SIEGE OF JADOTVILLE

jadotvillefilm

Poster for The Siege of Jadotville Netflix film starring Jamie Dornan

Michael Fisher

The launch of the Netflix film “The Siege of Jadotville” last week marked the 55th anniversary of an important event in Irish military history. The bravery of the unit involved, ‘A’ company, 35th Battalion which was serving on United Nations peacekeeping duties in the Congo, has only now been acknowledged by the authorities.

Over the years, this group of men under the leadership of Commandant Patrick Quinlan was never given proper recognition for the courage they showed in Jadotville. The Irish soldiers resisted the secessionist Katangese forces for six days as they waited for reinforcements to reach them, but had to surrender after their supplies were exhausted. The men were then taken as prisoners of war for close to a month, but none of the 155-strong contingent was killed. 

Jadotville ceremony  Custume Barracks Athlone  (5).jpg

Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe TD accompanied by Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Mark Mellett presents the unit citation to Sergeant Harry Dixon 35th Infantry Battalion     Pic: Merrionstreet.ie

Last Saturday 17th September the Minister with Responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe T.D. hosted an event at Custume Barracks, Athlone marking the collective actions of the men of ‘A’ Company, 35th Infantry Battalion and its attachments at the Siege. The Minister presented a unit citation to the Company in recognition of their bravery and heroism. A copy of the citation was presented to each member or next-of-kin of the unit. This was the first time a unit citation had been awarded within the Irish Defence Forces. In marking this unique occasion, Minister Kehoe also commissioned an insignia recognising the professional performance of the men of ‘A’ company.

Speaking at the event the Minister said: “I am very pleased to present this Unit Citation which recognises the bravery and courage of ‘A’ Company during the Siege of Jadotville whilst cut-off from support and reinforcements. The United Nations Operation in Congo was the first peacekeeping mission in which significant numbers of Irish soldiers took part. A total of 6,000 Irish soldiers served in the Congo from 1960 until 1964 and I want to take the opportunity to recall the contribution of all who served in the various Irish contingents over the course of this long Mission.”

The Minister concluded by saying “Ireland can be justifiably proud of all our brave men and women who have contributed to the cause of peace and security. Our continued participation in United Nations missions illustrates the very positive and practical difference that small countries, like Ireland, can make in the world’s trouble spots.”

Jadotville was an event that occurred during Ireland’s peacekeeping mission in the Congo in September 1961. ‘A’ Company of the 35th Infantry Battalion took responsibility for the UN post at Jadotville on the 3rd of September. On the 9th of September they were surrounded by a large force supporting the breakaway province of Katanga. Early on the morning of the 13th September the Company came under attack from this force. Over the coming days until 17th September they endured almost continuous attacks from ground and air.

Despite their courageous resistance and the sustained efforts of 35 Infantry Battalion HQ to provide assistance, ‘A’ Company was taken into captivity on 17th September. By this time ‘A’ Company had no water and several men had been wounded. ‘A’ Company remained in captivity until finally released on 25th October 1961.

soldiers

Group of Jadotville Soldiers Picture: RTE

The men of ‘A’ Company were drawn mostly from Custume Barracks, Athlone and what was the Western Command. The Citation is as follows:-

UNIT CITATION AWARDED TO ‘A’ COMPANY, 35TH INFANTRY BATTALION

“This Citation recognises the leadership, courage, bravery and professional performance of “A” Company 35th Infantry Battalion and its attachments who, under challenging circumstances at Jadotville, while besieged by overwhelming numbers of Katanganese Gendarmerie and cut-off from support and reinforcements, did valiantly defend their position from the 13th September 1961 to 17th September 1961.”

IRISH JOURNALISTS VISIT THE SOLDIERS HELD PRISONER IN JADOTVILLE

My father the late Desmond Fisher was one of three leading Irish journalists who managed to visit the soldiers when they were held prisoners. He was accompanied on the trip by Raymond ‘Congo’ Smith from the Irish Independent and John Ross from RTE. In the accompanying article my father does not admit that he was the person who was driving the hired car that failed to stop at a gendarmerie checkpoint, but luckily they all survived to tell the tale. Nor does he mention what apparently became of the ballot papers that the journalists brought with them to hand out to the troops, who were experiencing a shortage of modern domestic essentials in their confinement. The story ends with my father’s memory of the soldiers cheering them after their one-hour visit and singing as the reporters departed: “It’s a long way to Tipperary…”

The Irish Press October 2nd 961 p.1

AN 80 M.P.H. DASH TO CAMP . . .AND THE PRISONERS CHEERED

I meet the men of Jadotville siege

(From Desmond Fisher)

JADOTVILLE, Sunday —- Today I became one of the first Irishmen since the fighting in Katanga to drive down the famous Jadotville Road, across the Lufira Bridge — which two relief columns could not pass — into the town itself to meet the 181 Irish prisoners there. The outstanding impression from our visit was that all the boys were in the best form and delighted to get the bag of mail we brought to them.

