Here is a link to a letter from me to the editor of the Irish Times, published recently:
My letter drew directly on research conducted for my forthcoming book ‘Ireland During the Second World War’, which explores the black market operative in Emergency Ireland.
The debate about Irish soldiers who deserted to join the Allies during the Second World War needs some contextualisation, which I hope to provide below.
The Irish Defence Minister, Alan Shatter, has announced a pardon and amnesty for Irish soldiers who deserted to join the Allies during the Second World War (13/06/12). The move pleased campaigners for the Irish Soldiers Pardons Campaign – http://www.forthesakeofexample.com/ – but as this article by historian Michael Kennedy demonstrates – http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0215/1224311800480.html – the decision has proved controversial.
Earlier this year, Shatter was scolded by historian Diarmaid Ferriter for ‘reading history backwards’. The Defence Minister had termed Emergency neutrality ‘a principle of moral bankruptcy’. Shatter’s recent announcement of a pardon and amnesty for soldiers who deserted the Irish Army to fight for the Allies during the Second World War has proved popular, but once again raises the question of proper contextualisation.
My point in the letter was that understanding this historic context is crucial. For historians looking for a slice of ‘real life’ during the Emergency, the literary journal The Bell has long been a profitable source. One of the best articles is ‘I Did Penal Servitude’, an account of deviance written by a criminal known only by the pseudonym ‘D83222’ (editor Seán O’Faoláin’s telephone number). In a memorable passage in the book which followed, D83222 recalled visiting a brothel on Dublin’s Quays in 1942. He was accommodated by a prostitute called Sadie who instead of payment, we are told, merely requested half a bar of soap or a clean towel.
If any of the many yarns about Emergency shortages is illustrative of the sheer material deprivation of the period, it is this one. This raises important questions about the motivations for desertion. For many, economic considerations trumped a desire to fight Nazi tyranny. As is well documented, those who joined the Allied struggle were drawn to the superior wages of the British war economy. But in between deserting the Defence Forces and joining the British Army lay a powerful home-grown temptation: the black market.
From 1940 clothes production for civilian use was sharply curtailed and in mid-1942 clothes were added to the Irish ration. The black market in Irish army clothing and accoutrements underwent a boom. While Ireland’s poor were scratching around for consumer goods, in conditions of austerity compounded by British economic warfare, the deserting Irish soldier emerged back on the streets with a veritable treasure trove in army kit.
On the Irish black market of 1942 standard issue army kit would get you very far indeed. With prostitutes asking for only a clean towel in payment, every deserting soldier – possessing two pairs of sturdy boots, three belts, a blanket, a cardigan, a great coat, four pairs of trousers, three shirts, five pairs of socks, and a host of other clothes, utensils, and grooming materials, perhaps even a bicycle – had the potential to become a super ‘spiv’.
While all those who fought the good fight against fascism deserve our gratitude, we should take care, as always, not to revert to ahistorical moralising by reading their motivations backwards.