The Photography of Mike O'Neill ABIPP

Soldiers of Ulster

Soldiers of Ulster


This summer over twenty men of Ulster met at the Regional Training Centre (RTC) in Ballykinler.  The RTC would be their home for the next three weeks whilst while they undergo Basic Territorial Army Training.  TA training usually takes place over ten weekends but once a year the RTC sets up EXERCISE SHAMROCK CHALLENGE.

The men themselves came from all over the province and were aged between 17 and 43.  Not all of them would complete the training but one thing was certain, they were all there to give it to give it their best shot.

The trainees were fortunate though as the Veterans who came to train them were seasoned men of the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment (R IRISH) some of them fresh from Afghanistan and also an Regular Instructor from the Army Training Regiment Pirbright (ATR(P)).

The soldiers were aiming for the final goal of receiving their Caubeens marking them as Soldiers of 2 R IRISH before flying over to England to complete their Phase 2 training at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire.

During the training the Recruits were trained in a number of topics such as Basic Weapons, Field craft, First Aid, Map Reading and were also tested for their Fitness and Stamina.  The exercise also introduced the Recruits to soldiering outdoors on the expansive training area at Ballykinler with a number of overnight excursions to further practice the lessons being taught.

A large majority of those in training have a wish to deploy on operations in Afghanistan upon completion of their training.  Many of them were there for various financial reasons such as being made redundant or self-employment was not bringing in enough money so the TA is a good option to top up wages.

Recruit Jonny Wright, 22 from Portadown said of the experience “Shamrock Challenge for me was fantastic, it was the best experience I’ve ever had.  It’s a fantastic way to spend a summer time.  The friend’s that I have made have been loyal to me and they helped me out during the tasks that we had through our course.”

Recruit Dylan North who at 43 is the oldest of the group.  He has transferred from 253 (Irish) Medical Regiment based in Belfast after stating “I’m looking for a challenge like this and want to do it before I get too old”.

Following on from the Royal Irish recruits were those potential soldiers destined for other T.A units with Northern Ireland.  Many of which have provided large numbers of soldiers bound for Operational hotspots such as Afghanistan.  A full training team from ATR(P) came over to Ballykinler for the five week duration to turn the civilians into part time soldiers.

The group had a different demographic to their Infantry counterparts with an age range from 17 to 45 with a small number of females looking to make their mark.

One of the few females taking part was Recruit Toni Reid, 19 from Antrim.  Toni has dreams of one day being an Officer in the Army. “I came on Shamrock Challenge for the experience into army life as I eventually want to become an officer in the full time army.  The exercise has been challenging, you know, lack of sleep and getting up, having to do everything in the dark and organising yourself.  Also ‘buddying’ up with another person as well and trying to help them out and working together it’s been a struggle, but enjoyable at the end.  Especially the girls, because yo we were sharing a room together and doing everything together.”

The course was very much centred on Afghan based operations and even included Bayonet training which the females took part in.  Toni said afterwards “I did enjoy the bayonet training, just trying to get it into more of a realistic setting, getting the aggression going.  It was really good.”

Their final Passing Off Parade was a proud, joyous moment with families and friends coming to watch the parade held in Ballykinler, in shadow of the Mournes.  For the parade both courses came together to become soldiers together.

One of the youngest there was Recruit Stefan Mullen, 17 from Glengormley.  “The reason I came to do Shamrock Challenge was for the experience.  I wasn’t getting enough in mechanics, I’m studying mechanics in Tech but I’m not in a Mechanics Garage and I want a bit more experience so I joined 591 (TA) Royal Engineers in Bangor.

It has certainly been challenging but interesting and the friends I’ve made, most of them, they’re all good lads and I’ll keep in touch with a good lot of them.  I’d recommend it to anyone.”

For most of these men and women especially the younger ones, it was certainly a life changing experience, with many of them wishing to deploy in the next few years, they will certainly add their weight to the numbers of Ulster TA soldiers standing up to do their bit year after year alongside their full time counterparts.

I was there to capture their moments of pain, laughter and comradeship as they underwent one of the toughest tests of their lives.



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