Irish neutrality during World War II: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.

Did you know ...

More interesting facts on Irish neutrality during World War II

Include this on your site/blog:


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article describes Ireland's international relationships during WW2, for internal issues, see: The Emergency (Ireland)
Markings to alert aircraft to neutral Ireland ("Éire" English: "Ireland") during WWII on Malin Head, Co Donegal

The policy of Irish neutrality during World War II was adopted by Dáil Éireann (the Parliament of Ireland) at the instigation of Éamon de Valera, its Taoiseach (Prime Minister) upon the outbreak of hostilities in Europe and maintained throughout the conflict. De Valera refrained from joining either the Allies or Axis powers. While the possibility of both a German or a United Kingdom invasion were discussed in the Dáil, de Valera's ruling party, Fianna Fáil, supported his policy for the duration of the war. This period is known in Ireland as the Emergency, owing to the wording of the constitutional article employed to suspend normal government of the country.

Pursuing a policy of neutrality required attaining a balance between the strict observance of non-alignment and the taking of practical steps in order to repel or discourage an invasion from either of the two concerned parties.

It is said, by some, that Ireland was then still a dominion of the British Empire. To put this in perspective, however, in 1937, de Valera introduced a new constitution to replace that imposed by the treaty. It declared Ireland to be a 'sovereign, independent, democratic state'. The new constitution was adopted by a plebiscite in 1937.

The matter of whether Ireland also was a member of the British Commonwealth after 1937 will continue to be debated. Objectivity in this matter would be difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

From a British perspective, the Statute of Westminster meant, however, that unlike in World War I, Britain's entry into the war no longer automatically included its dominions. Relations between Ireland and Britain had been strained for many years. Ireland had gained partial independence from the United Kingdom after the War of Independence. Until 1938 the two states had engaged in the Anglo-Irish Trade War.


Internal affairs

There can be little doubt that Irish neutrality was overwhelmingly supported by the population of Ireland, [1] although a minority favoured fighting against the Axis powers. Irish citizens could serve in the British armed forces, as around 38,554 in the British Army did (see Participants in World War II), as well as in the merchant navy and in British factories. Likewise a minority of Irish Republicans sided with Germany, believing that a German victory might bring about a United Ireland. Moreover, in a war in which the United Kingdom was involved, neutrality was perceived as the clearest expression of Irish sovereignty, something the Taoiseach fervently sought.

In response to claims that Ireland had failed to take up the moral fight against Nazism, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joe Walshe, answered in 1941 that:[2]

… small nations like Ireland do not and cannot assume a role as defenders of just causes except [their] own … Existence of our own people comes before all other considerations … no government has the right to court certain destruction for its people; they have to take the only chance of survival and stay out.

On the day following the German invasion of Poland, a hastily convened Dáil declared an immediate state of emergency. The Emergency Powers Act that the day's debate culminated in came into effect one day later, on September 3, 1939. It was modelled extensively on the British draft worked-out during the Sudeten crisis a year before. In some respects the Irish act was regarded as more drastic. The key provisions were as follows:[3]

The government may, whenever and so often as they think fit, make by order (in this act referred to as an emergency order), such provisions as are, in the opinion of the government, necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, or the preservation of the state, or for the maintenance of public order, or the provision and control of supplies and services to the life of the community.

With such sweeping executive powers, de Valera's cabinet set out to tackle any problems that might arise and curb any inconsistencies with the nation's policy of neutrality. Censorship of radio newscasts meant newsreaders were confined to reading, without comment, the dispatches of each side, while weather forecasts were halted to preclude the inadvertent assistance of planes or ships involved in the war. Public expressions of opinion appearing to favour one side or the other were repressed. The word 'war' itself was avoided, with the Government referring to the situation in Europe from 1939 to 1945 as 'the Emergency'.


Prelude to war

The Irish government had good reason to be concerned lest the War in Europe re-open the wounds of the Civil War. There were pro- and anti-fascist movements in Ireland, and the IRA continued to pursue its own agenda.

Former Old IRA commander and founder of the Fine Gael Party General Eoin O'Duffy became a leader of the fascist Blueshirt organisation.[4] He was active in creating links between the IRA and German Nazi politicians. The pro-Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism of some Irish politicians during WW2 were once airbrushed from history, but Ireland is now beginning to acknowledge them.[5][6] In this context, it is relevant to note that two Irish contingents fought on opposing sides of the 1937 Spanish Civil War, O'Duffy's pro-Nationalist (Fascist) Irish Brigade and the pro-Republican Irish contingent of the International Brigades, though neither had government support.

