Ireland during World War II
75 years ago next month, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera announced that the Free State would be neutral if war broke out.
So, in reality, what did neutrality actually mean for our small country on the edge of Europe?
Bryce Evans, lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University is the author of the first book detailing the social and economic history of Ireland during the Second World War. He discussed the story of the Irish emergency with Myles on the programme.
Revealing just how precarious the Irish state's economic position was at the time, the book examines the consequences of Winston Churchill's economic war against neutral Ireland. It explores how the Irish government coped with the crisis and how ordinary Irish people reacted to emergency state control of the domestic marketplace.
A hidden history of black markets, smugglers, rogues and rebels emerges, providing a fascinating slice of real life in Ireland during a crucial period in world history.
Ireland During the Second World War: Farewell to Plato's Cave by Dr. Bryce Evans (Manchester University Press)
Myles interviews Dr Bryce Evans, Lecturer in History at Liverpool Hope University:
Why is this book subtitled 'Farewell to Plato's Cave'?
A great Irish historian, FSL Lyons, once wrote that Ireland during the Emergency / WW2 was "like Plato's Cave". This analogy became shorthand for Ireland at the time as being characterised by ignorance, boredom and stasis. This wasn't the case.
Like FSL Lyons, most historians of Ireland during WW2 are obsessed with a rather abstract focus: the rights and wrongs of neutrality - on the morality or immorality of the neutrality policy. Within this trend, there's a tendency to read history backwards, especially given our Holocaust-informed hindsight.
But this focus on Great Men and high politics - Dev paying his regards on the death of Hitler etc - ignores the economic question. If we want to get to the heart of the political issue in Ireland in WW2, we have to say, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, 'it's the economy, stupid'. And if we do so, we don't find Plato's Cave, but rather the richness of the black market, smuggling, the daily grind.
With almost a quarter of a million young Irish emigrating to the higher wages of the British war economy, of course people were not ignorant of world affairs: people were not ignorant of what was happening in the world.
But relations between Britain and Ireland weren't good at the time, were they?
No, and the book begins with the under-documented economic war between the two countries, which runs from 1940 until the end of the war.
Winston Churchill views Ireland as a greedy neutral, profiting off the food and fuel delivered by the Atlantic convoys while contributing nothing. After the Fall of France in June 1940, the British attitude hardens. Ireland is subjected to a crippling supply squeeze: the price of neutrality.
For an island nation, it is remarkable that Ireland has no merchant navy before war breaks out. Therefore, Ireland is at the mercy of British sea power. How, then, does Ireland survive economically? A lot of the time, it is through begging, borrowing and stealing. Bad tempered Anglo-Irish bartering ensues. The British deny the Irish fuel, feed, fertilisers, agricultural chemicals. In retaliation, Guinness is used as a weapon of economic war by the Irish (denying British and American troops in NI booze).
So, with these supply shortages, life must have been hard?
Yes. There was real poverty. This is why, when you read some historians describing Ireland as "a very pleasant prison camp" it is really quite flippant and misleading.
There were real hardships in Ireland's urban centres, where slum dwellers are malnourished, aggravated by the decision to introduce rationing so late (in 1942). In the countryside, some could live off "the fat of the land" but the absence of fuel meant very few trains and no cars - meaning real dislocation and poverty for many. As the official war history of Northern Ireland notes, quite smugly, "going south of the border like travelling back 700 years".
But despite these hardships, people were not just miserable victims of poverty. The black market undergoes a real boom and, due to the failure of the state to establish a rationing system early on, everyone engages with it to some extent.
Smuggling also undergoes a boom– with different rationing schemes on each side of the border, cross-border smuggling becomes a popular consumer activity for the first time. Cattle smuggling is replaced by smuggling of consumer items. Women, especially, smuggle very frequently. As one woman smuggler of the period from north of the border told me "many a girl went down on the train in the morning very skinny, only to return that evening heavily pregnant".
What was the role of the Church; surely they didn't approve of black market activity?
One of the big themes of studies of Irish wartime neutrality is this idea of "moral neutrality"; this book extends that to examine "moral economy". And the economics of daily life really are infused with a rather introspective morality in the period.
The relationship between Church and State is not as close as many assume. Of course the bishops denounced the black market and generally supported the civil authority, but clergy react very negatively to loss of some material privileges as shortages take hold – many angry priests remonstrate with de Valera when private motoring is banned. One writes to Dev to complain that the loss of his car meant that he had inadvertently witnessed "a drunken tinker woman publicly acting immorally with four young men"
More seriously, the Church is very uncomfortable with the expansion of the role of the state during the war. During the Emergency, inspectors and officialdom balloon as shortages take hold. As one TD complains "you have an inspector at every crossroads, a committee inspecting him, and an inspector inspecting the committee". You also have the coercive role of the state – labour camps, ‘compulsory tillage’ of farms and the eviction of 'unproductive' farmers.
