Launch Speech

A transcript of the few words I used to launch the new book

This book is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, John William Evans, who died – aged 88 – recently. Today is his birthday.

my grandfather was a good man, a real live wire, and – more than that – a great mate to me. He was a sweet, jovial, working class bloke from Portsmouth. He came from a poor urban background and worked very hard all his life to support his family. He is very sorely missed.

In many respects his life was ordinary. But, like so many people of that generation, it was heavily coloured by the years 1939 to 1945, when his native Portsmouth – home of the Royal Navy – was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. When he was old enough, John Evans joined the Royal Marines. Aged just 19, he played his part in the liberation of Europe. In June 1944, he bravely skippered a landing craft across the channel to Normandy as part of the famous landings known as D-Day.

But while my English grandfather’s war was defined by his taking his place in what was the largest amphibious invasion in history, life was very different for my Irish grandparents, William and Nora MacNamara, who lived in Tralee, County Kerry, which is where my mother is from.

My maternal grandfather, William MacNamara, was amongst the excited crowd supporting county Tipperary at Croke Park in November 1920, when British auxiliaries entered the stadium and killed thirteen spectators along with Tipperary’s captain Michael Hogan. I don’t think he ever forgave the English. My maternal grandmother, Nora Hickey – who turns 100 this June – still remembers the day the Black and Tans raided the family pub in Tralee and how she, as a child of nine years old, felt the cold steel of a gun pressed against her.

Therefore, while the logic of the Allied fight against Nazi Germany in the Second World War was clear to my paternal grandparents, it simply wasn’t for the MacNamaras, my maternal grandparents, who were also staunch de Valerites. Theirs was a very different experience of the Second World War and, in large part, this book explores why this was the case.

What I’m getting at here is the tendency to read history backwards in addressing Ireland’s neutrality. Let’s not forget that the independent Irish state was only seventeen years old at the outbreak of war in 1939 and its control of the strategic ports barely a year old.

Neutrality, then, was not a ‘policy of moral bankruptcy’ as the current Irish Justice Minister has described it, with an eye ahistorically trained on the Holocaust, but a perfectly sensible one informed by humane considerations such as saving Ireland from the realistic prospect of mass civilian casualties through bombing.

But history is not a morality tale and this book is not about the rights and wrongs of neutrality so much as the conditions that underpinned it as the Irish state underwent a marked expansion. Despite neutrality, life in Ireland was radically transformed as the state shifted to a war economy footing, something ignored by many historians.

Much responsibility for this rests with one of Ireland’s great historians: F.S.L. Lyons. In his majestic Ireland Since the Famine, published in 1971, Lyons used Plato’s famous allegory of the cave to claim that Ireland was ‘almost totally isolated from the rest of mankind’, it’s people had ‘their backs to the fire of life’.

aspects of Irish insularity during the war include the butchering of movie classics like casablanca, the ending of which was mutilated by Irish censors looking to eliminate any bias in the coverage of the war, either pro allied or pro axis. So instead of Humphrey bogart defying the nazis and saying to his French friend ‘I think this is he beginning of a beautiful friendship’ as he drags on his cigarette, the film just ends.

So what Lyons was really addressing was exactly that – the pervasiveness of a very scrupulous neutrality in Irish state propaganda – but this nuance was lost on many. Ireland as ‘Plato’s Cave’ was born, shorthand for a place, as Clair Wills puts it, that was ‘all about absence – of conflict, of supplies, of social dynamism, of contact with the outside world’, a place which, to quote another historian resembled ‘a horse and cart economy’, ‘a real life version of the Quiet man’.

Well, this book takes issue with this narrative and instead explores what life in Ireland was really like during the Second World War or, to use Irish official parlance, ‘The Emergency’.

In short, life was very hard. This was due to Winston churchill’s policy of economic warfare against Ireland in an effort to bully Ireland Into joining the allies. It was also due to the unforgivable failure of Irish policy makers to establish an Irish merchant navy before the war broke out. Even landlocked Switzerland took this step.

Wages were frozen but inflation ran wild. Crime rose. Unemployment and emigration skyrocketed. Infant mortality soared and Tubercular death rates rose. Nutritional standards were appalling. Due to wheat shortages a one hundred per cent black loaf was introduced and so childhood rickets increased (phytic acid in 100% whole grains inhibits calcium absorption) famine was a realistic prospect. Remember that over twenty million people died globally of starvation in the Second World War: more than died in combat.

Cars disappeared and trains barely ran. The bicycle was in its ascendant – think Flann O’Brien the third policeman where men become bicycles. Ireland’s predominately agricultural economy was ravaged not only by Foot and Mouth but by crippling and persistent British economic warfare and British control of shipping. To travel south of the border, as the official history of Northern Ireland during the war puts it, and puts it quite smugly, was to travel back 700 years in time.