Special permission for our trip was given by President Tshombe. General Muke, head of the Katangese gendarmerie, provided an escort of a gendarmerie adjutant and a paracommando officer to ensure our safe conduct.

 Our trip had minor historic significance — with us we brought ballot papers which, if inevitable Congolese differences are straightened out in time, may enable the prisoners to vote in the General Election.

The ballot papers arrived by air from Leopoldville (a) half hour before we left. They were handed over to us at a heavily-guarded Indian roadblock outside Elizabethville by Lt.-Col. Jock Casserley, who was accompanied by Col. McNamee, O.C. of the 35th.

 The trip began at gendarmerie headquarters in Avenue de La Reine, Elizabethville, where we picked up the escort. For eighty miles we drove at eighty miles an hour in a large hired American car which, after crashing through a gendarmerie roadblock, we discovered had no brakes. By the time we had pulled up on the dead straight road the gendarmerie were out of sight and the paracommando with us laughed — and waved us on.

But we made sure to pull up at Lafira Bridge, where a strong guard and roadblocks were still maintained round the clock. We got out of the car to inspect the bridge, which has now gone into Irish history, on account of the two gallant rescue efforts to relieve the Jadotville garrison.

It was very easy to see why the rescue columns could not get through. Steep banks lead down to muddy waters and on both sides of the river is swampy ground. Upstream, about fifty yards, is the wreck of a concrete bridge blown up during the fighting.

Warning call

Clambering down the embankment to get a closer view of the bridge, we clutched for support to a strong yellow cable. Gendarmerie called out a warning that the cable was a trip-wire for the mined bridge.

On arrival at the sunbaked mining town of Jadotville, fuller of soldiers than of miners, and with boarded sidewalks closely

To page 3

The Jadotville story (p.3)

From page 1

resembling the scene for a Western film, we drove to gendarmerie headquarters. Here there was more red tape for an hour, while we drank ice-cold Simba beer and gave diplomatic pats to a naked toddler tumbling on the dusty floor of the guardroom.

In true Congolese manner the Colonel in charge demonstrated authority, but a hesitant mention of President Tshombe, whose picture hung on the wall (as on every wall) proved an open sesame.

On the steps

Finally we reached the camp, not the prison camp, but a hotel in the middle of the town which was ringed off with barbed wire and blocks across the road. Across the street from the hotel, sitting at tables in a pavement café, were Katangese gendarmerie, while others were at the road blocks.

There, sitting on the steps of the verandah of the hotel, were the Irish prisoners. When they saw us they could hardly believe we were Irish too. Then we greeted them and they were all around us, smiling and laughing.

Soon we were swapping news — we giving them the latest from the free world while they told us about their heroic four-day stand and how they felt about being prisoners. On one point they reassured us — and through us the people at home — that they are being treated very well indeed.

Best of food

They get the best of food. They also get a fry for breakfast and also have a light lunch and a good dinner. On the menu is meat, soup, cheese, vegetables, fruit and jam.

The gendarmerie do the shopping for them in the town. While it is true that they are confined to the hotel, the building is large and airy. They do physical exercises on the roof and “play games of cards, chess and so on”.

The chaplain, Father Fagan, said: “The boys also do a lot of praying”.

Co-operation

The uppermost thought in everyman’s mind is — “when will I be free?” We were able to assure them that the peace talks are going well and that there should be good news for them soon. Our own observation showed us what seemed to be genuine co-operation between the Irish prisoners and the gendarmerie.

The spirit of goodwill between the Katangans and the Irish prisoners was expressed to us in another way by our guard on the way home. “Irish, our friends,” he said. “During the fighting we could have wiped them out altogether but we bore them no (ill-will)”.

The only civilian in the camp is the interpreter with the 35th Battalion, Mike Nolan. He is a great help to the prisoners because he understands French, Swahili and other African dialects.

