What did Ireland do in World War II?

Irish castle image by Krista Stith

With St. Patrick’s Day coming around the corner, I was trying to decide what interesting facts about the Emerald Isle I should cover this year. Then, I remembered my past blogs about the less well-known contributions of various nations in the Second World War. Even though they were right next door to a key Allied power, a mere ferry-ride away from the horrors of the Blitz, it seems we never talk about how Ireland was affected by the war. Some people may be vaguely aware that Ireland was neutral, but beyond that, it seems our cultural memory just draws a blank when it comes to what World War II was like for Ireland. So, what DID Ireland do in WWII?

Why was Ireland neutral?

In order to explain the decision of everyone’s favorite island to stay out of the conflict, we first need to talk about what happened in Ireland during World War I.

Battle of the Somme image from the Imperial War Museum

At the time, Ireland was fully part of the United Kingdom, and as such 210,000 Irishmen fought as soldiers in the British Army, 35,000 of whom never made it home. For some radical Irish nationalists, who were seeking independence from British rule, this was the last straw. Armed rebels staged an uprising against British rule in Dublin on April 24, 1916. The Easter Rising, as it came to be known, was swiftly crushed by British troops that had to be diverted from the front.

At first, the general public opposed the rising, especially due to the high number of civilian casualties caught in the crossfire, but the decision by the British authorities to execute the rebel leaders swiftly changed public opinion. See, Ireland had a very, very long history of resenting and resisting attempts by the English to conquer their island. When the island was merged into the United Kingdom in 1801, this was done without the consent of the majority of the island’s people. For decades, Irish politicians campaigned to restore some amount of “Home Rule” for the island, but the British Parliament resisted reforms. At last, they managed to get a bill passed by Parliament that would have made Home Rule a reality… only for it to be suspended upon the outbreak of the war. Now, the Irish were being reminded why they hated British rule, and worried that the British would go back on their promises.

When the British held elections for Parliament in 1918, members of the Irish nationalist political party Sinn Féin refused to go to London to serve their positions in Westminster, and instead declared themselves to be the government of an independent Irish republic. The Irish Republican Army staged yet another armed uprising against British rule, this one far more successful thanks to their guerrilla tactics, much greater public support for the cause of independence, and British heavy-handed tactics that victimized civilians. Eventually, the British agreed to invite the rebel leaders to the negotiating table.

The peace agreement they came up with split the island, with six majority-Protestant counties of Ulster in the north remaining within the United Kingdom outright, and the rest of the island being turned into an “Irish Free State” that, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, would be basically independent and able to govern itself, but retain loyalty to the British monarch. As you can imagine, this was rather controversial, and the rebels turned against each other as pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions fought a civil war. The pro-Treaty faction won and became the new government, while the anti-Treaty faction (who retained the “Irish Republican Army” name) would remain a terrorist group for decades.

The main leader of the anti-Treaty faction was Éamon de Valera, the American-born half-Latino fighter for Irish independence we have seen on Cat Flag before. Though he was committed to breaking Ireland fully away from British rule, after losing the Civil War he decided to pursue this goal through peaceful means. As soon as he was released from prison, he re-entered politics, formed a new political party and campaigned for reform. By 1932, he was elected Ireland’s prime minister, and in 1937 he completely rewrote the constitution. No longer the “Irish Free State”, the country’s name was legally changed to “Éire” in Irish and “Ireland” in English. The new constitution set up a republican form of government, complete with a President and everything, and declared that the claimed sovereign territory of the nation was the whole island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland.

Then, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The very next day, de Valera asked the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, to declare a state of emergency and grant him emergency powers, which they promptly did.

De Valera used these emergency powers to keep Ireland neutral during the war. He had several reasons for doing so. From a practical standpoint, the country had lost so many lives from the First World War, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, that it was in no shape to go fighting a new conflict. From a political standpoint, he was trying to reform Ireland’s government and secure its independence, and didn’t need their neighbors to drag them into a new conflict. From a public relations standpoint, some Irish voices supported the Nazis as an “enemy of my enemy” mindset, while thousands of others volunteered for service in the British Army to fight the greater evil. Neutrality was simply the most popular option among the Irish public.