In the six months prior to the onset of war there had been an escalation of Irish Republican Army violence and a bombing campaign in Britain under the new leadership of Seán Russell. Upon the outbreak of the conflict, this activity became regarded as endangering the security of the state. There were fears that the United Kingdom, eager to secure Irish ports for their air and naval forces, might use the attacks as a pretext for an invasion of Ireland and a forcible seizure of the assets in question. Furthermore, the possibility that the IRA (in line with the Irish nationalist tradition of courting allies in Europe) might link up with German agents, thereby compromising Irish non-involvement, was considered.[citation needed]

This threat was real: Russell, upon the outbreak of war, travelled to Berlin in order to press for troops and arms to be sent to Ireland. In response, many German agents were parachuted in the Republic of Ireland. De Valera prepared for the eventuality of a German incursion and G2 (the Irish military intelligence branch) were able to detain most of the agents within days, with the last apprehension in 1941. Active republicans were interned at the Curragh or given prison sentences; six men were hanged under newly legislated acts of treason and three more died on hunger strike. [7] IRA chief of staff Seán Russell died in a U-boat off the Irish coast as part of Operation Dove; the Germans also later came to realize they had overestimated the abilities of the IRA. By 1943, the IRA had all but ceased to exist. Neutrality was popular, despite rationing and economic pressure. (In the west of Ireland there are persistent local rumors of U-Boats being resupplied secretly with fuel and provisions by the IRA.)

Ports and trade

Eoghan Ganly, President of the Maritime Institute of Ireland (wearing chain of office) at Medal presentation to the grandchildren of Timoteo McCarthy, an Argentine national who served on a number of Irish ships during the war.

At the outbreak of the war Ireland was isolated as never before.[8] Shipping had been neglected since independence.[9][10] Foreign ships, on which Ireland had hitherto depended, were less available.[11] Neutral American ships would not enter the "war zone".[12] There were a mere 56 Irish ships when the war started; 15 more were purchased or leased during the conflict; 20 were lost. In his Saint Patrick's Day address in 1940, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, lamented:

No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of beligerents and our lack of ships, most of which had been sunk, which virtually cut all links with our normal sources of supply.

The diminutive Irish Mercantile Marine continued essential overseas trading. This period was referred to as The Long Watch by Irish Mariners. They sailed unarmed and usually alone, flying the Irish tricolour. They identified themselves as neutrals with bright lights and by painting the tricolour and EIRE in large letters on their sides and decks,[13] yet twenty percent of seamen perished as victims of a war in which they were non-participants. Allied convoys, often, could not stop to pick up survivors.[14][15] Irish ships always answered SOS calls; they always stopped to rescue. Irish mariners rescued seafarers from both sides, but they were attacked by both, predominately by the Axis powers. Vital imports arrived. Exports, mainly food supplies for Great Britain, were delivered. 521 lives were saved.[16]

External affairs

For de Valera the emphasis of Irish neutrality was on preservation of the Irish Republic and an expression of sovereignty, so committing to the policy accomplished both rational and ideological goals.[citation needed] While the revolutionaries of the Irish War of Independence were ready to enter into alliances with the enemies of Britain to secure Irish independence, they realised that such a policy would be dangerously provocative if ever Irish independence came to be, a point de Valera made in February 1920:[17]

An independent Ireland would see its own independence in jeopardy the moment it saw the independence of Britain seriously threatened. Mutual self-interest would make the people of these two islands, if both independent, the closest of allies in a moment of real national danger to either.

This statement reflected a point de Valera had made as early as 1918 (when writing to President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, seeking that the United States formally recognise the Irish Republic as an independent state):[17]

Ireland is quite ready by treaty to ensure England's safety against the danger of foreign powers seeking to use Ireland as a basis of attack against her.

Months before the outbreak of war, de Valera gave a statement to the Associated Press which appeared in newspapers on February 20, 1939:[18]

The desire of the Irish people and the desire of the Irish Government is to keep our nation out of war. The aim of Government policy is to maintain and to preserve our neutrality in the event of war. The best way and the only way to secure our aim is to put ourselves in the best position possible to defend ourselves so that no one can hope to attack us or violate our territory with impunity. We know, of course, that should attack come from a power other than Great Britain, Great Britain in her own interest must help us to repel it.