Heroic stand

The medical officer, Commandant J.J. Clune, said that he examined all the men and they were in the best of form. The wounded were not seriously injured and they were all responding well to treatment.

The men crowded round us for the full hour we were allowed to stay there, telling us about themselves, recording interviews and being photographed for papers, television and army records.

Of the many battles in which the Irish distinguished themselves in the Katanga fighting, none was more heroic in the face of overwhelming odds than the Jadotville garrison, and we can bear this out after our visit here.  (NOTE THIS PARAGRAPH IN PARTICULAR)

Most of the men were at Mass and those manning trenches found their positions there being rushed, and the shooting started.

4-day attacks

Commandant Quinlan thought at first that it was a local incident and told the men not to use maximum fire, though they could have mown down the gendarmerie who were moving up. For four days the Irish were under heavy attack.

First came heavy mortar barrage and Irish mortar replied with good effect. As positions spread out, Commandant Quinlan decided to withdraw after dark to stronger positions astride the main road about a mile from the town.

The men holding the forward positions fought with great courage under fire while new positions were being dug. All the troops fell back safely to the new strong positions, but they were completely surrounded on all sides. It is estimated that the gendarmerie had 3,000 in the area.

Jet attacks

The Irish were being fire at from the front, rear and sides. They had laid in water supplies when the fighting started but this became putrid. They could not leave the trenches during those four days of fierce fighting.

There were flies all over the place. The jet plane joined in the attacks and bombs fell very near the trenches where the Irish were. The jet also machine-gunned them. The Irish fired back with small arms and the jet did not come in as low afterwards.

More jet attacks followed on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday and there was also heavy mortar fire. Propaganda warfare too.

‘Indigestion’

A man purporting to be from the Red Cross rang up the Irish to say that tribesmen were coming in to attack them and would eat them. Commandant Quinlan replied “If you come and try and eat us, we will give you indigestion.”

Commandant Quinlan warned too that if there were any more mob attacks the Irish would mow them down mercilessly. Convoys were heard at night moving on to Lufira Bridge to meet the breakthrough attempt by the first relief column.

quinlan

Commandant Pat Quinlan, Commanding Officer ‘A’ Coy 35 Inf Bn

Commandant Quinlan told me of the ceasefire arranged on Saturday evening, a condition that the jet would be grounded and that the men would get water and hold their positions.

But the jet came over again on Sunday morning and the water was still not turned on. Commandant Quinlan protested about the jet and he was assured it would not happen again.

Delaying game

After the big breakthrough attempt at Lufira Bridge had been repulsed on Saturday — and Irish and Indians withdrew to Elizabethville — Katangans pulled back paracommando elite troops from the bridge to Jadotville for an all-out final attack on the Irish.

Gendarmeries were now infiltrating Irish positions on all sides and a big force was massed.

“My men were now utterly exhausted,” Commandant Quinlan said. On Sunday, he said, they played a delaying game, holding out for a ceasefire and hoping against hope that reinforcements would get through.

“When I finally realised there was no hope of relief and that if I continued the fight all my men would be massacred by vastly superior forces, I decided to save the lives of the men by parleying with Munongo, Minister of the Interior, who arrived in the late afternoon,” said Commandant Quinlan.

Signed terms

The terms signed by Commandant Quinlan were as follows “I, Commandant Patrick Quinlan, Officer Commanding Irish United Nations Troops in Jadotville, do hereby agree to the terms of surrender of Minister Munongo because the Irish force is here on a peaceful police role and any further action would result in the loss of African and Irish lives.

“I also wish to state that my troops fought only in self-defence having been fired on while attending Mass on the morning of 13th September 1961. It is also agreed that the Irish troops will have their arms stored.”

Thus ended the glorious stand which would otherwise have surely resulted in heavy loss of life on the Irish side.

As we left Jadotville after the short hour with the prisoners they gave us three rousing cheers and sang cheerfully, though rather wistfully, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

IN MEMORIAM

DSC_1186IN MEMORIAM DESMOND FISHER 1920-2014

The first anniversary of my father’s death on 30th December 2014 was marked with a Mass at the house in Dublin. To the right of the celebrant Fr Martin Murnaghan (a regular Christmas visitor over the years) was an empty chair with Dad’s photo and some candles. This is where he worked daily on his laptop and completed the manuscript for a book Stabat Mater, with his own translation of the original Latin poem. The book was published by Gracewing in May (£9.99) and copies can be obtained from them or via the family. IMG_20151231_105801

CONGO 1961: PADDY WALL HAS BUSY JOB

UN helmet of the type my father brought back to London after reporting from the Congo in 1961

UN helmet of the type my father brought back to London after reporting from the Congo in 1961

Paddy has busy job   Irish Press October 9th 1961

From DESMOND FISHER  Elizabethville, by air mail.

