War, Neutrality And Irish Identities, 1939-1945

The Challenge Of The Irish Volunteers of World War II

Geoffrey Roberts

In Dividing Ireland: World War I and Partition, Thomas Hennessey argued that the First World War posed a series of acute challenges to the Irish and Britannic identities that co-existed within Ireland on the eve of 1914. The interaction and development of these identities in the circumstances created by the war resulted in a transformation of the Irish Question. Ireland was divided psychologically before it was partitioned politically, says Hennessey, and the particular way in which identities changed and clashed during the war resulted in a separatist rather than a home rule Ireland.

World War II also posed a series of challenges to Irish identities. The different responses to this challenge in Ireland did not result in any great crisis nor any great rupture comparable to that of the First World War. But there was a definite outcome to the identity questions and issues posed by the war – an outcome that had an important bearing on the postwar development of the Irish state, politics and society. At the same time the diversity of responses to the identity question produced a series of political and cultural contradictions and tensions which are still evident 60 years later.

The particular theme of this article is the impact on that process of identity formation of the large number of Irish citizens who volunteered for service in the British armed forces between 1939-1945. During the war an estimated 70,000 citizens of neutral Ireland served in the British armed forces, together with 50,000 or so from Northern Ireland. Virtually all who served were volunteers and, unlike the First World War, Irish volunteering during the Second World War was not primarily a process of collective mobilisation. In southern Ireland, at least, decisions to volunteer and serve were mainly individual. No doubt individual decisions were influenced by family and friends and sometimes the process of enlistment was aided and abetted by various organisations, but there is no sign of the "logic of collective sacrifice" evident in Irish recruitment to the British armed forces during World War I. Nor was there any general political mobilisation for war even remotely comparable to what happened in Ireland in 1914-1918. In that light the figure of 120,000 recruits North and South, if at all accurate, compares well with the estimated 210,000 Irish volunteers during the First World War.

The idea that the Second World War was a crucial period of Irish identity formation is not new. In his treatment of the war period Terence Brown cited Clifford Geertz’s distinction between "essentialism" and "epochalism" in the process of national identity formation and nation-building. "Essentialism" refers to the utilisation of local traditions and symbols in the construction of new identities (in the Irish case various aspects of the Catholic and Gaelic tradition), while the concept of "epochalism" concerns the public political narrative of the nation-state’s relationship to the outside world. Brown argues that for the first 20 years of independent Ireland’s existence essentialism predominated in the process of identity formation but that from World War II onwards epochalism came much more to the fore.

What was the emergent "epochal" narrative of the Irish state during the war? De Valera in his wartime speeches told a story of a small state trying to survive and maintain its independence in a dangerous world dominated by big powers, a small state which stood for certain principles of international behaviour and for national rights, including the right to remain neutral. Notwithstanding the occasional gesture in the allied direction, de Valera’s public stance on the war combined strict political neutrality with a moral distancing of Ireland from both sides of the conflict. The only time he deviated from this position was in May 1940 when he expressed opposition to the German invasion of the Low Countries: it "would be unworthy of this small nation if…I did not utter our protest against the cruel wrong which has been done to them."

De Valera’s statement coincided with the publication of Pope Pius XII’s expressions of sympathy for the plight of Belgium and Holland. But, much like Pius, de Valera was to maintain his silence thereafter. As Joseph Walshe, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, told the German minister in Dublin, the speech was a mistake which would not be repeated. And it wasn’t. Not until long after the war did de Valera acknowledge the virtue and justice of the allied cause.

There were some challenges to de Valera’s nationalistic neutralist narrative – above all by James Dillon, until 1942 deputy leader of Fine Gael . Dillon argued that there was a great struggle against evil unfolding in the world, a struggle which Ireland should be part of. But de Valera’s viewpoint was the one accepted by Fine Gael and the rest of the Irish political elite. Moreover, the policy of neutrality and the definition and identity of the state that it embodied was a consensus attitude and policy at the popular as well as the elite level. These populist underpinnings of the evolving identity of the Irish state were themselves the product of a political strategy by the Fianna Fail government to neutralise public opinion on the war. The main mechanism for the implementation of this strategy was the censorship regime imposed during the war. As Donal O Drisceoil has shown censorship was more than just an instrument for safeguarding the formal-legal neutral position of the state it was also a form of propaganda whose aim was to foster a neutral public outlook on the war i.e. the view that there were no moral grounds on which to take sides in the war and that Irish neutrality was a morally superior stance to that of any and all the combatants.

