From Aughakine to Dinant via Normandy

Frank Joe Sheridan is arguably one of the most colourful characters ever to have emerged from North Longford. He also has a remarkable life story to relate with the highlights including a near death experience during the second World War and a pioneering career in business subsequently.

Coming into the world on the 9th April , 1920 at the height of the War of Independence, Frank Joe Sheridan’s life was always going to be dramatic.

Born in Aughakine, Aughnacliffe, the youngest of seven children, Franks mother tragically died three days after giving birth. However, little Frank Joe was not short of adult support; General Sean McEoin, who was using the Sheridan home as a safe-house from the British at the time, was Frank-Joe’s godfather when he was baptised, days later, and he also had two very supportive aunts who also looked after him as a young boy.

For a brief period, in his very early years, he went to stay with one of these aunts, Mary Reilly, in Granard, and went to school in Springtown, however, after this brief sojourn, he went back to Aughakine to his father, who owned a “medium-sized” farm, and also worked as a blacksmith, carpenter and wheelwright.

Frank Joe’s education continued at Aughnacliffe NS, where he loved to play football “at the back of Whittle’s, as we used to say around here, because we had no proper pitch in Colmcille at the time”.
At this stage, the primary school hadn’t been amalgamated, with the boys and girls still attending separate buildings, and Frank recounts how he “loved when it was amalgamated. In fact, everyone did!”.

Indeed, he says, overall, his memories of these days are very fond, even of his teachers, Master Fitzpatrick ( or “Fitch” , as he was referred to) Mrs O’Reilly, who “all Colmcille people, will know was Phil (the Rock) Reilly’s mother”, and Violet Doyle.

One of Frank’s memories of this time is being brought out by Miss Doyle who pointed at an airplane in the sky and said, in irish “ Is eitlean é”.

Indeed, whilst that may have been the first time Frank saw an aircraft at first hand, it certainly would not be the last!

After this, Frank spent a brief period in the Latin School in Moyne, but his possible path to the priesthood was thwarted by the “girl’s bike” he had to cycle there on. He admits, “I could never see myself as the Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnois”, although he recalls that a fellow student, Francis Ginty, who owned a “Raleigh” went on to become a Bishop in London, and , years later, married himself and his wife, Mairin at the Sacred House Church in Hampstead!.

However, a bike did feature in what would become his next major career move. At fifteen Frank Joe wanted to start earning a wage but unfortunately times were tough in Longford, and there was little work in the neighbourhood.

Frank Joe remembers seeing “ posters in the old Post” recruiting volunteers for the new army that De Valera had just started up - Volunteer Force.

He and five other young lads from Aughakine all cycled into Granard on an Ash Wednesday “with the sign of the cross sill emblazoned on our foreheads”, as Frank recalls. It was some sight with three of the lads cycling the bikes and the other three on the bars.

There, he was accepted into the army, and then spent the next year travelling and training, spending most of the time in Athlone, but also travelling to Finner Camp in Donegal and The Curragh. However, after about 12 months, a lot of the Volunteer Force were let go by De Valera (his feared Coup d’Etat had not taken place), and so it was time for Frank Joe to decide what the next move should be. Of the six young boys who had cycled into Granard the fateful day, three went to America and three went to the British Army. Frank fell into this latter group.

Promoted to Lance Sergeant because of his military training in Ireland, Frank Joe joined the Royal Engineers, who were stationed in Chatham. This decision was actually taken by the British army themselves who, on hearing that Frank’s father had been a wheelwright and blacksmith, decided that this was the regiment for him!

In 1937, he was posted to Floriane, in Malta where he spent four and half years and got to see quite a lot of the Mediterranean. Much of this time was spent inspecting and repairing fortifications, from Gibraltar to the Suez Canal.

About two months in, he took three months leave, which he describes as “the best holiday of my life”, travelling around all of Ireland with some of his army friends. But then, after Russia signed the non-aggressionpact with Germany in 1939, all leave was cancelled and Frank Joe received a telegram ordering him to report back to Chatham.

Apart from anything else, this interfered with some of this romantic plans; he had intending to return to Malta via Paris and meet up with a sweetheart en route. She was a Gowna girl studying in the Sorbonne. Alas, the meeting had to be cancelled, and Frank says that the young woman subsequently went on to become a nun!

Quite a different future lay in wait for Frank Joe.

“ Our war started in 1940’ he says, when Italy joined the war and “Malta was bombed to blazes”.
But the real fighting started when the siege finished in June 1942, and Frank Joe was posted to North Africa where the famous German Erwin Rommell had much recent success.

His first land battle was the, now famous, Battle of El Alemain.

He then went to the island of Terceia, one of the Azures, where there was “no danger of shooting because it was owned by Portugal”. But this reasonably pleasant period, where he worked hard, but at least wasn’t in much danger, ended after six months, and he was sent to Bulford Camp on the Salisbury Plains, and home of the First Allied Airbourne Army.

