Annual parade marks start of busy year for Abbots Croft soldiers

Rangers Wesley McClure (left) and Graham Crooks are looking forward to a busy 12 months with '2 Royal Irish'. INNT 12-030-FP
Rangers Wesley McClure (left) and Graham Crooks are looking forward to a busy 12 months with '2 Royal Irish'. INNT 12-030-FP

MORE than 200 people gathered at the Abbots Croft Territorial Army (TA) base at Rushpark on Saturday (March 17) for the Royal Irish Regiment’s annual St Patrick’s Day parade.

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion RIR were joined by family and friends for the event, which included the traditional presentation of the shamrock, a parade and family fun day.

Saturday’s celebration was attended by a number of guests, including North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds and Newtownabbey Mayor Billy Webb, as well as cadets and members of the Old Comrades Associations.

During the event, alderman Webb presented each of the soldiers with shamrocks to wear in their cap - a tradition which dates back to 1900 when Queen Victoria decreed that her Irish soldiers should be recognised for their gallantry during the Boer War.

More than a century on, the soldiers of the last remaining Irish infantry regiment are still fighting bravely for Queen and country, albeit in a very different conflict. And for the men and women of the 2nd Battalion RIR it promises to be an important and busy year ahead.

Next month more than 100 personnel will ship out to Cyprus for a ‘battle camp’ exercise, around 80 soldiers will be tasked with defence and security duties during the Olympic Games in London, and ‘2 Royal Irish’ will be preparing for deployment to Afghanistan in March 2013.

Two of those looking forward to the coming months are Ranger Wesley McClure from New Mossley and Ranger Graham Crooks from Ballyduff.

Ranger McClure, an unemployed lorry driver, has been in the TA for five years, and during that time he has visited many different places on training camps and exercises, including Cyprus, France and Spain. He’s also completed further training and qualifications and is hoping for promotion to Lance Corporal.

The 45-year-old father-of-five joked that he had decided to join up in the midst of “a mid-life crisis”. But it’s a decision he certainly doesn’t regret.

“You get to go to all sorts of different places and learn different things. You also get to learn more about yourself and how you cope in certain situations when you’re taken out of your comfort zone and when you’re under pressure. It’s a real challenge and the training can be tough, but there’s great camaraderie and the regiment has a great history. You get to meet all different people from up and down the country and we’re like a big family,” he told the Times.

Ranger Crooks, an unemployed scaffolder, joined up two-and-a-half years ago after calling into the Abbots Croft base to find out more about what the TA’s all about. During that time he has enjoyed learning new skills in a variety of disciplines, including weapon systems, battlefield first aid, mountain survival and adventure training.

Having recently spent seven weeks in Kenya on exercise with the regular Army, the 32-year-old father-of-one describes the TA as “a good life and good craic.”

Full story and more pics in this week’s Times...