DURING the war neutral Eire had a bad press in America, and indeed almost everywhere else. It was the only English-speaking country that held itself aloof, and the belligerent nations, preoccupied with their own battle for existence, could not reasonably have been expected to spare time or trouble to examine the basic causes of Eire's attitude. The late Arthur Griffith, father of the Sinn Fein movement, said that the British had built a paper wall around Ireland; on the inside they painted what they wanted the Irish to know about the rest of the world, on the outside what they wanted the rest of the world to know about Ireland. During the war this system operated in striking fashion, not, indeed, because the British were in any way malicious toward their neutral neighbors -- actually the contrary was the case -- but rather because, in the nature of things, it hardly could have been otherwise. Americans may not realize that Eire has no news agencies of her own. The Irish newspapers cannot afford to keep their own correspondents abroad, and every word of foreign news that appears in the Irish newspapers comes from British or American sources. The result had been that during the war Eire found herself virtually dumb, while she was being subject to widespread, and sometimes even vindictive, misrepresentation in all the Allied countries.

The roots of Irish neutrality lie deep in history. Long before the war, Mr. de Valera announced that if a world struggle should occur Eire would keep out of it. Neutrality, almost by definition, is something negative; but Mr. de Valera raised it to the dignity of a national principle, largely because he wanted to be able to prove to the world at large that, after more than seven hundred years of subjection to England, the 26 counties of Southern Ireland at last were really free. What better proof of national independence could there be than the fact that while Great Britain was fighting for her very life, Mr. de Valera and his three million Irish citizens could remain at peace on England's doorstep? The original treaty which in 1921 gave the Irish Free State such a large measure of political freedom provided for the retention by the British of certain Southern Irish ports, chosen with particular reference to the defense of the so-called "Western Approaches." It also was agreed that, in the event of a war in which the British would be involved, they would continue to exercise certain rights of transit and the like. That was an obvious precaution upon which the British General Staff, and particularly the Admiralty, insisted at a time when the chances of another war seemed to be exceedingly remote. In 1938, however, just a year before the outbreak of the second world conflict, Mr. de Valera made a bargain with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (of whom he retains a high opinion), whereby, as part of a general agreement putting an end to what was known as the economic war between Eire and Great Britain, the vital ports were taken over bag and baggage by the Irish Government.

From the standpoint of British security this sacrifice by Neville Chamberlain seemed to be almost suicidal; he justified it to his English critics -- and they were many -- as an act of faith, a gesture of British generosity to Ireland which would find a ready response in the Irish people's warm hearts. If the British Premier believed, or even hoped, that the return of the ports would make the slightest difference to the neutral policy of the Irish Government, he did not know the man he was dealing with. Eamon de Valera, who cared nothing about the British Admiralty's views, accepted Britain's concession not in any way as a favor but merely as her belated recognition of an indefeasible right. He did promise the British that no hostile power ever would be allowed to use Eire's ports as a springboard for an attack against them, and in this undertaking he was undoubtedly sincere.

Having got back the ports, and promulgated a new Constitution which banished the last symbols of British rule in Eire, Mr. de Valera was in a position to take a perfectly free decision as to the country's attitude towards the war. He decided to stick to his prewar declaration of neutrality, pointing out to his critics at home that, so long as the British kept a foothold on Irish soil -- in other words so long as the six counties of Northern Ireland remained attached to the United Kingdom -- Ireland would not be free, and therefore could not be expected to take an active part in a war on Britain's side. To the Irish Nationalist this attitude was perfectly logical and natural. He cared nothing about the moral issues involved in the declaration of war against Nazi Germany. Though he was devoutly Catholic, he did not even care much about the fate of Catholic Poland. Born and bred to distrust British motives, he only knew that a chance had come to dissociate the Irish people from the nation that had oppressed them for so long; and led by Mr. de Valera, he seized his chance if not with avidity, at least with a reasonably clear conscience.

So Eire became officially a neutral, although still associated "externally" with the British Commonwealth, every other member of which, including Dutch South Africa, immediately sprang to arms on the British side. Only Mr. de Valera with his rigidly logical mind could have carried through his policy as it was carried through right up to the last month of the war; for it involved Eire and Great Britain alike in all sorts of paradoxes and anomalies. For example, Eire had a legation in Berlin, just as the Germans had a legation in Dublin. At the height of the war the post of Minister to Germany became vacant, and Dr. T. J. Kiernan, head of the Dublin Broadcasting Station, was appointed by Mr. de Valera. The German Government, however, would not accept him without the usual letters of credence, which still must be signed by the British King. For obvious reasons, His Majesty hardly could be expected to accredit a Minisster to a Power with which he was at war, so the project had to be dropped. Dr. Kiernan was sent to the Vatican instead, and the Berlin Legation was left in charge of a young official -- a Protestant, by the way -- who acted as Chargé d'Affaires. The Legation premises in the Drakestrasse were demolished by an R. A. F. bomb in 1943.

