The price of Sky Pilots

Guest post by Atheist Ireland member GT.
In a recent letter to the Irish Independent a correspondent noted that the Irish state’s new law term on the 3rd of October will commence with a roman catholic mass attended by representatives of the legal profession, judiciary, An Garda Siochana and the Defence Forces.

Why the Irish state should pay judges, policemen and soldiers to attend catholic mass in this day and age is beyond me. But I was not surprised when I recalled the religious worship forced onto me and colleagues in a previous occupation…that being a member of the Defence Forces.

In the autumn of 1989 I joined the Irish Army Air Corps as an apprentice aircraft mechanic. Initial training comprised of basic infantry training to 2 star private standards, a further 18 months academic technical training was followed by two years on the job training in aircraft hangars or workshops. This was in turn followed by some more military training to pass out as 3 Star Private with a technical grade. There were 50 of us in the 53rd Apprentice Class, disparagingly known as the “50 turds”.

Our first full day in the Air Corps saw an introduction by the camp chaplain. He set about drawing an overview of the Defence Forces rank structure on a blackboard from top generals all the way down to the very lowest ranked apprentices. He pointed out with great glee to a classroom full of eager 16 and 17 year olds that we were the lowest of the low and I got the feeling that he considered us the dregs of the Air Corps.

We were told as apprentices that chaplains had equivalent rank to Commandants and as such this put them in the officer rank structure, way above us men. This particular chaplain appeared to relish his “rank” and his ego let it show, this was in your face Catholicism whether you liked it or not.

After our initial 4 months of military training we were sent to the apprentice school in January 1990 to study such subjects as airframes, propulsion, electrics, hydraulics and other subjects such as religion. Not only were we “trained killers” learning how to fix airplanes, but the Department of Defence also saw fit to instruct us in catholic faith and morality. So our last class from 1530 to 1630 every Friday was religious instruction and you could not be excused.

Also during the year there was a religious “celebration” called the mission. The mission was a retreat over 3 days with long masses every day I think it was a devotion to “our lady” or something like that because the Defence Forces is a big fan of hers. Again there was no opt out you had to go to mass. I remember being caught falling asleep in one of the masses by a young 2nd Lt who took me aside and snarled at me that “the mission was not an excuse to have a honk”.

During the two years of academic training we had to live in the barracks in the style of a boarding school, only let out every Wednesday to socialise until the 2359 curfew or every first weekend to go home to family. Other weekends would find enforced study periods and “dirty details” such as litter detail, raking grass or cleaning sheds. Once Lt. “Shep” Mc Cormack ordered 50 of us to rake a rugby pitch free of grass because the officers were due to have a match. Our orders were we weren’t going anywhere until the pitch was raked, no home to mammy, no out to see girlfriends etc. There was only one snag, there were no rakes only 2 sweeping brushes. So 48 of us got down on our hunkers and walked backwards through the field raking the grass with our fingers.

Sunday mornings on the other hand meant we were ordered onto parade in our best nip & tucker for mass. Once we were marched to the church going inside was optional and sometimes depending on the NCO or officer in charge we who opted out could go back to bed or go to breakfast. On other occasions those non-religious were ordered to stand outside the church until mass was over, sometimes in the rain.
Once we left the apprentice school and stopped living in we were assigned to particular units “up camp” either in technical workshops or aircraft squadrons. But once a month, I think on the first Friday, there was a mass parade whereby every member of the Air Corps in Baldonnel had to fall in on the square in their No. 1 uniform and over 1,000 of us were marched up to the church. This time entry was optional but I remember on many occasions the Regimental Sargent Major ordering lower ranks to attend and if some outlined their lack of faith they were ordered to stand outside the church in whatever weather until mass was over. I subsequently found out that if the resident priest was away the substitute priest was paid by the number of attendees at the mass, so everything makes sense in hindsight when you follow the money trail.

Another big pomp and ceremony religious occasion was the annual blessing of the airplanes and the odd tool box, spanner or multimeter. The first airplane blessing I attended was I think in 1990 and an airplane fatally crashed the next day, without so much as a refund from the priest. One aircraft blessing ceremony I remember took place in BFTS hangar with a couple of airplanes washed & polished and organised around a makeshift altar. Again all personnel were forced to attend the blessing but the “padre” announced that those who did not wish to stay for mass were free to leave.

We all fell out of ranks to make towards the exit but it was blocked by the Regimental Sergeant Major who ordered everyone back to mass. I remember one particular corporal (or maybe sergeant) who would not go back to the mass and he was promptly arrested and placed in detention under armed guard, this being 1995 not 1895.