This leads to serious theological debates, where many clergymen claim that the state's fixed prices and regulations do not constitute 'moral law' and Catholics are this not bound to obey such laws. After all, one theologian argued, he didn't mind breaking the law and paying black market prices for tea because "there's nothing in the world like a nice cup of tea".
So, all in all, how should we read Ireland's Second World War?
At the end of the war, George Bernard Shaw declared his amazement that Eire, this "powerless little cabbage garden" had managed to stay neutral. And it was remarkable, when one considers the economic bullying by the Allies which Ireland withstood. As the Portuguese dictator Salazar remarks to Irish minister Frank Aiken "it is the neutrals that are paying for this war".
Fears of a recurrence of Famine were tangible in Ireland as the centenary of the Great Hunger approached. In Spain and Portugal people do starve to death; this is also a real possibility in Ireland with the wheat situation and lack of bread.
Importantly, the comparative economic history of the other neutral states shows that Ireland's claim to a "moral neutrality" held greater weight when it came to trade and the economy: Ireland was the only one of the five European neutrals that did not conduct meaningful trade with Nazi Germany.
Interestingly, in common with only Nazi Germany, Ireland did not deploy women in the workforce in any great number during the war. This shows that the effects of the war on Ireland, although extremely damaging, were always viewed by policy makers as a temporary aberration - an 'Emergency' rather than an event that would forever change social structures.
Overall, this book shows that Economic history is not dry - the book will help you understand why the bicycle featured so prominently in Flannel O'Brien's "the third policeman" and why Patrick kavanagh's "the great hunger" has the particularly miserable character it does!
Ireland and the First World War
Ireland and the First World War: ‘in defence of Right, of Freedom and of Religion’?
Friday 24 – Saturday 25th January 2014
Dr Andrew Murrison, MP, the special representative of British Prime Minister David Cameron for the Centenary Commemoration of the First World War will address the UCC conference on Ireland and the First World War. Dr Murrison will also address the official opening of the conference on the evening of Friday 24 January on the subject of the approach of the UK and Ireland to the centenary of the First World War.
The School of History, University College Cork, is pleased to announce that a two-day conference on the subject of Ireland and the First World War will take place in UCC on Friday 24th and Saturday 25th January 2014.
Leading historians of modern Irish and European history from the worlds of academia, the media and politics will address the conference. The keynote address at the official opening on the evening of Friday 24 January will be delivered by Professor Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and the closing paper will be delivered by Myles Dungan, the well-known historian and broadcaster, in the early evening of Saturday 25 January.
Other topics to be discussed during the conference include the response of both Irish nationalists and unionists to the war, Ireland’s place in the diplomacy of the war, and commemoration of the war in Ireland and beyond. Additional sessions will address the various engagements in which Irish soldiers saw action, domestic social, political and cultural developments during the war, the role of religion in the conflict, the conscription crisis of 1918, media coverage of the war, and its enduring legacy.
Professor Geoff Roberts, Head of UCC’s School of History says “In this decade of centenaries the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 is undoubtedly one of the most important anniversaries. The war changed the course not just of Irish history but European and world history. The contemporary history of the world we live in today begins in 1914 and the war’s consequences continue to reverberate. While UCC’s conference has a particular focus on Ireland, events here will be examined in their wider and comparative context. What happened to Ireland as a result of the war can illuminate broader processes and trends. The conference has a fantastic line-up of speakers, with participants from many different countries. It will be a truly international event in which many different perspectives will be brought to bear on the conflict that ushered in the long twentieth century - an epoch through which we are still living.”
The event – which is free and open to all members of the general public who wish to attend – is the third in a series of conferences organised by UCC’s School of History and entitled ‘Cork Studies in the Irish Revolution.’ The purpose of the series is to mark the ‘Decade of Commemorations. 1912-23’ by bringing the cream of Irish, British and international scholars to Cork. Previous events have examined the home rule crisis of 1912-4, and the 1913 Dublin lock-out.
The School of History wishes to acknowledge the financial support given to the conference by the Reconciliation Fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For further information please contact: Gabriel Doherty, University College Cork (T) 021 4902783, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or the conference website: /http://www.ucc.ie/en/history/conferences/
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