Fianna Fail’s political manipulation of the censorship regime was but one aspect of its domination of the domestic politics of Emergency Ireland. Another salient aspect of Fianna Fail’s hegemony was its success in establishing the centrality of its definition of the nature of Irishness and of identifying the national interest with its own party interests. More generally, John. M. Regan has recently summarised the position thus: "Ireland’s experience of war helped foster a new consensus within Irish nationalist politics after the travails of the civil war (1922-3) and the internecine politics of the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, the war "should be properly seen a catalyst accelerating the restoration of an older consensus within nationalism rather than a new beginning". In December 1940 the Irish correspondent of The Round Table reported on the unifying effects of the national mobilisation to protect Eire’s neutrality: "Men who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War are now drilling and working together. British veterans of 1914 are serving in the local security forces side by side with men who fought against the British."

Another aspect of this wartime consensus was highlighted by James Hogan in his book Election and Representation, published in 1945: Fine Gael’s strong support for neutrality amounted de facto to an abandonment of its distinct identity as the "commonwealth party. During the war Fine Gael made numerous reaffirmations of its support for Irish participation in the Commonwealth, but, as Hogan pointed out, standing aside when the very existence of the Commonwealth was at stake was tantamount to its abandonment. In this connection it cannot be without significance that it was a Fine Gael-led coalition government that took Ireland out of the Commonwealth and established the Republic in 1948.

But while Fianna Fail conceptions dominated definitions of Irish identity they did not monopolise them. As Alvin Jackson notes in his recent history of modern Ireland: "while most Irish people endorsed neutrality, there was broad sympathy for the allied cause; massive recruitment to the British army was compatible with popular support for De Valera". Others have pointed to the significance of the fact that between 1939 and 1945 nearly 200,000 workers from Eire migrated to work in the British war economy – most of whom remained in the country after the war.

In relation to the issue of neutrality versus Ireland’s participation in the war Brian Girvin quotes Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy’s summary judgement in July 1940:

"Dev would have to swerve his party away from their present road. He could only get half. Cosgrave two thirds. We would be left with a divided front. One third of the country opposed to us. This would be a matter of terrible difficulty. The one third of the country would be that part with the greatest possible capacity for nuisance and damage."

Mulcahy’s pessimism about the possibly dire consequences of a break with neutrality explains why in mid-1940 the Fine Gael leadership began to distance itself from talk of Ireland aligning itself with Britain. The exception among Fine Gael leaders was James Dillon who continued to emphasise the moral issue of the war and the prospects for a transformation of political attitudes in Ireland, particularly after the American entry into the war in December 1941. This point is endorsed by Girvin, who also emphasises the potential political capital of the British offer in July 1940 to end partition in return for Irish support in the war.

Girvin and Jackson’s questioning of the extent and solidity of the pro-neutrality consensus is confirmed by the evidence of a series of wartime British political intelligence reports on "The General Situation in Eire" . A major theme of these remarkably even-handed bimonthly reports is the impact of the course of the war on Irish public opinion. The summary for March-April 1942 reported:

"During March sources throughout Eire reported a troubled feeling on account of disasters and losses suffered by the allies…In spite of anti-British opinions aired in public, the overwhelming majority of the people are clearly pro-British at heart in the present struggle."

On the other hand, "opinion continues to harden in favour of neutrality". Commenting on the 1943 election campaign, the report of 1 July 1943 noted:

"The successful prosecution of the war and the money flowing into the pockets of the working class families from England has produced a wave of pro-British feeling throughout the country, thus neutralising the efforts of most of the Fianna Fail candidates to increase their polls by speeches calculated to stimulate the old nationalist and anti-British issues."

