A lifetime of service

TWO centuries, six decades, three Commands. A summation of Joe Brennan’s career in the Reserve Defence Forces (formerly FCA).

TWO centuries, six decades, three Commands. A summation of Joe Brennan’s career in the Reserve Defence Forces (formerly FCA).

During his 43 years’ service, the Portlaoise man helped guard the Pope, took part in numerous military exercises and ceremonies, rose from the ranks to Company Sergeant and was an extra in what some regard as one of the greatest war films ever made, Saving Private Ryan.

Meanwhile, of course, he had to look after the day job. He was a tailor. Among his large clientele were many Gardai who, thanks to his skill, wore smart, well-fitted uniforms.

“I was sorry to leave the Defence Forces,” admits youthful-looking Joe. “For me it was the end of an era. I had to retire because I had reached the age limit.”

His comrades didn’t allow him to fade away, as old soldiers are supposed to do. They accorded him a Stand Down parade at B Company HQ in Portlaoise, at which he took the salute.

“It was a wonderful day,” Joe enthuses. Current and retired Defence Force members, reservists and regulars, from Laois, Carlow, Wexford and Killkenny, about 100 in all, showed their appreciation of his devotion to duty. There, too, was his family.

And Company Acting OC Captain John Lalor, representing officers, NCOs and Privates, presented him with a watch as a memento of the occasion.

A son of the late John (Barney) and Olive Brennan and one of eight children, Joe resides with his brother John at Dr Murphy Place in Portlaoise. He remembers exactly the date he enlisted in E Company of the 9th Battalion, FCA, then in the Curragh Command, later in the Eastern Command--February 2, 1969. He was 17. So he has soldiered in the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and in the 2000s and 2010s.

Following the changeover from the FCA to the Reserve Defence Forces in 2005, E Company became B Company of the 33rd Infantry Battalion. It’s in the Southern Command.

The OC in 1969 was Portlaoise man Commandant Jim O’Neill. The regular staff included driver Jack Doyle, QMS Billy Lamb and Asst QMS Billy Roche. Company HQ at that stage was a hut in the Barrack Field, famous as a venue for carnivals and fetes and now the location of the Dept of Agriculture offices.

The HQ eventually moved to its present site at the rear of the Garda Station.

Joe recalls many of his comrades from that era--Pat and Michael Fitzsimons, Frank, Jerry and Willie Farrell, Dinny and Paddy Saunders, Michael and Maurice Kerry...the list goes on. Serving also were Michael and John Brennan, Joe’s brothers.

All were issued with .303 Lee Enfield rifles and, amazingly, were allowed to take them home, albeit without ammunition. The eruption of the northern troubles put a stop to that practice. The FN automatic replaced the Lee Enfield. The rifle now in use is the Styer.

Joe could be said to have soldiering in his blood. His uncles, John, Dan and Joe Lalor, from Abbeyleix, were in F Company of the Local Defence Force (LDF), forerunner of the FCA.

In 1982, Joe was promoted to Corporal, in 1988 to Sergeant, and in 2008 to Company Sergeant.

As such, he was in charge of all NCOs in the Company and had to look after logistics when on duty at operations like commissioning ceremonies on the Curragh and training in the Glen of Imall.

A specialist in drill, he participated in numerous military courses and Gaisce projects, represented his unit in shooting competitions and missed only one annual summer camp during his career. He devoted many hours to local duties.

St Patrick’s Day and Easter parades---Joe was in them all. During Pope John Paul’s visit in 1979, he was on crowd control duty in Dublin.

It was in 1998, in Wexford, that he was an extra in Saving Private Ryan, the Second World War epic starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Speilberg. Interestingly, an earlier generation of Laois FCA men also appeared in a great film, The Blue Max, set in The First World War.

“Men” was the operative word then. Women now also serve in the Reserve Defences Forces, a change that came about during Joe’s career. At present, though, there is a moratorium on recruitment, he notes.

He says: “I hope that changes shortly. The Defence Forces are great training for youngsters, a great way of giving a sense of discipline. I think there should be national service.”

So, Company Sergeant Joe Brennan has taken his final salute.

He’s keeping busy, though. His interests include church activities and gardening.