So De Valera’s famous Saint Patrick’s Day address of 1943, in which he evoked and Ireland ‘bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sound of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, and the laughter of happy maidens’ was a deliberate sugar-coating of this painful reversion to aspects of pre-modernity: Ireland’s economic punishment for sticking to neutrality and refusing to join the Allies.

But the parochialism of Irish life, intensified by the introspective morality of wartime, was not all-encompassing. People knew what was going on in the wider world, especially in Britain. Breege has spoken about the work of Irish community care Merseyside and we must remember that hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women emigrated to Britain at this time for higher wages and jobs, some of whom never returned home, but many of whom did and wrote home too.

So, with Ireland exposed to the full force of British economic warfare, how was neutrality preserved? The book opens by telling the story of how Ireland’s economic policy makers begged, bartered, borrowed and stole to keep the country afloat.

For example, Guinness, in high demand from thirsty British and American troops in Northern Ireland, was withheld from export. Desperate British officials were therefore forced to provide Ireland with much needed agricultural equipment and fertilisers in return for Guinness. The black stuff was therefore a sort of trump card of wartime barter.

Another example was rubber, a valuable commodity usually carried on the decks of merchant ships due to its bulk, was often jettisoned when Allied ships came under U-boat attack, washing up on the Irish west coast. The Irish assured their British counterparts that ‘any rubber salvaged which could be identified as British property would be surrendered’. This concession was, as an Irish civil servant contentedly recorded, a ‘safe promise’ because ‘rubber is always dispatched in unmarked bales’.

The book goes on to explore the introduction of rationing and the black market and the transformation of the Irish state’s role into moral economic guarantor.

We meet awkward inspectors investigating the illegal sale of ladies’ undergarments; people trying to make a quick buck by selling turf mould as tea; and the buffoonish General Eoin O’Duffy – he of Ireland’s fascist Blueshirt movement – unsuccessfully attempting to lead a mass popular national movement against bicycle theft.

some of the material itself is Father Ted-esque enough: in subsequent chapters you will find priests defying the state’s strict motoring bans to attend race meetings; priests buying and selling goods on the black market; in fact, priests complaining incessantly about their loss of privilege due to wartime restrictions.

As the British supply squeeze tightened, priests were – like everyone else – banned from using their cars. This prompted a flood of protest letters to de Valera and so priests were allowed use of their car in only the most – quote – urgent and necessary circumstances, such as having to administer the last rites.

One priest who fell foul of this legislation writes to De Valera in 1943 protesting that his permit had been confiscated by the Gardai. The ‘urgent and necessary’ circumstances were as follows: Quote ‘I need my car to keep an eye on the conduct at hurling matches’, Recently, due to the loss of his car, he wrote, ‘I had the misfortune to have to cross back through the yard of a local public house instead of driving around it and was unlucky enough to come upon a travelling woman of tinker class, helplessly drunk, and publicly acting immorally with four young men’.

There was also a very serious theological debate raging in the normally sedate pages of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. One eminent theologian stressed that Catholics were not bound to obey state law if it was excessive. Therefore, it was not sinful to go against the ration and overcharge on the controlled price for goods ‘provided that the excess is within reasonable limits’. Charging twenty shillings for a pound of tea was wrong, therefore, but charging a shilling or two over the controlled price was morally justified. After all, he reasoned, – and I quote – ‘there’s nothing in the world like a nice cup of tea’.

Attitudes like this understandably infuriated the bloated and unhumorous officialdom of a bloated state. Some of the key themes of this study not only shed new light on Ireland at the time but still resonate today – the battle between local and central authority; the extent to which the state could get away with intrusive interventionism; state authoritarianism and the limits to liberalism; the role of the church and it’s vision of corporatism; and the ordinary acts of common men and women – historical actors – which defy the pigeon holing of posterity which casts them as docile residents of Plato’s Cave.

On this last point, my favourite chapter deals with smuggling. Due to the politically contested border with Northern Ireland and the difference in what goods appeared on the rationing system, there was a smuggling boom in Ireland during the Second World War. Again, the vitality of this historical record of deviance defies narratives that would cast Ireland’s people as downtrodden or miserable: instead we have enterprising smuggling housewives driving the black market in soap; burly cross-dressing labourers with foodstuffs concealed about their unconvincing ladies’ attire; bread concealed underneath babies in prams; wide boys pedalling food and booze and fags; and skinny girls taking the train down from Belfast to Dublin only to return that very evening heavily pregnant due to all the goods stashed up their blouses.

To summarise, this book seeks to put the fire of life back into the story of the Irish Emergency and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching it.

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