The summary of 1 November 1943 noted:

"It has been aptly said that Eire’s neutrality is her own private war. It satisfies her spirit of defiance and independence and she is determined to show that she can win. It seems that Eire will abandon neutrality only if she becomes involved in a quarrel of her own with the Axis powers. A responsible official of the Department of External Affairs was recently asked whether Eire would abandon her neutrality if the Pope were persecuted or taken prisoner. He replied quite seriously: Who knows? That is the only question which might set things moving. (underlining in the original)

The American equivalent of the these British intelligence reports, produced by the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), are less upbeat about pro-British and pro-allied feeling but still contain plenty of evidence of the fluidity and cross-currents of Irish identity formation during war. In January 1943 the OSS reported:

"All the parties are genuinely committed to the policy of Eire’s neutrality, and in so doing reflect quite accurately the sentiments of the vast majority of the population…[but] despite the existence of very rigorous news, movie and radio censorship, which prevents the population…from having any real understanding of the true nature of Nazi-ism and Fascism, it can be said quite truthfully that the sympathies of the vast majority of the people are on the side of the Allies. This is especially true since America’s entry into the war, and the turning of the tide of battle in favour of the Allies."

Another source of evidence on Irish attitudes during the war are the articles, reports and stories of the novelist Elizabeth Bowen. One of Bowen’s concerns was the impact of Irish isolation and neutrality on popular attitudes, including those of the pro-allied element in Ireland. In 1941 she wrote:

It is true that a thinking minority in Eire holds that the country would, in her own interests, have done better to enter the war, on the British side, in the autumn of 1939. This reflective opinion, quietly held, is distinct from the emotional opinion of former Unionists, with their tradition of service under the British flag. But this minority recognizes its own extreme smallness. It also holds that Eire, having declared for neutrality, is at this stage in no position to alter her policy. So this minority has to be ruled out; it does not now hope or wish to effect a change.

Later in the same piece she laments the impact of the Irish censorship regime:

But the general effect is – the sense of a ban on feeling, in a country in which feeling naturally runs high. And, more serious, there is an inhibition of judgement that cannot be good for human development. No fact (with regard to Europe) is withheld, but facts are denied moral context…On the whole, Eire’s sequestration from Europe is (for her) the principal ill of her neutrality: it may go to create a national childishness, a lack of grasp on the general scheme of the world


One group that escaped Bowen’s censure were those Irish citizens who enlisted in the British armed forces during the war. But what did this enlistment mean in Irish identity terms?

One angle is suggested by Terence Brown who argued that the war and Irish neutrality led to a further alienation of the so-called "Anglo-Irish" community in Ireland who felt that Eire should have fought alongside Britain. This suggestion may be linked to the idea that the Irish volunteers came predominantly from the surviving protestant-cum-unionist community in the Irish Free State. This was certainly the view favoured by Northern Ireland politicians just after the war. In a speech in October 1946 Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke said: "I have heard it said in a boasting manner that Eire men went forward to the war. Of course they did, but they were our men, they were our people who thought as we did". The context of Brooke’s remark was the embarrassing fact that recruitment rates in neutral Ireland had been almost as great at those in "loyalist" Northern Ireland.

It is probably true that proportionate to their numbers protestants were over-represented among the southern Irish volunteers in British armed forces. Of the 100 or so Irish veterans of World War II interviewed/questioned by The Volunteers Project about 20% identified themselves as coming from a Church of Ireland background. But joining up was only one response of members of the protestant community to the outbreak of war. Another, not uncommon, response was for individuals to use the opportunity of the Emergency to integrate themselves into the broader community by supporting neutrality and by taking part in the local defence forces and other home front activities.

But most of the southern Irish volunteers were Catholic and together with their protestant compatriots they were representative of the social, political and religious diversity of Irish society. The volunteers reasons for joining up were as varied and diverse as one would expect from any cohort of young people: adventure, employment, money, family tradition, a sense of patriotic duty. Explicit political motives for volunteering – anti-fascism, for example – did not figure prominently in most cases but it seems clear that the volunteers were not unsympathetic to the cause they were fighting and that they did not share the hostility to Britain and the Brits of some of their compatriots. As to Irish neutrality, most volunteers supported it and saw no contradiction between their service for the allied cause and other patriotic obligations. The defeat of Hitler was seen as no less in Ireland’s interest than in Britain’s. As Denis Johnston, who served as a BBC war correspondent, noted in his diary in April 1942: "it is my belief in Ireland’s neutrality that has so largely sent me forth. Only those who are prepared to go into this horrible thing themselves have the right to say that Ireland must stay out.

In retrospect one can see the volunteers as symbolising and personifying a patriotic Irish nationalism which permitted a multiplicity of allegiances and loyalties – to Ireland, Britain, the allied cause - and as indicating the continuing possibility of combining of elements of Irish and British identities.