In April 1941, the question of Ireland's entry into the war was again raised when the Australian Prime Minister Menzies paid a visit to Belfast and Dublin for private discussions with Andrews, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and De Valera. Subsequently Menzies reported to Churchill that the complexity of the questions of Irish unity and sovereignty meant that there was little possibility of Ireland abandoning its policy of neutrality.[19]

Without the Irish treaty ports (which the United Kingdom had released a year prior to the war), an independent Ireland posed a serious disadvantage to the military capability and safety of British fighting and trade, risking the possibility of invasion if that disadvantage ever proved too great. If Irish sovereignty was to be maintained, then neutrality would have to be steered consciously to the benefit of British interests, as these were its own: at once to aid the British war effort but also to forestall invasion by Britain to regain the treaty ports. Ireland, like other neutrals was '...neutral for the power that potentially threatened them most.' [20]

In this regard Viscount Cranborne acknowledged at the war's end that the Irish Government had '...been willing to accord us any facilities which would not be regarded as overtly prejudicing their attitude to neutrality', collaborating with the British war cabinet. [21] (See below for complete text.) The pattern of co-operation between British and Irish agencies began upon the onset of war when de Valera indicated[citation needed] his acquiescence to (limited) use of Irish airspace (the "Donegal Corridor" — the narrow strip of Irish territory between County Fermanagh and the sea) by Allied forces, and to patrolling coastal points. While de Valera rejected British appeals to use Irish ports and harbour facilities directly, de Valera was, according to M.E. Collins, 'more friendly than strict neutrality should have allowed.'[22] The cooperation that emerged allowed for meetings to take place to consider events after German troops had overrun neutral Denmark, Norway and Belgium. Three days after the fall of France, Irish and British defence officials met to discuss how British troops could, strictly at de Valera's invitation, occupy Ireland upon the event of a German landing there in order to expel foreign troops attempting to use her as a back door to later invade Britain. The meetings continued, as Cranborne described, throughout the war, facilitating further dialogue.

Before the war began, de Valera had held a meeting with career diplomat Dr. Eduard Hempel, the German Minister in Ireland since 1938. The meetings discussed Ireland’s close trade links with the United Kingdom and the ease with which Britain could invade her if its interests were threatened. He in turn communicated to Berlin that such was the case that it 'rendered it inevitable for the Irish government to show a certain consideration for Britain' and urged war officials to avoid any action that would legitimise a British invasion of Ireland.[22] In mid-June 1940, Secretary of External Affairs Joe Walshe expressed his 'great admiration for the German achievements.' Hempel, for his part, wrote to Germany of 'the great and decisive importance even to Ireland of the changed situation in world affairs and of the obvious weakness of the democracies.' Hempel might well have known better of Irish intentions, having earlier described a native custom 'to say agreeable things without meaning everything that is said.'[22]

Other examples of Irish attitudes towards Nazi Germany found expression in mid-1940 in de Valera's Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin, William Warnock, 'whose "unquestionable" hostility to Britain could easily be interpreted as sympathetic for National Socialism.' [23] Academic J.J. Lee questioned just how much of Warnock's zeal towards Hitler’s Reichstag speech on July 19 was genuine enthusiasm for the 'international justice' that could be expected after Germany’s victory, as opposed to an adherence to the instructions of Dublin to please oneself to the potential victors.[citation needed] Three years later, by 1944, the orientation of the war and of Irish relations to Germany had turned about-face, with the threat of a German victory no longer imminent. In that climate the Irish Government, once so ready to 'say agreeable things', Hempel remarked, had become 'unhelpful and evasive'.[24]

However, Ireland maintained a public stance of neutrality by refusing to close the German and Japanese embassies, and the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera signed the book of condolence on Adolf Hitler’s death, on May 2, 1945, and visited personally with the Nazi representative in Ireland, Dr Eduard Hempel. At the time the Third Reich was still in existence, but only just. The reasoning at international law was that the embassies represented at least the German and Japanese peoples, even as their governments were collapsing. In contrast, the equally-neutral Switzerland and Sweden rounded up German embassy officials and expelled them, on the narrower basis that they no longer represented a functioning state.

The United States Ambassador to Ireland, David Gray, stated that he once asked de Valera what he would do if German paratroopers "liberated Derry". According to Gray, de Valera was silent for a time and then replied "I don't know".[25]

Ireland, Britain's last Redoubt?

In his book "Wings over Ireland - History of the Irish Air Corps", Donal McCarron gives extensive details on the otherwise secret Rathduff aerodrome (Chapter Nine). He states that as early as the summer of 1940 both governments were worried about the "Doomsday scenario" of a successful invasion of Britain. The RAF would need at least one aerodrome to continue the fight in Ireland and both the Irish and British armies secretly scouted for a site in the south of Ireland. The other airfields of Rineanna near Limerick and Dublin airport and Baldonnel near Dublin would cover other parts of Ireland, so the RAF was keen on a site near the southeast coast.