One of the busiest Irish soldiers in the Congo is Patrick Wall of Gregg, Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary. Paddy is official chauffeur to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien, the U.N. chief political officer in Katanga.

An expert driver, Paddy came to the Congo with the 35th Irish Batt. He was soon afterwards seconded to Dr. O’Brien as chauffeur. He finds his job supremely interesting. Sometimes it is a bit dangerous too. Once he was stoned in the car by himself.  (I trust you know what my father meant by that! — MF)

There is always too, the chance that someone will take a pot-shot at Dr. O’Brien. But Paddy is not worried. “It’s all in the day’s work”, he says.

Paddy lives at Dr O’Brien’s villa, Les Roches, on a hill on the outskirts of Elizabethville. It is guarded by a platoon of Irish troops with an armoured car.

Paddy is married and has four children, Geraldine (7); Patricia (6); Patrick (5) and Kieran (4).

Desmond Fisher report in The Irish Press October 9th 1961

Desmond Fisher report in The Irish Press October 9th 1961

IRISH CHAPLAIN IN CONGO 1961

Desmond Fisher report from the Congo 10th October 1961  The Irish Press

Desmond Fisher report from the Congo 10th October 1961 The Irish Press

IRISH AID IN HORROR CAMP  Chaplain Works for Balubas 

(From Desmond Fisher)   ELIZABETHVILE  (By Air Mail) —

The 40,000 Baluba men, women and children in the rag-and-cardboard refugee city in Elizabethville are ‘my children’ to Rev. Joseph Clarke, chaplain to the 35th Irish Battalion in the Congo.

Father Clarke is the friend, counsellor and refuge of the Balubas in all the terrible afflictions which are their lot.

Every morning, immediately after his Mass at 6:30 for the soldiers, Father Clarke sets out for the refugee camp near the Irish battalion headquarters. The camp chiefs wait for him and tell him their troubles — someone shot or hacked to pieces during the night; lack of food; danger from the Jeunesse Nationale Katanga, the teddy-boy youth movement which is terrorising the camp, and so on.

The chaplain moves round the different family groups in the camp speaking to them in his fluent French. He has organised the Irish section of the camp, where there are 5,000 families, into 14 groups. Each has its own administrative organisation which Father Clarke established. This administration supervises the daily distribution of food and settles disputes as to where the families can live.

Ordained in 1938, Father Clarke is an ‘old hand’ in Africa. He spent four years in Nigeria after his ordination before joining the Army as a chaplain. To him the African is a child, who will trust the European implicitly and will depend on him absolutely. This is fine until the African meets a white man who treats him badly or lets him down. Then he loses faith in all white men.

Katanga problem

In Katanga, there are more white men than in most parts of Africa; therefore the chances that the African will come up against a “bad white” are greater. Fot that reason, Father Clarke thinks, the African in Katanga has become a different sort of person. He is no longer simply a bush native, and yet a few years in a white-dominated city do not turn him into a civilised, democratically-minded person in our sense.

“You cannot take a native out of the bush, educate him for a few years and expect him to be like yourself”, says the chaplain.

As regards “his” refugee camp, Father Clarke says that the sooner it closes down the better. It is becoming a hiding-place for criminals, and a breeding place of violence and murder. Almost every night someone is killed in the camp and some horrible atrocities have come to light.

The least revolting of them is the killing of a Katangese native, the servant of a gendarme officer, whom the Balubas caught as he was passing their camp. He was found dead next morning with his hands and feet cut off: he had bled to death. The camp has also attracted the 5,000 unemployed Balubas in Elizabethville who have come in for free food and accommodation, such as it is.

Father Clarke fears two things. One is that the rains which are due shortly will wash away the flimsy shelters of the refugees and force them to break into the nearby villas vacated by white people. His other fear is that the Jeunesse youths will become the pawns of Communist-type agitators, who will use them to stir up trouble.