Contemporary echoes of this retrospective reading of Irish volunteer identity can also be found. The prime example is R.M. Smyllie, editor of the Irish Times during the war. Smyllie was the first to put forward the pragmatic defence of Irish wartime neutrality that figures so predominantly in the historical literature today. Smyllie argued that for various political reasons neutrality was a necessary policy, but it was one that suited the allies as much as Ireland. He pointed to the various forms of Irish aid to the allied cause, above all to the many thousands of volunteers in the armed services. Smyllie’s message was that Ireland was de facto on the side of the allies – "Unneutral neutral Eire" was the title of an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs in 1946 - and that the Irish volunteers acted on behalf of the best interests of Ireland. Implicit in his arguments, too, was a much more diverse and cosmopolitan concept of Irish identity and of Ireland’s place in the world than that being propounded officially at the time.

Another contemporary example of a lauding of the volunteers role is an editorial by Peadar O’Donnell in The Bell in 1947. This was an editorial replying to Russian objections to Irish membership of the UN on the grounds that Eire had aided the Nazi cause. O’Donnell argued:

It would startle even the best informed among ourselves to have accurate figures of the recruitment of Irish men and women into the British armed forces and war industry…soldiers home on leave were welcomed by their neighbours. An air raid in Britain brought anxiety to every parish in Southern Ireland. One met the joke often…that what the Irish were doing dare not be told because the facts would embarrass both the Belfast Government who wished the world to believe their people were in the war, and Mr de Valera who wanted the Southern Irish to believe they were out of it.


The Irish state and government itself maintained an official silence on the question of the volunteers. During the war it could hardly do otherwise within the confines of the rigid public policy of neutrality and of the severe censorship regime which strove to maintain a balance between the allied and axis causes. But even after the war this official silence continued. One reason for this continuing official silence was undoubtedly the hostility to the volunteers in some republican quarters, including Fianna Fail. Another reason was that official recognition of the role of the volunteers would have put the policy of neutrality under critical scrutiny, including the fact that "unofficially" the Irish state had co-operated with the British state in numerous ways. No doubt, too, such recognition would have provoked considerable resentment among those who loyally served in the Irish armed forces and LDF.

Perhaps most important, the volunteers lacked a champion in the Irish political context. The only real possibility was Fine Gael, and many individual members and TDs did speak out on behalf of the volunteers after the war, for example, James Dillon. But officially Fine Gael tended to be as silent as Fianna Fail.

But these local political difficulties aside, there were perhaps some more profound reasons for the complete exclusion of the volunteers from mainstream discourse about Ireland’s role in the war.

First, there was the impact of the war on Ireland’s southern protestant community. The war was a watershed in the further diminution of a distinct and separate protestant identity in independent Ireland. As Kurt Bowen notes "it was not until after World War II that the well-entrenched communal boundaries of the [protestant] minority began to crumble". This postwar development was the culmination of the long-term historical trends detailed in Bowen’s book, but the war definitely acted as an accelerant. The integration of many Irish protestants into military and civil defence structures has already been noted. Those protestants who left Ireland to fight in the war by and large never returned. And, as Elizabeth Bowen noted, the wartime isolation of neutrality had a corrosive effect on the loyalty and identity of the so-called West Brits. The combined effect was the further fragmentation of the social-cultural group most likely to be supportive of the volunteers in postwar Ireland.

The second fundamental problem of the volunteers was that their actions did not fit into the epochal narrative of Ireland then being constructed. They represented an alternative moral stance to the official neutrality of the war period. While the Irish state had distanced itself from the allied crusade against fascism and retreated into isolationism, the volunteers had – at least symbolically - embraced the anti-fascist cause. It was a deeply embarrassing tension given the democratic values that the Irish state itself proclaimed.

In the postwar period Irish politicians often used the excuse of partition for Eire’s non-participation in the war. But the truth was that neutrality reinforced partition and accentuated the polarisation of identities in Ireland. In this respect Dublin’s rejection of the British offer of July 1940 was an historic turning point in North-South relations. As Dennis Kennedy argued:


After de Valera’s rejection of the overtures of 1940, Ulster’s loyalty became of crucial importance to the British war effort. In early June 1940 the Unionist position was more vulnerable than at any time since 1921. Had de Valera taken up the British offer and agreed to some measures of joint defence of the two islands, then the Northerners would have come under irresistible pressure. But the danger to Unionist Ulster was only as real as the chances of de Valera abandoning neutrality…

In effect the war years, and Irish neutrality, were a confirmation of the complete gap that had opened up in Ireland between North and South. They were also, in Unionist eyes at least, proof that…Irish nationalism…was somehow inherently anti-British, that the new Irish identity consisted in a large part in rejection of a British identity and therefore in rejection of Northern Unionists."