Of course, it must not be assumed that the people of Eire were unanimously in favor of neutrality -- at the beginning, at any rate. All the Anglo-Irish population, for example, Catholic as well as Protestant, was and continues to be strongly pro-British; and even among the Gaels themselves, that is to say among those who for historical or political reasons always had made at least a show of anti-British feeling, there was a fairly strong dislike of the Nazi movement, particularly in Catholic circles, where Hitler, like Stalin, was regarded as a kind of anti-Christ.

The people as a whole were on the defensive from the start. It was the first European war in history in which Ireland was playing no part, and the Irish as a fighting race felt rather out in the cold. That, no doubt, is why so many of them rushed as volunteers to join one or other of the British services at the first available opportunity. The fact that they could do so gives a useful insight into Mr. de Valera's attitude, one to which far too little attention had been paid. When the war broke out and Eire declared her neutrality, it became obvious to those who knew anything about the Irish people that large numbers of young men would join the British forces. In these circumstances, Mr. de Valera easily might have followed the example of other neutral countries by passing a Foreign Enlistment Act, making it an offense, punishable by loss of all civil rights, to join the fighting services of any of the belligerent Powers. He did nothing of the kind. All through the war, Irishmen were completely free to join the British Forces; and the fact that they did so in comparatively large numbers provides almost a complete answer to those who have been holding Eire up as a hate-ridden nation, eager for Britain's humiliation and defeat.

It is impossible to say precisely how many citizens of Eire fought in the British forces, because no official figures are available. All sorts of guesses have been made, many of them grossly exaggerated. But it is fairly safe to say that between 150,000 and 180,000 young Irishmen served under the British flag, and it must not be forgotten that every one of them was a volunteer. Some measure of their fighting qualities is provided by the fact that no fewer than seven Victoria Crosses, the highest decoration -- the King's gift -- were awarded to citizens of Eire, as well as a whole host of other military distinctions. All that these young men had to do was to cross the border into Northern Ireland, where they were accepted gladly by the British recruiting authorities. They changed back into civilian clothes whenever they came home on leave. Actually, the volunteers from Eire were not only greater in number than from Northern Ireland, which, forming an integral part of the United Kingdom, was a belligerent state, but also were larger in proportion to population. It also is an interesting fact that the vehement protest of the Southern Irish Government was the decisive factor in Britain's refusal to extend conscription to the people of the Northern Province.

While this steady flow of volunteers to Great Britain was in progress, the Government of Eire was all the time building up its own defense forces. These consisted of the Regular Army of some 40,000 men, the Local Defense Force of more than twice that number, consisting of armed volunteers, after the style of Great Britain's Home Guard, and a Local Security Force, composed mostly of men over military age, who acted as auxiliary policemen. These officially neutral forces were armed entirely by the British, and it is more or less an open secret now that throughout the war extremely close relations existed between the heads of the Irish Army and the British General Staff. All Ireland's connections with the war had their humorous as well as their paradoxical aspects. Only a few weeks ago it was stated in Dail Eireann that about 4,000 members of the Irish Army, or almost exactly ten percent of the total force, had deserted during the war to join the British Army. These deserters, having received a fairly thorough training in Ireland, were particularly welcome in Great Britain, many of them becoming non-commissioned officers straight away and reaching commissioned rank in a very short time. When one of them was arrested and tried on a charge of desertion on his return to Dublin after V-E Day it was argued by his lawyer in open court that the man could not be guilty of desertion in the military sense of the word, because desertion meant running away from danger to a place of safety, whereas, in the case of the Irish soldiers who went to the British Forces, precisely the opposite procedure had been adopted! There were a couple of test cases to satisfy military regulations, but only suspensory sentences were pronounced; while he will not be given any government job, or allowed to share in government relief schemes, the Irish "deserter" now is quite free to come back to his home.

But it was not only by her contribution to the British fighting forces that Eire helped the Allied war effort. From the very beginning, big industrial firms in the United Kingdom began to recruit labor in the 26 counties of Southern Ireland. Officially the Government did not actually encourage this traffic; but it did nothing to stop it, beyond placing a ban on certain advertisements for workers in the Irish newspapers. In all, about 170,000 workers of all types left Eire for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They earned good money in the factories, it is true, and had their fares paid home for a short holiday once a year; but the work was hard and exacting, and the workers exposed themselves to the dangers of the Blitz, with the result that substantial numbers of them lost their lives. Cynically-minded persons in Eire, of whom there are more than a few, suggested that the export of working manpower to Great Britain was encouraged by the Department of Industry and Commerce in order to reduce the official volume of unemployment at home, and it is quite possible that there was an element of truth in the suggestion. However that may have been at the time, the boot is likely to be on the other foot in the immediate future. Very many of the men who went to England during the war will stay there now, attracted by the lure of high wages under a Socialist Government which is contemplating a vast building program. Eire also has her building schemes, some of which are extremely urgent; but she lacks workers, skilled and unskilled alike, and will find it hard to persuade her wartime exiles to come back to a country where wages and social services are substantially behind those prevailing in the United Kingdom.

