Above: Sgt John O'Regan on the right with fellow West Cork soldiers Gnr J. White and Cpl E. O’Leary in Golan Heights, Syria.
Cook Sergeant John O’Regan, 41, from Clonakilty is back home after a six-month tour with the 50th Infantry Group in Golan Heights, the disputed zone, which lies between Syria and Israel. This was John’s second peacekeeping mission in Golan Heights. The Irish Defence Forces has been involved in the peacekeeping operation since 2013, monitoring a ceasefire line and providing military support for UN observers — a task that has become much more challenging in recent years due to the Syrian civil war.
Head Chef at Collins Barracks in Cork, John, with the help of three staff, was responsible for feeding the 130 Irish troops deployed to Golan Heights. “We’re the morale boosters,” he says with a smile. “An army never marches on an empty stomach.”
John, who has worked alongside celebrity chefs Richard Corrigan and Neven Maguire in the past, says his mother’s brown bread was a talking point while he was in the Middle East. “I had to cook for a big function at the Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv and decided my mother’s bread was the way to go. When I called her to get the recipe though, all I got was, ‘Ah sure you’ll know how much liquid to put in when you see it.’ It worked out in the end! I baked 40 loaves of bread and they all loved it.”
It was from his mother that John received his first lesson in cooking. “I was always pulling at her apron, asking what’s going in to that dish and how much of this goes in,” he recalls. “She had me well-prepped for recruit training too,” he says laughing. “Mum was like a Sergeant Major when we were growing up, so I learnt from the best. I even knew how to iron when I joined the Navy.”
John joined the Irish Naval Service in 1994. “Ever since I was very small I wanted to join the Navy. I also wanted to be a chef,” he says. “Three of my uncles were in the Navy and the oldest used to bring me out lobstering and fishing off Ring. I used to die from seasickness but I was in their ear the whole time asking questions about the Navy.
“I joined the FCA and started applying to join the Navy when I was 16 and still in school. I went on to do a Catering and Hospitality Course after finishing my Leaving Cert and got the recruitment call in the middle of the course.”
After completing his 16 weeks of recruit training, John joined the Seaman’s Division and became a Seaman Gunner. He applied to the Defence Forces School of Catering but it was 1997 before a place became available on the course. In the meantime, John went on a resupply mission to Beirut in 1996 with the Irish Naval Service. “I got to see the Mediterranean along the way,” he says.
John completed year one of his catering course, which was counted as nine months shore leave, and went back to do his sea time. In 1998 he became the first Naval cook to do a naval diving course. “The film ‘Men of Honour’ came out about the same time so I got a fair amount of ribbing about that,” says John.
His first posting as a diver was on the LÉ Eithne. “It involved everything from untangling the nets of trawlers to search and rescue ops,” says John.
In 1999, he completed his catering course becoming a fully qualified chef.
After putting in for a transfer to the Irish Army in 2001, John was deployed to East Timor. “It was in the middle of the jungle so took a bit of getting used to. We were there representing the UN as peacekeepers for four-and-a-half months.”
After that mission, he returned to base and completed a Non Commissioned Officers (NCO) course, becoming a Corporal and specialising in Logistics.
To date, John has completed four tours abroad, one to East Timor, one to Kosovo and two to Syria.
Today, as Cook Sergeant and Head Chef at Collins Barracks, John manages a staff of 14 and when he’s not deployed or volunteering on a peacekeeping mission, he’s responsible for providing all the meals for recruits and troops at the Barracks.
“The world is your oyster really in the Irish Defence Forces,” says John, who qualified as a Personal Training Instructor before his last mission. “The hardest thing really when I’m deployed overseas is being away from my two kids but social media is great, we keep in touch daily on Viber or Instagram.”
“I do think my path was made out for me but you also have to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way. It can be a great career if you put the work in.”