How neutral was Ireland, really?

That is a good question, with a not-very-simple answer.

For starters, since de Valera’s new constitution made no mention of the British monarch, it didn’t technically sever the country’s links to King George VI. Irish diplomats still were formally accredited by the King, and by law it was still the King who would sign treaties on behalf of Ireland. However, the laws made it very clear that he could only do so with Ireland’s explicit consent. This meant the King’s declaration of war against the Axis powers would not affect Ireland. No matter how much Winston Churchill objected to this fact.

A second complicating factor was that there was a renewed push by the Irish authorities to crush the IRA during this time. It was well-known that the IRA had Axis sympathies, and during the first few months of the war waged a campaign of terrorist bombings and attacks. There were also fears that the IRA would make contact with German spy networks, and if that were revealed, it was feared the British would use this as justification to blockade Irish ports. The Irish government’s crackdowns were highly effective at snuffing this problem out.

Then there was the Blitz. Though Great Britain suffered the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s bombings, Ireland was not unscathed. On April 7, 1941, German bombers devastated Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Now, the city was home to a major Royal Navy presence, and Northern Ireland is part of the UK, even though Ireland claimed it and sent firefighters north to help out. Then, on May 30, the Luftwaffe dropped bombs on Dublin, killing 34 and wounding 90. Germany claimed afterward that the bombing was an accident, and this explanation was ultimately accepted by Irish authorities.

Speaking of aircraft flying over Ireland, de Valera and the Irish government declared a policy of arresting and interning any pilots from any belligerent nation who landed or crashed on Irish soil. However, they were not consistent at all in the application of this policy. A total of 223 Axis personnel were interned, and none were released until after the war. Yet 228 Allied personnel were allowed to leave Ireland without obstruction, and all 45 Allied pilots who were actually captured would be released under Allied diplomatic pressure.

Ireland’s intelligence service was definitely “neutral on the Allied side”, intercepting information going into and out of the German embassy in Dublin and passing it to their British contacts.

Lastly, there was Plan W, the secret plan devised by Irish and British military commanders to cooperate in the defense of Ireland in the event the Germans invaded. Ireland’s military at the time was quite small, ill-equipped, and poorly-trained, and the Wehrmacht’s steamroll over the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg showed Ireland’s leaders just what happened to countries in that situation. Whether they liked it or not, Ireland would need Britain’s help to defend itself, though they insisted that no British forces would be allowed to enter Ireland until the Axis invasion. Luckily, that day never came.

The downsides of neutrality

Irish pub image by George Hodan

Still, Ireland’s public declarations of neutrality did have a dark side, and not just that putting on the appearance of impartiality required Irish leaders to make nice to the Third Reich right up to the war’s very end, where de Valera offered his condolences on the news of Hitler’s death.

Remember all those Irishmen who volunteered to fight in the British Army? Well, after they returned home to Ireland they became social outcasts, believed by the general public to be traitors for going to fight for the hated British. Those who had been Irish soldiers before the war were arrested and punished as deserters, and their names were put on a government-issued blacklist to make sure they would never find employment in Ireland.

Then there’s the Holocaust. The Irish government was unconcerned with the antisemitism in mainland Europe or the persecution of Jews under the Nazis’ boots. Only 30 Jewish refugees were admitted to Ireland during this time. After the war, as the scale of the crimes against humanity came to be truly known by the world, Ireland began allowing Holocaust survivors to immigrate to the country. However, some of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust were also given refuge on the Emerald Isle under assumed names. And, yes, there is at least one recorded case of a Holocaust victim who lives in Ireland confronting an ex-SS member also living in the country.

Ireland’s neutrality was punished by the international community by having its membership at the UN blocked for ten years. Today, however, Ireland continues to maintain its Switzerland-like global policy of neutrality in spite of this. They are not a member of NATO or any other military alliance. The Irish military is mainly used to serve UN peacekeeping missions abroad. There was even a recent bill proposed to enshrine its neutrality in its constitution, though this was ultimately shot down. It seems the main lesson Ireland learned from World War II was that neutrality kept it safe, and so it is maintaining that policy into the 21st century.

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