Irish citizens who had served in the British armed forces during the war, often alongside their Northern Irish compatriots, implicitly resisted and refused this polarisation. In Northern Ireland their diverse identity as Irish-British patriots was denied while in the south they were marginalised socially, politically and culturally, and excluded them from the ongoing process of identity formation. One example of this exclusion was the boycott by successive postwar governments of Remembrance Sunday commemorations. That began to change in the 1980s but official representation at remembrance services and ceremonies was patchy until the mid-1990s. Symbolically, the National War Memorial at Islandbridge was allowed to decay into a state of considerable disrepair. As well as official apathy there was popular hostility towards the volunteers which was summed up by the furore created by Gay Byrne’s announcement in 1988 that he would wear a remembrance poppy on his show. He backed down in the face of protests and threats.

But the problem of the place of the volunteers in Ireland’s epochal narrative remained, particularly as republican-nationalist dismissals of them came to have less and less purchase in public and political opinion. One obvious solution was to revise the narrative itself, to argue that Ireland wasn’t really neutral at all during the war, that it was a non-belligerent on the side of the allies, that the country did as much as it could to aid the allied side during the war. Within that framework the volunteers could be lauded as heroes who made a significant contribution to the allied cause, a not to be forgotten Irish dimension of the anti-fascist struggle during the Second World War. This revised narrative of the role of Ireland and the Irish in the Second World War came in the 1980s and 1990s to form the backbone of most historical works on the topic. In press coverage of anniversaries of the war, articles and editorials defending Irish neutrality stood side by side with features on the exploits of Irish volunteers. It is a viewpoint exemplified, by among others, Kevin Myers – a staunch defender of Irish wartime neutrality, but one who spent many years campaigning for public and official recognition of the Irish veterans of World War II. In November 1999 Myers wrote:

Ireland now officially remembers its lost sons of the Great War without embarrassment or shame. It would be no bad thing if people also freely recalled the purely personal and voluntary sacrifice made by many individuals, unsupported by any political campaign and rigorously concealed by the censor – even in their deaths – those whose fight for freedom helped to give us a free Europe.

But Myers underestimated the extent to which the Irish volunteers of World War II had already been fully rehabilitated - politically, historically, and in popular opinion. The contemporary consensus which views both the volunteers and wartime neutrality in a positive light is, of course, largely an updated version of R.M. Smyllie’s position, basically an attempt to harmonise the Irish neutralist position during the war with support for the allied cause.

Officially, the long government silence on the volunteers began to be broken in 1994 when Bertie Ahern (then Minister of Finance) formally opened the renovated and completed Islandbridge war memorial. Kevin Myers commented that Ahern’s presence signified "a change in attitude towards Irishness, in definitions of what it is to be Irish and how many forms of Irishness there can be without betrayal of anybody or anything."

In April 1995 Taoiseach John Bruton spoke at Islandbridge and paid tribute to the 150,000 Irish people North and South who "volunteered to fight against Nazi tyranny in Europe, at least 10,000 of whom were killed while serving in British uniforms…In recalling their bravery, we are recalling a shared experience of Irish and British people…We remember a British part of the inheritance of all who live in Ireland."

Bruton’s speech was interesting because of its implication that there is more to the issue of the volunteers than simply assimilating their role as an aspect of neutral Ireland’s contribution to the allied cause. His words were uttered in the context of the unfolding peace process in Ulster, and in front of representatives from Northern and Southern Irish political parties. His allusion to a shared Irish and British experience and to the British inheritance were an obvious gesture in the direction of a concept of Irish identity or identities incorporating a plurality of loyalties, experiences and traditions.

From being a marginal and excluded group in Irish society in the 1940s the Irish volunteers of World War II had by the 1990s come to represent historically and symbolically an aspect of a refashioned and broader concept of Irish identity. There is a certain poetic justice in all this since the most frequently reported volunteer experience of loyal service in the British armed forces was that it made them feel more Irish and more patriotic. Notwithstanding this strengthening of their Irish identity most volunteers did not feel very welcome when they returned to postwar Ireland, nor for many more years to come.

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