There was yet another way in which Eire did much to assist the Allied war effort, namely by the export of food to Great Britain. Every available ounce of foodstuffs, particularly in the shape of livestock, was sent across the Irish Sea. Good prices were paid in terms of paper money, but Eire got very little back in the form of imports, with the result that huge credits -- approximately £300,000,000 to £400,000,000 ($1,200,000,000 to $1,600,000,000), a big sum for such a small country -- were piled up in London, only to be "frozen" automatically by the British Government. Eire has no immediate hope of utilizing these swollen credits for the purchase of the capital goods, machinery and the like, of which she stands so badly in need; so she did not do so very well by her wartime sales to Great Britain after all.

While in actual fact Eire was helping the British, and eventually the Americans, in all sorts of ways, Mr. de Valera, with his passion for logic, was putting up a brave, and at times even an aggressive, show of neutrality. He took the view that it was the Government's duty to steer an even course between the Scylla of the old "Ascendancy" (the Anglo-Irish, who were rather effusively pro-British) and the Charybdis of the I. R. A. (the extreme Republicans who, because of their inveterate hatred of England and all things English, were inclined to be actively and ostentatiously pro-German). To that seemingly praiseworthy end, the famous censorship, administered for the greater part of the war by Mr. Frank Aiken, who bore the grandiloquent title of "Minister for Coördination of Defensive Measures" and was well known for his anti-British feelings, was employed with ruthless resolve.

In theory the censorship was entirely neutral; in practice it worked almost exclusively against the Allies. This one-sidedness, in a way, was quite inevitable, inasmuch as the Allies controlled all Eire's news services. But the lengths to which the Irish censorship went to maintain a completely colorless neutrality often made its activities ludicrous, and reduced the staffs of the Dublin newspaper offices -- of the official Government organ as well as the others -- to a condition of nervous collapse. Everybody agreed that some form of censorship was necessary in order to preserve neutrality and the security of the state; but nobody except Mr. Aiken and his staff ever expected that such depths of absurdity would be plumbed.

There never was any secret about the enlistment of Irish citizens in the British forces. Everybody in England and elsewhere knew all about it; yet the censorship would not allow a word to be mentioned in the newspapers. Obituary notices of men who fell in the war could not be published. Even the fact that Montgomery and Alexander, as well as several other Allied leaders, happen to be Irishmen had to be kept dark; and when a young member of the staff of one of the Dublin dailies, who had joined the British Navy, went down with the Prince of Wales, and was rescued, the only way in which his editor could inform the public that he was safe was through an apparently innocent announcement in the Social and Personal column that the young man in question had completely recovered from the effect of his recent boating accident! The censorship never was accepted loyally by the newspapers in Eire, as it was accepted in so many other countries, simply because the Irish journalists believed it to be unfair and unjust in its operation. Also they felt that the censorship was bringing ridicule upon the whole newspaper profession by such futilities as its refusal to allow any mention of the fact that American troops had landed in Northern Ireland, although it was being barked by every dog in the streets of Dublin.

All through the war there was a tussle of wits between the censorship and the newspapers, and the censorship did not always come out on top, although, of course, it had unlimited powers. No paper dared to print a word in favor of the Allied cause. Even when America came in, and Mr. de Valera no longer had the excuse that it was mainly a British war, this rigid veto was maintained. Whether the Irish Government was trying to humbug the people of Eire, or was merely humbugging itself, nobody will ever know; but one thing is quite certain -- it was not humbugging the Germans, who knew the real situation from A to Z. They knew all about the number of Eire's citizens who were fighting and working for the British. They knew that, with the insignificant exception of a small minority of irreconcilables, the people of Southern Ireland were wholeheartedly on the side of the Allies, as indeed were all the members of the Government, including Mr. de Valera, with one possible exception. They knew, with better reason than anybody else, that newspaper neutrality enforced by the censorship was an utter sham. It may not be generally known, by the way, that one Dublin newspaper, the Irish Times, which was notorious for its pro-Allied and particularly its pro-British sympathies, was compelled to submit every line of its "copy," advertisements and all, to the censor, who went through the proofs with a fine-tooth comb in search of anything that might even remotely look like Allied propaganda.

