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O'Keeffe Clan

Gathering and Rally

9, 10 and 11 Sept 2016

guided tours, lectures

historical and genealogical exhibitions

cultural and musical events,

buffet banquet Saturday evening
Padraig O'Keeffe - Hidden Soldier

Hidden Soldier, Padraig O’Keeffe’s parents , grandparents and great grandparents all hail from Duhallow.
Padraig O’Keeffe is a native of Cobh, Co. Cork. His late mother, Eileen O’Keeffe (nee O’Connor) hailed from Knockavoreen, Kiskeam, Mallow , Co. Cork and his late father Denis O’Keeffe hailed from Drominarigle,
Newmarket, Co. Cork.
Padraig is presently living in Malta while his two sisters Brid and Caitriona still live in Cobh with their families. Padraig has had a very eventful life so far and his story is told very openly and honestly in the book entitled:

HIDDEN SOLDIER

AN IRISH LEGIONNAIRE’S WARS FROM BOSNIA TO IRAQ

 Padraig O’Keeffe with Ralph Riegel

An amazing story of a young man driven by adrenalin of the most intense kind, who has cheated death on more than one occasion.
O’Keeffe joined the elite and secretive French Foreign Legion at the age of twenty, seeking a challenge that would absorb his interests and intensity. He tells of the extreme physical and mental training that raw recruits are put through, and shows how a true Legionnaire is forged - for life. Having served in Cambodia and Bosnia, he returned to civilian life - but his need for intense excitement and extreme danger drove him back to the military lifestyle he knew and loved. Using his Legion training, he became a “hidden soldier” by opting for security missions in Iraq and Haiti.
In Iraq he almost lost his life and was the sole survivor of an ambush in no-man’s-land between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, the most dangerous place on earth.

           (Taken from book cover, Hidden Soldier, The O’Brien Press )

The following interview with Ciara Dwyer is taken from The Irish Independent, dated October 28th, 2007

The Irish Legionnaire
Padraig O'Keeffe never took the easy option as a child so there was a certain inevitability about his decision to join the French Foreign Legion. But its brutal regime now helps him cope with the horrors of Iraq. On the eve of his return to face more mayhem in the Middle East, he talks to Ciara Dwyer

When Padraig O'Keeffe was a young boy at boarding school, his class was scheduled to have swimming lessons. He didn't know how to swim, but the idea of hanging around with the b"I climbed up to the diving board and plunged straight into the deep end. I went back up again and did it five times. "Then I was swimming," he says.

This is indicative of O'Keeffe's life story; forever impatient with basic lessons, when he could be doing the difficult thing straight away. Cobh-born Padraig O'Keeffe has always been an extremist.

At the age of 20, he read a book about the French Foreign Legion and that was it. His destiny was written.

Dissatisfied with working split shifts as a chef in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan, he handed in his notice (immediately after he'd read the book), got a lift to Dublin and bought a one-way ticket to Marseille. He was joining the French Foreign Legion and nothing was going to stop him.

The French Foreign Legion is an integral part of the French army. It serves France yet its volunteers are made up of any nationality, race or creed. Some men join because they are running away from something and they want to disappear. When they sign up, they are allowed to change their identity. But it is a rather drastic way of escaping, for it is one of the toughest army units in the world, renowned for its elite fighting force. It demands huge mental and physical strength.

Padraig O'Keeffe felt that he was made of such mettle.

"The second I picked up that book, I knew where I was going," he says. "It was in me already and I needed to get it out. I brought a Cork football jersey, a shaving kit and 20 quid and that was it. The way I felt on the plane, I could have been going on holidays. I didn't have any jitters."

O'Keeffe didn't tell anyone where he was heading -- he didn't want to be talked out of it. Although he had trained as a chef, living the army life was something he had dreamt about for years.

Padraig had already tried to get into other armies. When he did an interview for the Irish army, he was told that the only way he would get in was as a cook.

"I was told that I didn't have what it takes to be a soldier. I walked out of the barracks and thought -- ''that f**ker has just ruined my life.''

Later on, Padraig tried different armies -- he needed a sponsor to join the US Marine Corps and the Spanish Foreign Legion only took Spaniards. He wasn't keen on joining the British Army as back in the Eighties relations between Britain and Ireland weren't good.

"The only place that could give me what I wanted out of life was the French Foreign Legion and that's where I ended up."

Padraig tells his tale in the book Hidden Soldier, with journalist Ralph Riegel. In riveting detail, it explains how an ordinary lad from Cork -- the son of a Garda and a nurse -- headed off to join the Legion. When he finished his training, he came fifth in his class; then he went on to become a corporal. The book is a terrific read and gives great insight into Legion life. He took a taxi from the station, simply saying "Foreign Legion." The kindly taxi driver advised him that it wouldn't be a good idea if he arrived at the barracks stepping out of a taxi. He stopped the car 100 metres away and let O'Keeffe walk the final distance. Once inside, Padraig was grilled rigorously (the interrogation has the nickname "Gestapo"). They want to know about your past and why you want to join. They were astounded that Padraig only had a one-way ticket. He told them that he didn't need a return ticket, as he was determined to stay. (He left out the fact that he couldn't afford a return ticket.)