I became an atheist around the age of 17 or shortly after I joined the Air Corps although on my entry application I had put my religion down as RC. It was interesting to note that my application needed to be accompanied by a parental “Form of Consent” because we were technically child soldiers. This “Form of Consent” noted that I lived in the “parish” of Ashbourne, not a town. I had to get my father to sign this form because it stated “Where the applicant’s father is alive and both parents reside together, the father must sign this form” it then had to be witnessed by either a commissioned officer serving in the defence forces, a member of the Garda Siochana not below rank of Sergeant or a clergyman.

In my later years of service I attempted to officially change my religion from RC to none but when I tried I was ridiculed in the orderly room and my request was dismissed. A day or two later I was phoned by a recently promoted corporal and notified that I was being detailed to present gifts to the altar at the annual airplane blessing ceremony. I thought this was a wind up related to my attempt to officially change my religion and promptly told him to “fuck off”. I found myself very quickly having to apologise to said corporal but point out that I didn’t believe in any god and definitely was not presenting gifts at a religious ceremony. I subsequently found myself washing dishes for a month in the cookhouse and believed I was being religiously persecuted only to find out weeks later I was in fact being punished for some other simultaneous misdemeanour.

In my later years in the Air Corps the chaplain that served was a nice humble chap but he still spend his day pushing religion and attempting to evangelise the flock. If you ever bumped into him he was always offering prayer books or invitations to mass. This was repeated in every barracks up and down the country, there was a priest on “commandant” salary of up to €68k with fuck all else to do but preach to personnel going about their jobs as soldiers, sailors or airmen. Mass was held in every barracks every day and you were free to leave your work to attend.

Some of the chaplains I am sure were bored out of their tree but some very much got into the drinking and socialising that was army life. Some chaplains even did unusual things like paratrooper courses and commando type courses, indeed the chaplain of Gormanston barracks lost his sight in one eye and fractured his skull jumping off a bridge into Blessington lake. It wouldn’t surprise me one little bit if there is an Irish Chaplain out there that is a trained sniper.

It is interesting to note that I signed up to the Air Corps at age 17 for a 9 year contract and if you wanted to leave the Defence Forces before the 9 years were up you had to pay up to £5,000 to buy out your service. There was one provision in the regulations however, if you wanted to leave the Air Corps to join the priesthood the £5,000 was waived. So to be useful somewhere else cost £5,000 but to be a professional charlatan was free.

Overall I spent 9 happy years in the Air Corps and enjoyed them greatly, learnt a lot and made some great friends and on some occasions I even did some work, it is just a pity that religion had to impinge on your working day to a level you just couldn’t imagine in civvy street.

The number serving in the Defence Forces now stands around the 10,000 mark and, for this number, the State sees fit to “employ” 17 Catholic chaplains on salaries of between €58,000 and €68,000 per annum with an unearned military rank equivalent to Commandant.

The question must be asked, why do the Defence Forces employ priests? Why is more than €1m handed over by the State to the Catholic Church to pay chaplains? While private citizens have done much to free their lives of Catholic Church influence, the state institutions are still held firmly in its grasp.





  1. Avatar
    Tomk September 26, 2011

    What a waste of our taxes, I can’t believe the state can justify paying €1,000,000+ on blessing planes.

    This money should be used to employ extra people in the Defense forces.

  2. Avatar
    JohnMWhite September 28, 2011

    Well that was a pretty depressing insight into the stranglehold the Catholic church had on Irish society even in the very recent past. Aside from not really understanding how a society could tolerate its own armed forces being run in such a shoddy way, I do not really get why Catholic chaplains are not absolutely ashamed of the notion of people only going to mass because they are ordered to or their alternative is standing out in the rain. Surely if they were honest and earnest, they would rather people come willingly and to create a welcoming atmosphere, rather than simply have the numbers bumped up by force?

    Reminds me of my Catholic high school were non-Catholic students were forced to attend mass. Fair enough a Catholic mass is to be expected in a Catholic institution, but since it was tax-payer funded and open to non-Catholics, what exactly is the point of forcing non-believers to sit there and be miserable when they could be in the library or class doing something constructive? It’s simply power tripping.

  3. Avatar
    David B October 04, 2011

    An interesting, if depressing article.

    Off to link to it on my discussion board, and on the comment pages of Rock Beyond Belief, the blog about religion in the American military on Freethought Blogs.

    David B