The Irish Army disagreed, fearing a German invasion would overrun it quickly, so both finally agreed on a site in the south of County Tipperary, in the valley of the river Suir, west of the Galtee Mountains. This also suited the Irish army as they had built a secret command headquarters near a convent school seven miles away to be used in case of invasion. The name "Rathduff" was chosen as a cover because such a name is to be found all over Munster. Both sites were completely out of bounds for all normal military operations.

With Hitler turning towards the USSR in 1941 the chances of an invasion of Britain waned and the Irish Army decided to hold a major exercise to test the planning and training it had been undertaking for four years, in autumn 1942. As part of this, "Rathduff's" secret was partially released, with it serving as the airfield for Ireland's 2nd Division during the exercise. After the exercises "Rathduff" slipped into obscurity, its fields returning to use as the thoroughbred stud farm they had been before.

Victory in Europe Day

In his speech celebrating the Allied victory in Europe (May 1945) Winston Churchill remarked that he had demonstrated restraint in not laying

'a heavy hand upon Ireland, though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural.'

In a response a few days later, de Valera acknowledged that Churchill did not add 'another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record' of Anglo-Irish relations, but asked:[26][27]

...could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression...a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?

In addition, he put the following, that

I would like to put a hypothetical question-it is a question I have put to many Englishmen since the last war. Suppose Germany had won the war, had invaded and occupied England, and that after a long lapse of time and many bitter struggles, she was finally brought to acquiesce in admitting England's right to freedom, and let England go, but not the whole of England, all but, let us say, the six southern counties.

These six southern counties, those, let us suppose, commanding the entrance to the narrow seas, Germany had singled out and insisted on holding herself with a view to weakening England as a whole, and maintaining the securing of her own communications through the Straits of Dover.

Let us suppose further, that after all this had happened, Germany was engaged in a great war in which she could show that she was on the side of freedom of a number of small nations, would Mr. Churchill as an Englishman who believed that his own nation had as good a right to freedom as any other, not freedom for a part merely, but freedom for the whole-would he, whilst Germany still maintained the partition of his country and occupied six counties of it, would he lead this partitioned England to join with Germany in a crusade? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.

Would he think the people of partitioned England an object of shame if they stood neutral in such circumstances? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.

The implications on Victory in Europe Day and after, of having not been involved in the war and having suffered the devastation that defined the course of Europe afterwards, is the subject of historical debate. The devastation shared by most of Europe, and Ireland's avoidance of it, was described by F.S.L. Lyons as:

The tensions – and the liberations – of war, the shared experience, the comradeship in suffering, the new thinking about the future, all these things had passed her by. It was as if an entire people had been condemned to live in Plato's cave, with their backs to the fire of life and deriving their only knowledge of what went on outside from the flickering shadows thrown on the wall before their eyes by the men and women who passed to and fro behind them. When after six years they emerged, from the cave into the light of day, it was a new and vastly different world.[28]

In response to which R. Fanning wrote: 'One might question [...] the liberating value of war for a people who has so recently emerged from revolution followed by a civil war and in whose midst the IRA still propounded the creed of violence ...'[29]

The Cranborne report

Viscount Cranborne, the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, wrote a letter to the British War Cabinet regarding Irish-British collaboration during 1939-1945:[30]

  1. They agreed to our use of Lough Foyle for naval and air purposes. The ownership of the Lough is disputed, but the Southern Irish authorities are tacitly not pressing their claim in present conditions and are also ignoring any flying by our aircraft over the Donegal shore of the Lough, which is necessary in certain wind conditions to enable flying boats to take off the Lough.
  2. They have agreed to use by our aircraft based on Lough Erne of a corridor over Southern Irish territory and territorial waters for the purpose of flying out to the Atlantic.
  3. They have arranged for the immediate transmission to the United Kingdom Representative’s Office in Dublin of reports of submarine activity received from their coast watching service.
  4. They arranged for the broadening of reports by their Air observation Corps of aircraft sighted over or approaching Southern Irish territory. (This does not include our aircraft using the corridor referred to in (b) above.)
  5. They arranged for the extinction of trade and business lighting in coastal towns where such lighting was alleged to afford a useful landmark for German aircraft.
  6. They have continued to supply us with meteorological reports.
  7. They have agreed to the use by our ships and aircraft of two wireless direction-finding stations at Malin Head.
  8. They have supplied particulars of German crashed aircraft and personnel crashed or washed ashore or arrested on land.
  9. They arranged for staff talks on the question of co-operation against a possible German invasion of Southern Ireland, and close contact has since been maintained between the respective military authorities.
  10. They continue to intern all German fighting personnel reaching Southern Ireland. On the other hand, though after protracted negotiations, Allied service personnel are now allowed to depart freely and full assistance is given in recovering damaged aircraft.
  11. Recently, in connection with the establishment of prisoner of war camps in Northern Ireland, they have agreed to return or at least intern any German prisoners who may escape from Northern Ireland across the border to Southern Ireland.
  12. They have throughout offered no objection to the departure from Southern Ireland of persons wishing to serve in the United Kingdom Forces nor to the journey on leave of such persons to and from Southern Ireland (in plain clothes).
  13. They have continued to exchange information with our security authorities regarding all aliens (including Germans) in Southern Ireland.
  14. They have (within the last few days) agreed to our establishing a Radar station in Southern Ireland for use against the latest form of submarine activity.

