THAT NEUTRAL ISLAND: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF IRELAND DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Clair Wills
Belknap/Harvard University Press, $35, 502 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
In “That Neutral Island,” the eponymous neutral island is of course Ireland, the only predominantly English-speaking nation not fighting on the Allied side in World War II. Technically still a Dominion with King George VI as its head of state, Ireland was a member of the British Commonwealth.
Eire — the name used by the Irish because it was the Gaelic name for the island and by the British because using it instead of Ireland emphasized that the independent nation did not include the Irish province of Ulster, which was then, and still is, part of the United Kingdom — acted as if it were a republic, which in fact it would not become until 1949.
Eire’s guiding principle in domestic and international politics was differentiation from Great Britain, and so its neutrality from 1939 through 1945 followed quite logically to its government and to the vast majority of its people, if not to much of the rest of the world, as Clair Wills makes clear in her book. Its prime minister, Eamon de Valera, put it cogently on many occasions, but perhaps never more clearly than in this 1941 speech:
“From the moment this war began there was for this State only one policy possible — Neutrality. Our circumstances, our history, the incompleteness of our national freedom, through the partition of our country, made any other policy impracticable. Any other policy would have divided our people, and for a divided nation to fling itself into this war would have been suicide.”
What is amazing about this statement — and indeed about the whole policy — is the amazing solipsism, narcissism would not be too strong a word, of its thinking. Had de Valera never heard of the word “geopolitical”? Was it for nothing that he had sat at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1930s and seen how the Axis powers had trampled upon the sovereignty of smaller nations like his own? Had it not sunk in on him by then that this was a global conflict?
Yet his reasoning is so blinkered by his nationalism and anti-British attitude that he appears to have been unable to see a truly worldwide conflagration in any but the narrowest parochial terms. After all, Ireland had been from its inception as a state a vibrant democracy — did it never occur to him that there was a logic that it belonged with the other democratic Allied nations?
De Valera was not above using sophistry to justify Irish neutrality, but as circumstances changed, his policy did not. Early in the war, when Britain was weak and facing the likelihood of German invasion, he argued that a belligerent Eire would certainly be invaded in the course of such an attack while as a neutral this would be less likely to happen.
The logic behind this was flawed even then — Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium had all been neutral when attacked by the Nazis in 1940, and a weakly defended neutral Ireland might have been as easy a stepping stone to invading England as Belgium had proved to France — but when, later in the war, there was no longer a German invasion to be feared, his tenacious attachment to neutrality still prevailed.
The entry of the United States into the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 should have changed everything for de Valera and his nation. He was himself a native of New York, a fact that saved him from being shot by the British after the Easter Rebellion in 1916, and there had been no greater friend of Irish nationalism, before and after independence, than America.
Irish-Americans were vociferously opposed to Irish neutrality after 1941, outraged at the thought of Japanese as well as German and Italian diplomats walking the street of Dublin as they would be in May 1945 by de Valera’s condolence call on the German minister in Dublin after Hitler’s death, yet the prime minister remained obdurate:
“The part that American friendship played in helping us to win the freedom that we enjoy in this part of Ireland has been gratefully recognised and acknowledged by our people.
“It would be unnatural then if we did not sympathise in a special manner with the people of the United States in all the anxieties and trials which this war must bring upon them.
“For this reason strangers who do not understand our conditions have begun to ask how America’s entry into the war will affect our State policy here. We answered that question in advance. The policy of the State remains unchanged. We can only be a friendly neutral.”
Even Churchill’s dramatic offer of Irish reunification contained in a telegram the day after Pearl Harbor — “Now is your chance. Now or never. ‘A Nation Once Again.’ Am very ready to meet you at any time.” — could not move de Valera, although one might have thought that such an offer might have been the key. De Valera’s attitude is a case study in the costliness of preferring the sour wine of negativity over the fruitful positive.
Neutrality did not spare Eire its own share of “anxieties and trials.” Bodies galore from downed ships washed up on Irish shores; German bombers struck Dublin, supposedly in error. Although there was no blackout and visitors from Britain were amazed by the blazing lights and laden tables in Eire, there was a crippling lack of imported foods and raw materials and, cut off from the world, the country’s economy was in a state of collapse.
As a British visitor to Dublin put it in late 1941, “The shops are full of good things to eat, the streets of people who cannot afford to buy them.” Who cannot believe that an Eire allied to the United States would not have been better off? And it is typical of de Valera that he was annoyed that Eire was not invited to be a founder member of the United Nations, which after all had been the name used by the victorious Allies he had spurned.
Ireland (as it was known by then) would not become a member of the UN until a decade after the organization’s founding, a symbol and a barometer of how neutrality marginalized the nation long after the war had ended. And even today that legacy has lingered: Ireland and Sweden are alone in the European Union in not also being members of NATO.
Ms. Wills does a good job of describing Irish neutrality and its effects, and her portrait of Irish life during World War II is a full one, bolstered by apt quotes from local and visiting writers. Unfortunately, although “That Neutral Island” presents both sides of the question, there is little doubt that its author is in fundamental sympathy with Irish neutrality. De Valera’s conduct is explained, understood and lauded while Churchill’s outraged, though factual criticisms of such matters as the withholding of Irish ports for use by the British navy and the consequent loss of life in the convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic tend to be discounted.
Ms. Wills’ own book, however, contains many devastating comments on Eire’s neutrality, none more so than this May 1945 editorial in “The Irish Times,” which pretty much says it all:
“[De Valera] elevated the idea of neutrality into a principle… . he contrived to convince the people of this country that Irish neutrality had a high spiritual basis, whereas, of course, when great moral issues are involved, the consistent saying of ‘no’, however, holy it may be, cannot be otherwise than a policy of national emasculation. Moral issue of the highest kind were involved in the war which has just come to an end. No man with a conscience could be really neutral.”
Or, as Samuel Beckett put it after the fall of France: “You simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.” The tragedy of Ireland in World War II is that it did just that.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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