The History Show

The History Show

Sunday, 6pm

The History Show Sunday 19 January 2014

The History Show

The History Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past

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! 

Home Rule Crisis and the First World War

The origins of the First World War is one of the most researched topics in history and more than 25,000 books and articles have already been published on the subject. In the year that’s in it, there’ll be more to come!

Theories regarding the outbreak of the conflict range from train timetables to social Darwinism.   And now research shows that our Home Rule Crisis had its part to play too.

Dr Jérôme aan de Wiel of the School of History in UCC who has been investigating this area and joined Myles to discuss the part our Home Rule Crisis had in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War.

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,,

or the conference website: /

Click here for conference programme

Military Service Pensions Collection

A new online database contains a wealth of first-hand accounts and information relating to the revolutionary period.  

These previously confidential files are part of the Military Service Pensions Collection and contain details of almost 3,000 individuals who claimed to have been engaged in the national movement from 1916 to 1923. 

Many of the leaders of the independence movement describe their activities in great detail in their pension applications.   Apart from their testimonies, there are also statements from wives, commanding officers, doctors and foot soldiers in the collection.  

There were two Military Service Pensions Acts. One was passed in 1924 and the other in 1934.   The original legislation excluded those who fought on the anti-Treaty side and female volunteers in Cumann na mBann.

From the beginning of the scheme, the government made it clear that they did not intend to award “any soft pensions”. 82,000 people applied for military pensions but the vast majority were turned down.   Only 15,700 applicants were successful. Rejected applications and follow up correspondence was kept on file - so the archive is also a chronicle of great disappointment.

Prof Eunan O Halpin of Trinity College, an academic adviser to the pensions project and Catriona Crowe of the National Archives, editor of a guide to the Pensions Collection joined Myles to talk about these files which could help fill in the blanks for families who still have unanswered questions about what happened to their forebears

We also heard actors reading excerpts from letters and documents in the collection.


The Real Robin Hood?

We all have a favourite Robin Hood - be it Douglas Fairbanks, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe or even Walt Disney's animated incarnation.

 But was there a real flesh and blood Robin Hood? Liam Geraghty met medieval historian, Sean McGlynn whose research shows that William of Kentsham ticks the boxes.  

'Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion Of England 1216' by Sean McGlynn is published by Spellmount.

Outing Outsiders Symposium

Outing Outsiders: Exclusion in Medieval

and Early Modern Europe.

24th - 25th January 2014

Long Room Hub

Trinity College Dublin


Click here for symposium programme

History Ireland Hedge School

History Ireland Hedge School

@ the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2

Tues 21 Jan @ 7pm

‘To hell or to Kimmage’: planning outcomes of the 1913 Church Street disaster

On 2 September 1913, just as Dublin’s Lockout got under way, two tenements collapsed in Church Street, killing six people and seriously injuring seven others.

The incident threw into sharp relief Dublin’s appalling housing conditions. But what were the long-term consequences?

How did the city respond to the challenge of adequately housing its people?

In terms of planning does the Church Street disaster still cast a shadow today.

To discuss this and related matters join History Ireland editor, Tommy Graham, and panelists Ellen Rowley (TCD), Ruth McManus (St Pats, Drumcondra), Mary Daly (UCD), Chris Corlett (Darkest Dublin).

About The Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past.

We want to help explain ourselves to ourselves. We will search out fresh angles on familiar topics, seek out the unfamiliar and will not shy away from bizarre or controversial issues. Our ultimate goal is to make The History Show the primary port of call for those with an intense or even a modest interest in the subject. We want to entice the casual and the curious to join us in celebrating the past.

Our aim is to create informative, reflective, stimulating and above all, entertaining radio.

Join us on Sundays from 6.05pm for The History Show with Myles Dungan on RTÉ Radio 1.

A Pegasus production for RTÉ. 

Music Played on the Show

Whistle Stop

Whistle Stop

Roger Miller


Oo De Lally

Oo De Lally

Roger Miller


Freut Euches Lebens Waltz

Freut Euches Lebens Waltz

Orchestra Of The Viennese Volksoper


May Pearl

May Pearl

Jeff Mcilwain


Famine Song

Famine Song

Academy Of Irish Music




Contact the Show

Presenter: Myles Dungan

Producer: Lorcan Clancy


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