Effect on United Nations membership

The neutrality policy led to a delay in Ireland's membership of the United Nations. Ireland's applications for membership were vetoed by the Soviet Union, a permanent member of the Security Council, from 1946 to December 1955.[31]

See also


  1. ^ O'Halpin, Eunan, 1999, Defending Ireland: The Irish State and its enemies since 1922, Oxford: The Oxford University Press. p. 151
  2. ^ Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland. p. 371
  3. ^ Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., p 122
  4. ^ RTÉ (Irish Television) Hidden History
  6. ^ The Jews of Ireland.
  7. ^ Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland. p. 373
  8. ^ Ferriter, Diarmaid (2006). What If? Alternative Views of Twentieth-Century Ireland.. Gill & Macmillan. pp. 100. ISBN 9780717139903. "(Quoting Garvin) Irish isolationism was a very powerful cultural sentiment at that time" 
  9. ^ McIvor, page 16
  10. ^ Gilligan, H.A. (1988). A History of the Port of Dublin. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. pp. 166. ISBN 071711578X. 
  11. ^ Spong, page 11. "in the period April 1941 and June 1942 only seven such ships visited the country"
  12. ^ Burne, Lester H (2003). Richard Dean Burns. ed. Chronological History of U.S. Foreign Relations: 1932-1988. 2. Routledge. pp. 537. ISBN 9780415939164. 
  13. ^ Fisk, page 273, "Up to four huge tricolours were painted on the sides of each ship together with the word EIRE in letters twenty feet high"
  14. ^ Gleichauf, Justin (2002). Unsung Sailors. Bluejacket Books. p. 115. ISBN 9781557504203. 
  15. ^ Sinclair, Andrew (2001). Blood & Kin: an empire saga. Sinclair-Stevenson. pp. 561. ISBN 9780954047634. "... or we're sitting ducks. So we sail past all these drowning sailors, and they call up to us, and we must sail on. I remember one crying, 'Taxi! Taxi!'. We didn't stop." 
  16. ^ Fisk, page 276
  17. ^ a b Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.. p. 121
  18. ^ Dáil Debates, 22 March 1939.
  19. ^ "Memorandum by Mr R. G. Menzies, Prime Minister". Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia). 1941-04-10. pp. 1. Retrieved 2008-12-27. 
  20. ^ Lee, J.J., 1989, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. p. 244
  21. ^ Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.. p. 124-5
  22. ^ a b c Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland, pg. 374
  23. ^ Lee, J.J., 1989, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: University of Cambridge, pg. 248
  24. ^ Lee, J.J., 1989, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: University of Cambridge, pg. 253
  25. ^ Bew, Paul (2007). Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 468. ISBN 9780198205555. "Then he added:"Please don't mention that to anybody. It might get around"" 
  26. ^ Collins, M.E., 1993, Ireland 1968-1966, Dublin: the Educational Company of Ireland, pg. 383
  27. ^ Clair Wills, 2007, That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War
  28. ^ Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., p. 226
  29. ^ Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., p. 127
  30. ^ Fanning, R., 1983, Independent Ireland, Dublin: Helicon, Ltd.., pp 124-5
  31. ^ Elizabeth Keane - An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: the nationalist and internationalist politics of Sean MacBride - London: I.B.Tauris Publishers ISBN 1845111257 "The Soviet Union vetoed the application's entry ostensibly on the grounds that Ireland had no diplomatic presence in the Soviet Union and that during the war, Ireland did not help the Allies, instead offering support to the Axis and Franco's Spain. Ireland's anti-communist stance was probably more responsible; the membership of the General Assembly was weighted towards the Western Bloc, and the Soviet Union did not want its position in the Assembly weakened." (page 150)

External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address