But, despite the dangers, Father Clarke continues to give most of his time and energies to helping the 40,000 Baluba people to whom he is “father”.      Oct 10 1961

NEW MANDATE FOR UN IN CONGO? (1961)

UNimagesFrom DESMOND FISHER  The Irish Press November 11th 1961

The United Nations Security Council is expected to meet next Tuesday to consider the burning question of the Congo. The main question before it will be the question of giving a new mandate to the U.N. political and military missions there.

African delegations who are pushing the request for the Security Council meeting are becoming increasingly anxious about the deteriorating position in the Congo and the growing complication of the political and military situation. Under the existing mandate the U.N. recognises the unity of the Congo, instructs its forces to secure the removal of the foreign mercenaries there and authorises the use of force, if necessary.    

The attack by the Central Government forces on Katanga has radically changed the situation. These troops, under Gen. Mobututu, the Leopoldville Commander, and Gen. Lundula, the commander of Gizenga’s Stanleyville force, are trying to end Katanga’s secession and bring the province under the Central Government.

But what is not clear at present is the part that the U.N. forces should play in this internal struggle. Should they assist the Central Government forces in ending Katanga’s secession? Or should they intervene between the two opposing forces in order to prevent bloodshed.

Many African delegations in the U.N. are in favour of using force to assist the Central Government efforts, but other delegations fear that this would be setting a dangerous precedent.

So far U.N. forces have not intervened in the Kasai fighting between the Central Government and Katangese troops. U.N. activity in the area has been limited to air patrol of the border area where the fighting took place.

Reports now reaching London now suggest, however, that U.N. planes were not in the air on the day of the clash between the two forces near Kanaima because fuel supplies had been stopped due to the arrest of two key oil company personnel. This gave the Katangans air superiority and their bombing and strafing completely disorganised the Mobutu troops.

Gen. McKeown, the U.N. Commander, who was recalled from his leave in Dublin, is at present visiting Luluaborg the staging point for the Central Government troops, with Mr. Rhiari, the U.N. negotiator. It is also reported that the U.N. is being pressed by the Central Government to take an active part in the struggle to end the Katanga secession.

During his recent visits to London and Dublin, Gen. McKeown was doubtful about the sufficiency of the present U.N. mandate to end the trouble in the Congo. His view is that as long as the foreign mercenaries give the Katangese forces the superiority over the Central Government troops, the situation in the Congo is likely to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, Belgium has refused to contribute any more money toward the U.N. Congo operation until the position there is clarified.

Announcing this decision which he said came into operation 14 days ago, M. Spaak, the Belgian Foreign Minister, said Belgium must not do anything to imply approval of U.N. actions in the Congo. He added that a number of Belgian Nationals had a right to compensation.

Desmond Fisher report from London in The Irish Press November 11th 1961

Desmond Fisher report from London in The Irish Press November 11th 1961

DAG HAMMARSKJöLD

The wreckage of Dag Hammarskjöld’s aircraft at Ndola on 19th September 1961. Photo: AP

The wreckage of Dag Hammarskjöld’s aircraft at Ndola on 19th September 1961. Photo: AP

Dag Hammarskjöld: evidence suggests UN chief’s plane was shot down — The Guardian

New information uncovered by a UN panel on the death of former secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld (aged 56) should be investigated to establish whether his plane was attacked just before it crashed in southern Africa, the UN chief said on Monday (July 6th). After receiving the report, the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said “a further inquiry or investigation would be necessary to finally establish the facts” surrounding the mysterious crash more than 50 years ago.

The panel “found new information, which it assessed as having moderate probative value, sufficient to further pursue aerial attack or other interference as a hypothesis of the possible cause of the crash”, said UN spokesman Farhan Haq. The answers may lie in classified documents from the United States and Britain that the panel was unable to consult, despite requests for access. Ban said he would follow up on the requests. 

Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General  Photo: UN

Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General Photo: UN

The UN’s second secretary-general, Hammarskjöld died when his plane crashed on 17 or 18 September 1961 near Ndola in Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia. The Swedish diplomat was on his way to negotiate a ceasefire for mining-rich Katanga province in what was the Republic of the Congo, which had proclaimed independence from Belgium.

The three-person panel spoke to witnesses in Zambia who testified that there was more than one aircraft in the air when the plane made its approach to Ndola, or that the plane was on fire before it hit the ground. These accounts seemed to corroborate information contained in a 2013 report by a separate commission that concluded that there was “convincing evidence” that the plane was shot down as it prepared to land.

