That Neutral Island; A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War by Clair Wills. Harvard University Press. 2007
Eamon de Valera, president of Ireland from 1932 and 1948, made the decision to keep Ireland neutral after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. He was supported in this decision by most Irish politicians and a good majority of the public. Yet Clair Wills suggests that it remains a festering historical issue.
De Valera had been a critic of the “victor’s peace” dictated to Germany at Versailles in 1918. He had become disillusioned with the League of Nation after it failed to respond to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. It would have been impossible for any Irish statesman to have imposed on Ireland an active participation in the war; 1939 was only a few years beyond the Irish rebellion against Imperial Britain and civil war between Irish republicans and unionists. Not to stir up that hornet’s nest! There was also the very practical reason that Ireland lacked both an army and coastal defenses.
Small nations, De Valera, believed had the right to make decisions about entering this great-power war. At least until the summer of 1940, he could argue that Germany was respecting that decision. Neutrality was the popular choice across the Channel. Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, most of the Balkans, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland had remained neutral. The USA had also remained neutral; Irish-Americans were divided on the issue.
Irish neutrality, Wills maintains, was a pragmatic, inevitable, and difficult response to war on the continent. And ultimately it was also successful. But that is not how both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt viewed it at the time. Rather the Irish were shirking their responsibility as good Europeans. More specifically, they worried that the Germans would invade neutral Ireland to strike at England’s west Coast, avoiding the more difficult cross-channel invasion.
From the spring of 1940 until the invasion of Russia in June, 1941, Germany carried on an extensive aerial bombardment of RAF factories and installations in preparation for an invasion of Britain. That included Belfast in north Ireland. The Irish were shocked; in 1940 north Ireland was still considered part the Irish republic, though under temporary English occupation. The war came home to Irish living in the communities on its west coast in another way. Bodies of dead seamen began washing up on shore, the result of German submarine warfare against ships bringing supplies to England. And Ireland.
While Sweden and Switzerland may have profited from their neutrality, Ireland did not. That was because, Wills points out, Ireland was dependent on imports of food, most of the raw materials that fed its young industries, and coal to produce electricity and heat homes. Shortages produced price increases which made available food stuffs too expensive for the rural and city poor.
With high unemployment particularly in the western counties, many young Irishmen sought employment in Britain, building English factories, landing strips, coastal defenses, and army bases. They weren’t all that well treated by Brits. But they found the pay good and they were fed.
Wills contends that the severity of newspaper and radio censorship heightened a sense of isolation from events in Europe. As part of their neutrality, incoming news about the war had to be “balanced.” Movies were hugely popular. But most films came from the US or Britain and had to be heavily censored so as not to appear to be Allied propaganda.
Many Irishmen, Wills argues, thought this isolation a boon to Irish arts, long dominated from abroad. Prewar Ireland was stuck in what would today be called the post-colonial mind set. In the absence of British, French, and American cultural
production, Irish drama and the short story flourished, finding new audiences among Ireland’s educated classes.
There were those who advocated the establishment of a corporatist society. Benito Mussolini in Italy, Francisco Franco in Spain, and particularly António Salazar in Portugal were admired for their social experimentation. Irish conservatives resonated to their rhetoric of order and social harmony.
Much of the Roman Catholic clergy joined in that enthusiasm, attacking the individualism and materialism of popular culture in Europe and America. Ireland would be a force in the rejuvenation and re-Christianization of Europe after the war. Thus the pragmatic decision for neutrality acquired a moral virtue.
Such a good book.