"If you bullsh*t any part of your life at all, it's not a good way to start. You're going to pay for that somewhere along the line. You don't need that. "Padraig passed the interviews, the medicals, got his hair shaved and within four weeks he was on his way to Castel, the training depot. He chose to keep his identity. "The minute I got into the Legion, I felt like I was home. "It didn't take long for the training to knock his cocky attitude out of him. "In civvy street, I would have been a bit of a smart-ass but in the Legion it's just a question of taking it. You keep your mouth shout and you obey orders, no matter what. "He elaborates on it in Hidden Soldier. "Recruits had teeth knocked out, went on marches black and blue from beatings and were usually cold, hungry and exhausted. But slowly we began to adjust to the Legion way of life. "He talks of "suffering beyond the point of endurance" but rather than moaning about it, he is ecstatic. "Despite the danger and the strict training regime, life in the Legion was all that I had dreamed about and more. "Although he still remembers the pain. "They like to keep you in a half pissed off, half angry state. And they do everything the hard way. If you're walking down the hill, they make you walk slower than normal -- it kills your knees. It's silly sh*t but there's a point to it. Why do things the easy way when we're so used to doing it the hard way? Then when you go into a hostile environment, it's easier than being in the barracks. We were hardened."

Padraig says that joining the Legion was about "running towards something, rather than running away from something" but I find it strange that it took him three months before he wrote to his parents. This, he says, is because he wanted to immerse himself in the Legion. His training took four months, during which time he found great camaraderie. He enjoyed some of the Legionnaire traditions -- like when they got paid every month, the money was put in their cap and they'd put it on. After six months, he got his first posting overseas, in Cambodia. "In the beginning, there was a huge buzz when you were training on a firing range but it's a different thing when you go to some of the places. The people are suffering and they don't need you to act the ass-hole. With the rifle you're carrying, you have the means to end life, so you don't take it lightly. "In Cambodia, Padraig worked with the engineering section -- defusing and removing landmines. After that he was sent to Bosnia, twice. He came across horrific scenes in Sarajevo -- helpless orphans and people reduced to living like animals. As it says in the book, "Sarajevo seemed to suck the life out of you. It seemed to be a magnet for the very worst in human behaviour."

Padraig spent five years in the French Foreign Legion. He left it because he felt that it had changed and he became disillusioned. But he walked away with a heavy heart. "I didn't leave the Legion, the Legion left me. "He returned to Cork and for eight years he tried his hand at living a civilian life. He worked as a bricklayer's mate, did some security guard work and he tried to set up a dog-training business. None of these worked out. After his military life, he couldn't adjust to humdrum reality.

Then he got a call to do some security work in Iraq; he was only too happy to be off, using his soldiering expertise. Working as a private security contractor would mean that he wouldn't have the back- up of the Legion or any army. But the minute he got off the plane, he felt alive again. In this new line of work, Padraig went to Basra and Baghdad, where he nearly lost his life. "I was sure I was going to be killed in that ambush. There is a fear aspect to it but there's also a willingness to live and a readiness to die. I know it sounds off the wall, but, yeah, I'm good to go ... I'm ready to die. I believe that the only honourable death in ambush is if you're protecting a life. My respect for life is immense."

Padraig has seen some of his friends shot dead and he has killed people himself. It may have been in the line of duty but it takes its toll. As he says in the book, "Yes, I have shot people. And, yes, I have thought about it afterwards. But what has helped me to square it with myself has been the fact that, in every single case, if I hadn't fired those shots the person would have killed me, one of my mates or one of the people I was charged to protect. It's as simple as that. I have never deliberately gone out of my way to harm anyone. If the convoys I protect aren't fired upon, then I keep my weapon lowered. If I can avoid a confrontation, believe me that is the route I choose to take. As a security contractor, I will take boredom over confrontation every day of the week. But I won't ignore the duty of care I have to the people I protect. If you try to kill them, well, you'll have to kill me first."

Last year, he decided to take 12 months off so he could stay at home in Cork and catch up on ordinary living. On the day I meet him -- it is his 37th birthday -- he tells me that hisyear of going on the lash is almost over. Soon he will be off again on some new mission.Will he continue to live this way of life forever? "I'm going to walk away from this sort of life eventually, but right now there's nothing in civvy street which would make me stay. As a young lad, I may have started off all gung-ho, but nowadays most of my work is about protecting people's lives. "But what about his life? Apart from a worried family in Cork and friends, he doesn't seem to have room for a personal life. He concedes that this is true, then tells me that he has chosen to live like this. "I love doing what I do. I don't see why I should sit here and expect somebody else to do it, when I have all the abilities. "Soon he will be gone, back into the thick of ambush. The hidden soldier from Cobh dives into deep waters once more.

'Hidden Soldier -- An Irish Legionnaire's Wars from Bosnia to Iraq,' by Padraig O' Keeffe with Ralph Riegel is published by O'Brien Press.