As Irish eyes looked away

Most of wartime Ireland beat a moral retreat, Brian Girvin discovers.

March 23, 2007

For a brief period during the Second World War, Dublin was host to a glittering community of artists, writers, émigrés, spies and terrorists. The current musical comedy Improbable Frequency , a hit in Dublin and Edinburgh, pokes fun at the Emergency, suggesting that the period can be treated without controversy. Yet when a two-part television documentary on Ireland's Nazis was transmitted in January 2006, there were attempts to have the second programme banned. More generally, there was disbelief that Ireland could have been host to a number of Nazi collaborationists in the postwar years.

This study by Clare Wills establishes why the Emergency is still controversial. It will appeal to readers who have some knowledge of the period but wish to know more about the social, literary and political context. In September 1939, there was widespread support for neutrality within Ireland, but censorship and political intimidation by the Government prevented any alternative views from being discussed. Wills is dismissive of the British offer to unify the island in return for active support in the war, but she does not discuss other views of this offer. Her assertion that Irish fears of a US invasion after 1942 were not "entirely groundless"

is not sustained by any evidence and runs counter to assurances given by President Franklin Roosevelt. She uses a figure of 150,000 for the number of Irish citizens who volunteered for the British forces, when the most reliable analysis places this between 70,000 and 80,000.

The book's strength lies in its discussion of the social experience of ordinary men and women in this period and its use of literary sources as a lens to evaluate the tensions and contradictions within Ireland and between Ireland and the world at war. She illustrates the tension between the traditional and the modern in Ireland by focusing on the building of the Irish pavilion at the World Fair in 1939. In his design, the architect Michael Scott used the shamrock to good effect, and he subsequently claimed: "I solved the problem of nationalism and made it modern at the same time." One of the ironies sketched by Wills is that the new middle class, described by the writer Frank O'Connor as "vicious and ignorant", wanted industrialisation and its consumer products but not its challenge to hierarchy and patriarchy. There were those who wanted to reject modernity altogether and return to some rural idyll, a view expressed most potently by Eamon de Valera himself in his St Patrick's Day broadcast in 1943.

Focusing on leading writers allows Wills to mediate the contradictions in Irish society during the Emergency and to use them as a counterpoint to the safe assumptions of official opinion and the mediocrity of the middle classes. Modernist and liberal writers, harassed by the Catholic Church, censorship and conservative opinion, could be defensive, but they courageously opposed the drive to uniformity that characterised Ireland in the 1940s. Once the war started, writers faced difficult decisions, and loyalties were stretched by the competing pull of neutral Ireland and democratic Europe. Samuel Beckett returned to France and later joined the resistance, while Kate O'Brien actively supported the British cause on anti-fascist lines. Patrick Kavanagh remained in Dublin resentful and indifferent to the war. Wills goes too far in claiming that there was a crisis of allegiance among these Irish writers. For many Irish citizens there was no contradiction between supporting neutrality and volunteering to fight for Britain, as many did. Wills seems critical of O'Brien's decision to favour ethical and political considerations over origins, as if the appeal of nationalism should take priority in these circumstances.

A key figure is Seán O'Faolain who, as editor of The Bell and scourge of Church and state throughout the Emergency, provided a liberal alternative to Irish conservatism. O'Faolain wanted Britain to win, yet he confessed to being "immobilised" by the war, cut off as he was from Britain and continental Europe. His lover Elizabeth Bowen took a more forthright position, supporting the war and providing intelligence reports for the British Government. Bowen, who considered herself to be Irish and sympathetic to Irish neutrality, was nevertheless irritated by Ireland's isolationism and narrow nationalism. Despite this, de Valera was fortunate that Winston Churchill read some of these reports because they were even-handed and detailed. It is probable that O'Faolain's failure to play a more active role in support of Britain weakened their friendship. By contrast, O'Connor identified closely with Britain and expressed disgust at Ireland's isolationism and suffered seriously for this stance.

Wills discusses emigration, the impact of the war at sea on Ireland's west coast as well as the mobilisation of tens of thousands of Irish men in the Local Defence Forces to deter invasion. There are striking insights into the breakdown of transport, energy shortages and the black market's impact on society. Wills paints a devastating picture of poverty and deprivation in urban Ireland, the impact of disease and under-employment in rural areas and the scourge of tuberculosis. She pays tribute to the medical personnel who drew attention to these issues, but she fails to point out that neither the Government nor the comfortable middle classes cared enough to pay the economic or political cost to help the more unfortunate members of the society.

Although Wills is sympathetic to the Irish case during the Emergency, she is also sensitive to Irish failure to appreciate the moral issues raised by the war. Though, uncomfortable with O'Connor's bitter reflection on the "intellectual darkness of the country", her close reading of Denis Johnston's evolution provides an important insight into the dilemmas faced by intellectuals. Johnston supported neutrality but also broadcast for the BBC and later became a war correspondent. He entered Buchenwald just two days after its liberation, and his diaries and fiction depict an individual transformed by the experience. The question for Johnston, never answered in Ireland, was whether it was possible to be neutral in these circumstances.

Irish opinion refused to accept that there were moral issues at stake in the war because this would have entailed acknowledging the justice of the Allied case. The dropping of the atomic bomb provided the means to criticise the Allies and excuse Irish indifference. It is perhaps no coincidence that Frank Carney's 1946 play The Righteous Are Bold was the most successful drama of its decade. In the play, a woman who returns from England infected (this is the only way it can be described) by modernity and secularism has "England, and its pleasures" beaten out of her by local men and clergy. More than anything else, the success of the play represented the self-satisfaction of a society that largely ignored the moral implication of the war and the challenge of the Holocaust and allowed Ireland to be used as a home for Nazis fleeing justice in Europe after the war.

Nationalist Ireland continued to adopt a superior position after the war, refusing to publicly recognise the large number of Irish citizens who had volunteered to fight for the Allied cause. This leads Wills to conclude that "the assertion that Ireland should and would retain the right to choose its own line had somehow fused with the claim that it was not possible to choose between the two sides". This perhaps was the ultimate failure of Irish neutrality.

Brian Girvin is professor of comparative politics, Glasgow University.

That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland during the Second World War

Author - Clare Wills
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 502
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 571 22105 X

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