The Greek Island of Crete had been taken by German Paratroopers in a matter of hours a year previous to this, and Churchill wanted to ensure that Britain would have a similarly professional division.

Frank Joe was asked to join ( although by the sounds of things, he didn’t have much choice!) the Royal Engineers Airborne Division, and his training began at Ringway Airport, Manchester.

This consisted of eight “jumps”, three from balloons and the rest of them from fast planes. “I didn’t like the balloons so much, but I didn’t mind the airplane jumps”, Frank recalls. Preferences aside, he passed with flying colours, and was soon donning the “red beret”. Once you had that on, “everyone made room for you”, he says happily. He even went on to Wycoming in the US in 1943 to train “the Yanks”.

And what followed is what Frank Joe describes as the “real War”, when he and the 591 Parachute Squadron, of which he was a member, landed in Normandy, in order to “secure the left flank for the land and sea forces”.

He describes his task as “silent fighting patrol”, done under cover of darkness, and depending for its success on silence and secrecy. He recalls that his squadron had to “take a bridge halfway to Caen”, a major town in the area, and secure the way for the allies to liberate another town, Ranville.

One can’t even imagine what these men went through. “We had to crawl up silently, sometimes in water, and dispatch the defenders of the bridge”. The word “dispatch’ suggest something simple and sterile, but presumably the work was anything but.

However, the trojan effort put in by Frank and his squadrom on the night of the 5th of June 1944, was a great help for the Allies who were landing, and Frank describes the 6th June as “our glory day, when the Allies liberated Ranville, and from there went on to take Caen”.

He recalls “ the girls who entertained us with champagne!”, and the general excitement that could be felt among the soldiers and the liberated French.

Frank Joe also recorded similar successes in the Ardennes region of France, when, on Christmas Day 1944, orders were given to defend the city of Dinant; and on the German/Dutch border where Frank and fifty of his men had to do secret reconnaissance work.

But it was the 24th March 1945 that was possibly the single most influential day, from a personal point of view, on Frank’s own military career.

Frank was due to jump into enemy territory in Germany where troops were drafted into stop German re-inforcements coming up the Rhine. He was just 16 days away from his 25th birthday; the irony being, if he had been 25 he would have been too old to jump.

In any event, he did jump, and, after escaping relatively unscathed from many of the skirmished he found himself in over the years, was unfortunately not so lucky this time. He received three bullets to the face, one to the left sinus, one to the upper jaw and another to the lower jaw.

Luckily, however, aid got to him in time, and he was brought back across the Rhine, away from enemy lines where he was returned to a hospital in Brussels. For security reasons, his family couldn’t be told for a long time, and Frank Joe had to undergo three painful operations in Belgium before he went back to Britain. This was the end of his army career, and almost the end of the war, and Frank Joe, having entered as a young boy of 16 was now leaving a Major, having experienced first hand some of the major events of the twentieth century.

And, quite opposed to this being the end for Frank Joe, he describes it as “when life really started”.
This was a very different chapter in Frank Joe’s life; he spent five years living in England where he attended the famed LSE (London School of Economics) for a time before being offered a job with Mintex, a company which manufactures brakes for cars.

He returned to Dublin in 1951, having been offered the agency for Mintex in Ireland, and promptly set up depots in both Dublin and Belfast. He then spent 35 years with Mintex Break Distributor Ireland Ltd, a company which has subsequently been taken over by his son, Brindley, although Frank Joe still remains as chairman.

Away from wars and cars, Frank Joe also found the time to get married; his wife was Mairin Moloney whose family owned a bakery in Edgeworthstown. “ I remembered her as a young girl”, says Frank, and on his return to Ireland in the fifties found that she had blossomed into “ a very pretty young woman”.

He recalls “ bringing her to the Spring Show in Dublin” when they were courting and they eventually married in London in 1952, and the Church of the Sacred Heart, Hampstead.

After bringing her “all around Ireland on honeymoon; she had never really seen it”, they eventually settled down and went on to have seven children; Brindsley, who works in the family business, Mintex; Paul who works in IT; Farrell who works in Cairo, Egypt, Lupetja who now resides in Texas, Catherine, who is a chemist in London, and Stephen who is a farmer in Wicklow.

Having lived in London, then the Vico Road in Dalkey, Frank Joe finally bought a farm around the Shankhill area of Dublin where he still resides.

Of course, he still spends alot of his time in his native Aughakine - “every summer”, he says and he is still very much aware of the comings and goings of the people of the community where he was born.
He is also very much looking forward to the publications of his memoirs, over the next few months, by British publishing giants, Macmillan.

Listening to the extraordinary events that make up Frank Joe’s life, we’ve no doubt it will be a real page turner!

By Bernice Mulligan
Courtesy of the Longford Leader
6th May 2005