A former US air force security officer, Paul Abram, told the panel that he heard transmissions about the shooting down of an aircraft near Congo while serving at a National Security Agency listening post in Greece. The panel said it could not authenticate Abram’s claims.

The US government wrote in a letter to the panel last month that a search had not revealed any documents on radio transmissions but added that other files classified as top secret from the National Security Agency would not be released. Among the new information uncovered by the panel was a declassified report from a senior British diplomat to a secret service agent, Neil Ritchie, who details how he helped the Katanga leader Moise Tshombe travel to Ndola for his meeting with Hammarskjöld.

The report did not mention the possible crash but “its existence and content serves as new information about the presence of the British intelligence agency in the area”, said the UN panel. The British government responded last month in a letter to the panel that it would not be able to provide more information on the case due to security concerns.

The UN General Assembly in late December adopted a resolution, drafted by Sweden, that called for the new investigation to finally shed light on the top diplomat’s death. Led by the Tanzanian prosecutor Mohamed Chande Othman, the panel also included Kerryn Macaulay of Australia and Henrik Larsen of Denmark.

This report is from The Guardian three weeks ago. Five years ago my late father, who was reporting for The Irish Press from the Congo at the time of the crash in September 1961, wrote this article about the event in which an Irish UN security guard (ex Garda) Frank Ievers was also killed:

Death of top UN official still shrouded in mystery

Secretary-general killed in suspicious plane crash en route to broker a ceasefire in the Congo, writes Desmond Fisher  

The late Desmond Fisher, former London Editor, The Irish Press  Photo:  © Michael Fisher

The late Desmond Fisher, former London Editor, The Irish Press Photo: © Michael Fisher

PUBLISHED  September 19th 2010  Sunday Independent

On this weekend 49 years ago, the world was shaken by news of a mysterious air crash in Africa. The bodies of 16 people were recovered from the wreck. Some had multiple bullet wounds in their heads and bodies. The airport’s handling of the pre-crash warnings was sub-standard. Other aircraft were seen in the area. Strange lights were reported over the airport. And a famous man, on a mission to prevent what might degenerate into a world war, was among the dead. It was September 18th, 1961. And the dead man was Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the United Nations. His death shocked the world. The previous afternoon, Hammarskjöld’s DC-6B plane had left Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo en route to Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He had arranged a meeting with Moise Tshombe, president of the rebel State of Katanga, which was now engaged in a war to become independent from the Congo.

Katangese soldiers were fighting UN peacekeeping forces sent in to prevent civil war. With the UK, the US and Belgium clandestinely helping the rebels, Russia making bellicose noises and a world war threatening, Hammarskjöld was trying to arrange a ceasefire.

In the early morning, the news came that his plane had crashed. At the time, I was in a crowded pressroom at UN HQ in Leopoldville. Senior UN officials and hardened war correspondents sobbed uncontrollably. Every one of them was of one mind. Hammarskjöld had been assassinated.

Ireland was deeply involved in the Congo crisis. Lt Gen Sean McKeown was in command of all UN peacekeeper troops there to support the government in its efforts to prevent Katanga from seceding. Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien was Hammarskjöld’s special representative in Katanga. A battalion of Irish soldiers was engaged in heavy fighting. Only three days earlier, Trooper Pat Mullins from Kilbehenny, Co Cork, was killed in an ambush. And 150 Irish soldiers were prisoners of the Katangese.

What happened to Hammarskjöld and 15 others is still disputed. Former US president Harry Truman said bluntly that he was killed. Allegations that his plane had been shot down, deliberately given wrong instructions, or sabotaged, were never proven.

Thirty-seven years after the crash, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission quoted recently discovered letters linking MI5, the CIA and the South African secret services with the crash, including the suggestion that a bomb was placed in the plane’s wheel bay to explode when the plane touched down. And as recently as 2005, a Norwegian soldier who was the first UN official to see Hammarskjöld’s dead body said it had a hole in the head that was air-brushed out of the post-mortem photos.

Hammarskjöld’s death was regarded as a major blow to the UN. But the moral force that is the organisation’s greatest weapon was greatly reinforced by what was seen as the assassination of a spiritual man who was regarded by some as the ‘secular Pope’.

Only (47 – incorrect) 56 when he died, Hammarskjöld came from a family with many generations of public service, his father having been prime minister of Sweden. Among his earliest decisions as secretary-general was to appoint only non-partisan and fair-minded officials to his 4,000 staff. His ultimate aim was to establish an independent UN force.

