FOR two West Cork families, this Christmas Day will be tinged with a little loneliness, as their loved ones will be far away.
While back in Ireland, their families will be unwrapping presents, Cmdt Cathal Keohane from Skibbereen and Lt Cian Clancy from Clonakilty will be preparing for another day on the frontlines in South Lebanon.
The two men are part of the Irish contingent who are patrolling the peace line between Israel and Lebanon.
‘The situation can change out here very quickly,’ Cmdt Keohane told The Southern Star. ‘We patrol the frontline seven days a week, 24 hours a day, because it doesn’t take a lot for an incident to flare up and get out of control.’
The Southern Star spoke with Cathal on the day that US President Trump declared that the USA would recognise Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel, a decision that had already changed the already tense atmosphere along the peace line.
‘We have definitely noted a change while out on patrol,’ Cathal said. ‘But we are trained and ready to react to any and all situations.’
Cathal, who is spending Christmas with 336 Defence Forces personal from 18 counties at At-Tiri in South Lebanon, grew up in Skibbereen, on the Cork Road, where his parents Mary and Charles still live, and he is no stranger to spending Christmas Day on duty overseas.
‘This is my sixth tour overseas,’ said Cathal, who has a new baby daughter, Réailtín, waiting at home with her three sisters, Aoibhinn (8), Sadhbh (6) and Doireann (3), along with their mother Connie.
‘We are lucky that we can contact home regularly on Skype so that I can see the family and we can share in what’s going on back in Cork.’
Serving with Cmdt Keohane and the 111 Infantry Battalion, on his second tour in South Lebanon, is Clonakilty native Lt Cian Clancy.
‘We have good access to wi-fi here in the camp, so we’ll get to see how Christmas Day is going at home,’ Cian said. ‘When I’m at home I’m based at Collins Barracks in Cork city but I get home to see my parents, Ursula and Thomas often.’
While the mission goes on day and night, with no exception for Christmas Day, Cathal and Cian will have time to relax and join in the celebration and the festive season with the men and women under their command.
‘It’s tradition that the officers serve the men their Christmas dinner,’ Cathal said.
‘The cooks here are fantastic and we’ll have turkey and all the usual Christmas treats and the decorations are already up.’
Cian added: ‘There’s talk of a Poc Fada competition here on Christmas Day and we’ll all be taking part in The Goal Mile to raise funds and awareness for Goal and the work they do.
‘While some of the personnel will be on duty, everybody will get a chance to celebrate and enjoy their Christmas Day here in South Lebanon.’
However, Cmdt Keohane is under strict orders from his ‘high command’ back home. Orders that cannot, under any circumstances, be disobeyed.
‘I have to be home no later than the second week in June for a very special occasion,’ Cathal said. ‘We have a Communion on May 19th, so I have to be home by then … or else!’
The 111th Battalion will return home in May 2018 and both men are looking forward to spending plenty of time afterwards with their families in West Cork.
‘We’ll all head down for a few days to visit with the parents and to catch up on what’s going on in Skibb,’ Cathal said.
‘But until then I would like to send Christmas wishes to the Keohane family and everyone in Skibbereen, especially everyone at O’Donovan Rossa’s.’
Cian said: ‘I’ll be down to Clon as soon as I get home and we all get some leave.
‘Best wishes to my parents and my sister Maeve in Kent and a Happy Christmas to all in Clonakilty and the Clonakilty RFC.’