The death of an Irish general during the Christmas period recalls an earlier bloody episode in the Middle East

General O’Callaghan knew that peace is a much harder struggle than war

Bill O’Callaghan was not the kind of general to fade away. And given the number of Christmas cards we exchanged over the years, I’d begun to think he was immortal. 

But just before the New Year, I stood in the storm-howling graveyard at Shanganah – Bray Head looming through the mist – and watched the kind of funeral that generals can only dream about: the tempest rippling down the lines of soldiers, a firing party to one side of the cemetery, the Last Post played against the wind, the sword on the coffin covered with the flowing Tricolour.

For Bill O’Callaghan was an Irish soldier. His comrades in the Middle East called him “the Bull” – in Lebanon, he was known as “the Fox” because he listened to the Lebanese as well as his own soldiers – and in 1982 he was probably the best-known general in the whole world. As force commander of United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon (Unifil), his few thousand UN soldiers held the line between Palestinian guerrillas and a 40,000-strong Israeli army about to pour over the Lebanese border – with America’s permission, of course.

How would he prevent the Israelis pushing through the UN lines, I asked him a few days before they invaded?  By “the force of international opinion”, O’Callaghan boldly replied. He knew this wasn’t true.  His soldiers were told to do the best they could if they saw the tanks coming – the Norwegians headed for their bunkers, the Nepalese blocked the road below Beaufort Castle for two days – but O’Callaghan wanted us to know that the UN didn’t have to approve of Israel’s actions as cravenly as Washington did. Even if he couldn’t stop the Israeli invasion.

It was O’Callaghan, after all, who had arranged an unprecedented ceasefire along the Lebanese-Israeli border – between Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin – in 1981. Israel broke the truce a year later after a Palestinian gunman working for Iraqi president Saddam Hussein tried to kill the Israeli ambassador in London – with the sole intention of provoking the invasion. Arafat was not involved. The Israelis obliged Saddam and stormed into Lebanon to defeat “terror” – an operation which lost any moral authority when Israel’s Christian allies massacred up to 1,700 civilians in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila.

The Israelis did their best to malign the Irish general. They claimed he made racist remarks about his Ghanaian predecessor – a lie for which O’Callaghan publicly rebuked them.  When Israeli artillery killed two Nigerian peacekeepers, O’Callaghan denounced the murders as “barbaric”. Not only did he hold down his job for more than five years, he was then given command of the UN’s truce supervisors in the Middle East. Yet what made him an historic figure was something more intangible.

With no military family – his dad was a gardener in north Cork – O’Callaghan joined the Irish army in 1939 at the age of 17 to defend his neutral country from British or German invasion. Ireland’s non-belligerence is still derided, but if President de Valera had joined the Allies, he would have faced civil war from some who fought the British in the Independence War. Two British generals who achieved both notoriety and fame in the Second World War –  Arthur Percival, who surrendered Singapore, and Bernard Montgomery, who would never surrender – had earlier in their military careers fought the IRA in Cork – O’Callaghan’s county.

He was a UN officer in Cyprus and once described to me how two Eoka men had walked into a Nicosia bar to assassinate their enemies.  

“Bang-bang, very professional killing,” he said, and I suddenly realised that O’Callaghan would have made a loyal comrade of another ruthless man, Michael Collins. But what struck me in Lebanon was the support he received from a particularly cerebral figure at UN headquarters, the Undersecretary-General Brian Urquhart. But Urquhart was a Brit who fought in the Second World War. He is better known as the young paratroop major who failed to stop the British 1st Airborne Division’s drop at Arnhem – because aerial reconnaissance and Dutch intelligence proved that German reserves were waiting there. In that great film of imperial self-doubt, A Bridge Too Far, Urquhart was “Major Morton”.

And so it came to pass that the “war soldier” and the “neutral soldier” stood together as peacemakers. Both had enormous respect for each other and both knew that peace was a much harder struggle than war. Look at Syria. Perhaps that is the lesson of our age – if we still believe in the UN. The neutral Irish soldier on the front line – he could outfox Arafat and used his cynical humour on Israeli generals – needed the British veteran in New York to shield him from Israeli fury and UN cowardice.

It wasn’t all clear-cut. Under O’Callaghan’s command, the UN permitted Israeli agents to pass freely through the UN’s own checkpoints – after which Shin Bet sometimes murdered their Arab opponents. It was a serious lapse in a brave mission – which only ended when Israel finally retreated out of Lebanon in 2000, by which time O’Callaghan was long retired. The man who failed to stop Israel but kept the faith, died on what in Ireland is Saint Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day in Britain – and though half the young Irish soldiers parading at his funeral were UN Lebanon veterans, none would have ever met him. He was 93.  Urquhart, the man who failed to stop Arnhem, still lives on in New York, at the glorious age of 96.