Eire was nonbelligerent -- that is to say, she was not officially concerned in the war, although so many of her children served the Allied cause; but she was never neutral in the generally accepted sense of the term. Government and people alike realized from the start that the country's fate was linked up inextricably with that of Great Britain, and the number of Irishmen who would have acclaimed a German victory could have been counted on the fingers of a hand. Nobody in Eire ever stood in dread of a British or an American invasion, whereas, during the critical years between 1940 and 1942, there was constant anxiety lest the Germans might attempt a landing. Once only, in the late autumn of 1940, Mr. Churchill toyed for a while with the idea of forcibly seizing the ports which had been given back by his predecessor to Mr. de Valera; but largely owing to the strong representations made to him by Sir John Maffey, British representative in Dublin, the idea was abandoned and nothing further happened in the way of overt clashes between Eire and the Allies, until the Americans, backed by the British, in 1944 asked Mr. de Valera to get rid of the German Legation and the Japanese Consulate in Dublin. Both Washington and London must have known perfectly well that Mr. de Valera would refuse to do any such thing, being wholly confident that neither the United States nor Great Britain would raise more than an angry finger against the Irish. The incident merely gave the Irish leader -- who is a highly accomplished politician -- a God-given opportunity once more to demonstrate Eire's absolute independence of everybody, including on this occasion the United States, and to figure in the eyes of his own followers as one of the greatest statesmen since Abraham Lincoln.

The reason for the Anglo-American démarche, which in fact was rather silly, was to prevent any information from leaking out of Eire before D-Day. There were big numbers of American and British troops in Northern Ireland, with virtually untrammeled communications between North and South, and it was not unnatural that the American and British military authorities should feel a certain amount of anxiety -- although in reality they ought to have known better.

While the war was in progress, the German Minister and the Japanese Consul enjoyed full diplomatic privileges; but for practical purposes they might just as well have been in a concentration camp. The Irish Secret Service, with its invaluable experience gained during the Anglo-Irish struggle 25 years ago, is pretty efficient, and it kept the closest of close eyes on the activities of Dr. Eduard Hempel and Mr. Beppu San. The German Legation had a staff of only four Germans in addition to the Minister, while the Japanese Consulate had only two officials in all. Although there undoubtedly was a certain amount of espionage, particularly in the early years of war, when spies were dropped in Eire by parachute, it never got very far.

Socially, the Axis representatives were ostracized. They were entertained only at Government functions and by certain Government officials who had to follow the protocol; but, whereas the American and British Ministers, with their French and Belgian colleagues, as well as the Polish, Czechoslovak, Danish and Dutch consular representatives were generally fêted in Dublin, the Germans, Italians and Japanese were left severely to themselves. Beppu, the Japanese Consul, joined a golf club before Pearl Harbor. His name was accepted by the committee only after strong pressure had been brought to bear by the Department of External Affairs which dreaded an international "incident;" and even then some members of the committee resigned. Beppu, who is an indifferent but enthusiastic golfer could find nobody willing to play with him in the club; but he insisted on entering for nearly all the competitions, employing the local professional to mark his card.

Now that it is all over, Irish neutrality is beginning to appear in a new and not altogether unfavorable light. Indeed, it may be argued that Eire was of greater assistance to the Allies as an official neutral than she could have been as an active belligerent. For if Eire had been in the war, the Germans almost certainly would have tried to invade the island; indeed, in 1940 and thereabouts there was little to prevent them. If they had succeeded, not only would Britain have had an enemy on her western flank, but the Americans never would have been able to send their vast forces to Europe. This may seem at first sight to be a far-fetched argument; but the more one thinks of it, the less fantastic it appears. Of course, it also may be argued that Irish Partition saved the Allied cause, inasmuch as if Northern Ireland had not been in British hands, the Americans would not have been able to use it as possibly their most valuable base of operations.

Happily, the truth about Eire's neutrality is well-known by the British and American Governments; unhappily it is not so well-known by the British and American peoples, many of whom still regard the Southern Irish as the black sheep of the English-speaking world. The Irish are proud and hypersensitive, almost absurdly jealous of their lately-won independence and prone to believe that they are being slighted. They are more than anxious to take their place among the United Nations, but their present attitude was illustrated by Mr. de Valera's recent statement in the Dail that he would not go with his hat in his hand to anybody. There has been little realism in Irish politics in the past. Even today there still is a tendency to chase rainbows, and so long as Eamon de Valera is at the head of affairs it will persist. On the other hand, an opportunity has arisen now to improve relations between Eire and Great Britain to a degree that never has been possible before. Unfortunately, there is no sign of improvement in the relations between Dublin and Belfast, and while Partition's open sore continues to run, a certain amount of bad blood cannot be avoided.

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  • CHARLES-ANDRÉ JULIEN, Professor of History in the École de la France d'Outre Mer; formerly Secretary-General of the Haut-comité Méditerranéen; author of "Histoire de l'Afrique du Nord"
  • More By R. M. Smyllie