The Emerald Curtain and the Emergency
MEMOIR:A Yankee in de Valera’s Ireland: The Memoir of David Gray, By David Gray, edited by Paul Bew, Royal Irish Academy, 341pp. €20
PERHAPS IT IS fair to begin by giving David Gray credit for his physical and mental endurance. Very few people at the age of 89 have the capacity to write a lengthy memoir. There is not much else to cheer about, however. The manuscript that he wrote in the 1950s, Behind the Emerald Curtain, and which has remained unpublished since, has now been put between covers by the Royal Irish Academy, which trumpets it as “vivid, lyrical, forthright and eviscerating”. In reality, it is dull, turgid, ignorant and bilious.
An unlikely diplomat, Gray, at nearly 70 years old, was appointed US minister to Ireland in February 1940 by President Roosevelt. A lawyer, an author of several plays and a novel, a possessor of a doctorate from Bowdoin College, and a man with extensive military service in the first World War, he was married to the younger sister of Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother. His nepotistic appointment to Dublin lasted until 1947.
This memoir concerns only the period from February to August 1940 – probably just as well given its tediousness. It was, granted, a fascinating seven months, due to the trajectory of the second World War and the diplomatic tightropes being walked as a consequence of Irish neutrality, but Gray, because of his unrelenting hostility to Irish neutrality generally and Éamon de Valera specifically, allowed his spleen to dictate his narrative of Dublin in that crucial year.
Initially well disposed towards Ireland, he found it galling that de Valera would not consider abandoning Irish neutrality for the possibility of Irish unity. More infuriatingly and scandalously, as far as he was concerned, de Valera had made a private deal with Berlin to stay out of the war and be rewarded with Irish unity later. Gray, of course, had every right to his slant on Irish neutrality, and the understandable resentment that lingered in the US and Britain about Irish neutrality lasted well into the 1950s, when Gray wrote this hatchet job. His were perfectly legitimate concerns given the enormity of the crisis that was faced in 1940, but he also had tunnel vision and a remarkable naivety about the reality of war-time exigencies, diplomacies and pragmatism.
As the historian Dermot Keogh pointed out a few years ago in reviewing another book about Irish neutrality: “The study of the Emergency period requires an understanding of the uncertainty and insecurity of the times – when it was not possible to trust the diplomatic bag, telegraphic communications, messages in code dearg , letters or telephone conversations. All were vulnerable to oversight or interception. Therefore the world of diplomacy in Dublin during the Emergency was not a time of philosophical discussion between de Valera and the different foreign ambassadors. It was a world of shadow language and shape-shifting.”