I was assigned to look after these guys to get them up to speed in artillery training.
“One of the main issues for us in the ‘80s was going overseas, though, to Lebanon. We first started going there in ‘78 but all throughout the ‘80s we had a presence there on a continuous basis.”
The young Michael came to the troubled southern region first in 1980, for a six month stint in a village called Ayta Zut. Then back to Ireland only to return to Lebanon in 1986 as a young artillery captain stationed in Haris (pronounced ‘Harees’), close to the Israeli border.
“We were fire support for a battalion should they need it but in addition we also had an area, we had a village to cover, and we lived in the village.
“There was a school in Haris and the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] and their Christian backed militia would fire regularly into the village and the school was quite exposed, we decided to make the school a temporary UN post - we put up a huge flag with a huge blue and white UN sign on it and made sure we communicated to the Isrealis that this was now a UN house and the kids were now able to go to school on a daily basis.
“We posted sentries on top of the school so that it was clear to see for everyone that this was a UN safe-house.”
The point was made: attack the school and risk attacking the UN itself.
“At that time in the Lebanon you had a buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel in that buffer zone the Israelis had established the Lebanese Christian militia and they armed and trained them and they occupied all the high points but whenever they moved from one base to another, they did what was called recce-by-fire.
“In other words, when they were moving along, to make sure no-one would harm them, they would fire into the local muslim villages to make sure that if there was anyone there that they would bunker down so that they [the militia] would be able to move from one position to another. But the thing was it was indiscriminate fire, that’s how they operated.”
The intensity of the situation aside the Irish and the muslim locals mixed easily.
“We were operating using interpreters but it was very surprising how quickly the locals picked up English, throughout the operation though we had a great relationship with the locals, they knew what we were there to do.”
Were there any loyalties among his own men to either the Christian militiamen or to the local muslim villagers on religious grounds?
“No. None. Look, it was very simple, here were people, they don’t have a whole pile, they might have some crops, wheat and fig trees, fruit, lemon trees and it was a subsistence level. So our guys are there thinking ‘If we aren’t going to protect them how are they going to survive?’ So, it made absolutely no difference regarding religion it was basically protecting poor people that was it.”
Nepalese, Fijian, Ghanaian, Finnish, Italian and French batallions all lived in close proximity in the south Lebanese village, the Fijians and the Irish got on famously. The latter batallion, however, provided the colonel’s hairiest moment in his time in the uniform.
“The French had set up a check-point, an altercation happened, and as a result two local people were shot. The locals were, needless to say, unhappy. The local militia started firing into all the French posts, and effectively the [French] guys couldn’t move.
“Hamas and Hezbollah locked down the whole French area and some soldiers were killed. This went on for two weeks. The French were running out of supplies and the Irish were asked to send in supplies to the posts in most distress.
“I was tasked to lead the convoy, about 15 trucks or so. As we were driving into one village there was about 500 people out on the street looking at us, and I thought: Oh shit, we’re in trouble here.
“The French post was right in the middle of the village. The militia surrounded us, pointed weapons at us and in my case a guy had a Kalashnikov and was pointing it to my temple. He was screeching, not screaming, screeching. I thought he is going to pull the trigger, we were completely outnumbered and we only had about twenty guys. Hundreds around us, fifty or sixty armed. My head was bent over because he had the rifle pressed right close down on my head.
“He was screaming at me in Arabic, then he switched to French, now if I had replied to him in French, I would have been goosed, a dead duck. I was able to stall him to show him my badge with the shamrock on it: Irish. That cooled him, showed him we weren’t French. That was probably the most frightening - if a single shot was fired we were all toast. A hairy moment. I’m convinced that day the shamrock saved my life. Those things make you.”
More tours followed, Chad, Sarajevo, Angola...
Michael recalls the isolation of the north Angolan jungle as a peace monitor in one anecdote:
“You were living in a tent in a jungle, you relied on the helicopter coming every two weeks and if it didn’t come you were in trouble, in a number of cases it did not - two, three weeks without supplies. We had no troops, we were military monitors, seven of us of various nations. I was married and this was back in ‘91-’92, my wife, Bernadette, wrote me a letter - she’s in Ireland, I’m in Angola - and I remember she said ‘I need your opinion on this...’ and she got my reply two months later! That was the only communication; the post. It took a month to get out and a month to get back. That was the only contact with my wife and family [daughter Niamh and son Stephen, himself a captain]. Two months. It was to buy something, I think it was a lawnmower!.. and me in the jungle - it was the last thing on my mind.”
He returned to Dublin, was given responsibility for the defensive equipment budget [banking rearing its head]. More promotions followed, the overseas experience obviously beefing an impressive CV. And so to the little-known town of Mons, Belgium.
“I’m here with SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers Europe], the Nato military HQ is here, I liaise Ireland PFP [Partnership For Peace], a Nato programme. I am Ireland’s military representative to Nato but I work for the Irish ambassador.”
But what does it entail?
“Well, later today I will have operations briefing on two missions on our presence in Kosovo and Afghanistan, do up a report and send it to HQ, but there are a lot of informal meetings, various things to co-ordinate.”
Looking back, would he still recommend soldiering?
“Absolutely. It gives you a great basis for life - changes you so much in your attitude, particularly overseas. It’s a fantastic opportunity... but I’ve been very, very lucky.”
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