Hammarskjöld was a highly introspective man. He did not give interviews and I had to rely on the influence of Freddie Boland, that year’s president of the General Council, to arrange for me to see him. He did not invite me to sit and reacted animatedly only when I asked him how he rated Ireland’s contribution to the UN. He spoke highly of the way Ireland, as a non-aligned country, was able to act as an “honest broker” and help to solve many of the UN’s problems. And he praised genuinely and enthusiastically Ireland’s contribution to the UN’s mission to the Congo.

Hammarskjöld kept what he called his ‘journal’ — a combination of diary entries and spiritual thoughts cloaked in haiku-style poetry — published after his death as Markings. In it, he wrote: “Everything will be all right when people stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.”

He regarded his own writings as “negotiations with myself and with God”. One such aphorism gives an idea of his tortuous mind:

Tomorrow we shall meet

Death and I —

And he shall thrust his sword

Into one who is wide awake.

STABAT MATER: PATRICK COMERFORD

‘Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn,’ by Desmond Fisher, was launched in Donnybrook last week Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015

‘Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn,’ by Desmond Fisher, was launched in Donnybrook last week Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015

From a dissolute to a desolate life … a new look at the story of an old hymn

Patrick Comerford

Book launches are always a good opportunity to meet people with shared interests and stories.

Last week, it was a pleasure to be invited by fellow blogger Michael Fisher to the launch in O’Connell’s in Donnybrook of a new book by his late father Desmond Fisher, Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn.

The book was launched by former Irish Times colleague and former Senator John Horgan, who is also a former Press Ombudsman. As a young reporter, John Horgan was given a job at the Catholic Herald in London by the editor, Desmond Fisher, who also worked for the Irish Press.

The attendance at the book launch included Wesley Boyd, who has reviewed the book in the ‘Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times this morning [18 May 2015], and many former colleagues from, the world of journalism and broadcasting. But I was also there because of my theological and spiritual interests.

Stabat Mater is a much-loved Lenten hymn among English-speaking Roman Catholics, although it was once been banned by the Council of Trent and later by successive popes.

The title of this sorrowful hymn is an incipit of the first line, Stabat Mater Dolorosa (“The sorrowful mother stood”). The hymn meditates on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross. It has been set to music by many composers, including Palestrina, Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti and Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini, Dvořák, Karol Szymanowski, Poulenc and Arvo Pärt.

There are many variations in the translation from the original Latin. So, in this new book the late Desmond Fisher seeks to get back to the original meaning of the author who wroteStabat Mater 700 years ago. The hymn was well-known by the end of the 14th century. It was banned by the Council of Trent, but restored to the missal by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, and was assigned by Pope Pius X in 1913 to the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (15 September).

But who was the author? At times, the hymn has been attributed to a variety of sources, including popes, three Saints and a member of the laity who was jailed and excommunicated.

In this book, Desmond Fisher identifies Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) as the true author, and tells the story of his amazing life, from a dissolute to a disconsolate and desolate life. His privileged life came to end with the tragic death of his wife, and he eventually joined the Spirituali, an extreme, ascetic faction of Franciscans, before ending up in prison.

With a sympathetic and understanding approach, Desmond Fisher tells an amazing story of mediaeval extremism, but also provides a new translation of the poem, while adhering to the original metre and rhythm and re-presenting its emotions. He compares his own work with other well-known existing English versions – including those by the Irish poet Denis Florence McCarthy (1817-1882) and the English Anglican priest and hymn-writer Edward Caswall (1814-1878), who became a Roman Catholic – and tries to challenge long-accepted preconceptions.

This book was Desmond Fisher’s final achievement before he died on 30 December 2014 at the age of 94. In his final weeks, his manuscript was accepted by Gracewing.

As part of the pre-Reformation heritage of the undivided Church, it deserves to be better known among other traditions, including Anglicans. Even Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench omitted it from his Sacred Latin Poetry in 1874 because of what he saw as its Mariolatry. Hopefully, Desmond Fisher’s new book will help to redress this.

Stabat Mater

Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!

Quae mœrebat et dolebat, pia Mater,

dum videbat nati pœnas inclyti.

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?

Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?

Pro peccatis suæ gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.

Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.

Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam.

Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.

Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
pœnas mecum divide.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

Virgo virginum præclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.

Flammis ne urar succensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriæ.

Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animæ donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen.

● Desmond Fisher, Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn, Leominster: Gracewing, ISBN 978 085244 862 5, 176 pp, £9.99.