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Fighting Irish:
Ireland and the Emergency

What a race, what a tribe of outcasts. They do not deserve to survive.
Rear Admiral Tufton Beamish, RN, MP, regarding Irish neutrality, 1939

On 2 September 1939, as one member of the British Commonwealth after another joined the mother country in declaring war on Nazi Germany, Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera stood before the Dail, or Parliament, and declared that Eire (as the Irish Free State had renamed itself the previous year) would remain neutral in the new war.

The decision angered the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who raged that Ireland did not have the legal right as a member of the Commonwealth to sit out the war, and soon he was accusing the Irish of allowing German submarines to shelter in their waters. The three “treaty ports” evacuated by the Royal Navy in 1938 (Lough Swilly, Cobh and Berehaven) should be re-occupied by force, Churchill asserted.

Saner minds prevailed, and Ireland’s neutrality proved to be one friendly to the Allied cause. The Irish, despite a deep desire (at least among the Catholic population) to unify the island under one state, depended on imports for food and for coal. By the summer of 1940 the Irish Army’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Dan McKenna, was holding joint planning conferences with British officers to prepare for possible German landings in Ireland. Initial resistance, the Irish insisted, would come exclusively from their own Army. British forces would be allowed to enter Irish territory afterwards to help eject the invaders, but they would not be welcome beforehand. Ireland would not accept a foreign garrison ever again.

Ireland’s armed forces did not inspire confidence. The Irish Defence Forces, or Na Forsai Cosanta, mobilized in September 1939 but halted expansion at 19,000 men (peacetime strength was about 6,000) because they lacked weapons and other equipment. Two days before Christmas, an Irish Republican Army cell managed to steal over a million rounds of ammunition and a number of submachine guns from the Army’s chief depot at Magazine Fort near Dublin without resistance. The police eventually recovered almost all of the missing items, but the incident struck a severe blow to public confidence in the Army.

The five regular battalions were expanded to form two infantry brigades, with the addition of a new regular battalion and one of ex-IRA volunteers. The Army’s four anti-aircraft guns were concentrated in a single battery at Dublin, while the 1st and 2nd Armoured Squadrons (one serving with each brigade) boasted a single Vickers C medium tank bought in 1929, two Swedish-made Landsverk L60 light tanks, and about a dozen each of Rolls-Royce and Landsverk armored cars plus some locally-modified Ford trucks mounting machine guns. Unfortunately, during an anti-tank demonstration in early 1940 an Irish soldier mistakenly loaded an anti-tank gun with a live round and damaged the republic’s lone medium tank beyond repair. Irish soldiers wore a German-pattern helmet (though manufactured by Vickers in the UK) and most infantrymen carried a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun.


Irish armored car and sentry, 1941. Yes, the soldier wearing the coal-scuttle is Irish.

In late 1939 the Dail began to experience buyer’s remorse, balking at the growing expenses of military mobilization. The “Phony War” had set in on the Western Front, and perhaps the war would soon end in some sort of negotiated settlement, with the funds wasted on unneeded troops and weapons. The Defence Force actually cut back its personnel in November 1939, with the government directing that its primary responsibility lay in preventing IRA-led violence.

Expansion only resumed with the German attacks on Scandinavia and the Low Countries in the spring of 1940. Eire obtained more weapons (mostly from Britain), and stepped up recruiting (Ireland never instituted a draft, relying solely on volunteers). The two brigades became two divisions, one stationed on the border with Northern Ireland and one along the southern and eastern coasts. Two independent brigades formed as well. In the summer of 1942 both divisions exercised together along the Blackwater with the maximum strength the Irish Army would reach during the war: 38,787. The German-style coalscuttle helmet gave way to a British-model tin pot starting in late 1940.

The Irish Army Air Corps had four Gloster Gladiator fighters purchased in 1938. At least two Hurricane fighters that crash-landed on Irish soil were repaired and put to use, plus several more purchased in 1943. Naval strength consisted of two small fisheries protection vessels and a single motor torpedo boat, augmented by four more during the course of the war.

The exact number of Irish citizens who served in the British armed forces is hard to determine; Unionist politicians (those who wished to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom) were very sensitive to the distinct possibility that neutral Eire had spilled more blood in defense of freedom than had Northern Ireland (where conscription was never enforced). At least 32,000 men born in Eire served in the British Army alone and others in the Royal Navy and Air Force. The number also does not include Irish citizens resident in Britain in 1939 who volunteered. Many civilians also made the journey across the Irish Sea to work in British factories during the war. Higher wages played a part, with the Irish soldier making less than half of what his British counterpart earned after the Republic made its deductions for haircuts and laundry. So did a yearning for action, and the desire of many Irishmen to fight the Nazis.

By 1945 the Defense Forces listed over 5,000 men as having deserted, and Army Intelligence admitted that almost all of them were serving in the British armed forces. “At least De Valera’s kept us out of all this,” became the common greeting between such Wild Geese.

With half of Ireland’s grain supply coming from Canada, the government encouraged its citizens to plant potatoes. Wartime censorship, in the hands of the Minister for Coordination of Defensive Measures, Frank Aiken, extended far beyond military information. Aiken used his powers to enforce an extreme prudishness, deleting any hints of sex from books, newspapers and movies. Aiken also claimed that Eire’s neutral status meant that the war could not be portrayed in a moral context. Any mention of the ongoing Holocaust in Central Europe was kept from the Irish public — even statements by American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden were edited to remove any reference to the slaughter of Jews and others.

Jewish refugees were denied entry as “undesirable elements,” though no repressive measures were undertaken against Eire’s 4,000 Jewish citizens. Not until 1995 would the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, issue a veiled apology for Ireland’s having “closed their doors and their ports.” Irish soldiers killed in action overseas were listed as having died in accidents in their obituaries and any awards for courage under fire deleted.

De Valera’s pursuit of neutrality even included an expression of condolence to the German legation on 30 April 1945 following Adolf Hitler’s suicide, the circumstances of which also remained hidden from the Irish public. Less than two weeks later, Churchill’s victory speech blasted De Valera: “Had it not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr. de Valera or perish forever from the earth.”

Three days later, De Valera countered this invasion threat by praising Churchill’s restraint. “Mr. Churchill,” the Irish leader said, “instead of adding another horrid chapter to the already blood-stained record of relations between England and this country, has advanced the cause of international morality an important step.”

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.