The Emerald Curtain and the Emergency

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

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 The manuscript that he wrote in the 1950s, Behind the Emerald Curtain, and which has remained unpublished since, has now been put between covers by the Royal Irish Academy, which trumpets it as “vivid, lyrical, forthright and eviscerating”.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.”

Gray contorted these shadows and shapes for his own ends. He quotes at length from a variety of telegrams, diary entries, newspaper articles and letters to Roosevelt, suggesting he was ultra-engaged with the whole infrastructure and intricacies of neutrality and Irish political and cultural life at that time, but he was clearly unaware of the extent of the private and pragmatic co-operation between Britain and Ireland. In editing and introducing the text, Paul Bew also acknowledges that Gray did not appreciate the balancing act that was involved in maintaining a workable relationship with both Germany and Britain while an invasion of Ireland was very much a possibility.

Joseph Walshe, secretary of the department of external affairs, moved to reassure the German representative in Dublin, Eduard Hempel, that comments by de Valera in Galway in May 1940 about the “cruel wrong”being perpetrated against Belgium and the Netherlands were not intended as “a gratuitous judgment on the rights and wrongs of the German action”. Gray had assumed otherwise.

The following month, Walshe and his colleagues were worried about noises from Hitler about German compromise with the British Empire, and asked for reassurance that this did not mean “the abandonment of Ireland” and the withdrawal of German support for “the final realisation of Irish demands”.

For Gray, this was a matter of great betrayal; indeed, it forms the spine of his memoir, as he returns to it repeatedly. Rather than appreciating that mixed signals from Ireland in 1940 were inevitable – many believed that Hitler would be in London by the end of that year, and who was to know what the postwar dispensation would be? – he crafted a narrative that seeks to treat this supposed betrayal as indicative of a political and moral degeneracy that was deliberately engineered by de Valera, who “became possessed by the neo-Gaelic afflatus”. He also wildly exaggerates the strength of the IRA in Ireland at the time, creating the impression that it was on the cusp of taking control of the State, telling Roosevelt in May 1940: “The IRA has the affirmative position and he [de Valera] is on the defensive as far as popular appeal is concerned.”

A measure of his poor reading of the Irish political scene is his assertion that, in 1937, “the Eire government was politically bankrupt”, a delusional assertion to make given that it was the year of the new Constitution and a year prior to the Anglo-Irish agreement that won back the Irish ports held by Britain under the terms of the Treaty, after which Fianna Fáil won an astonishing 51.9 per cent of the first-preference vote in the 1938 general election. Gray, however, refers instead to “the fantastic blunders in foreign policy, inspired by the emotional philosophy of Irish racial separatism”, perhaps an unsurprising assertion given that, in relation to Winston Churchill, he records: “I have always been a hero worshipper and unashamed.” He also condescendingly dismisses what he terms the “pathological psychology of the political Irish” and “the peasant masses”.

Admittedly, some of his pen portraits of contemporary diplomats and political and religious characters, including Douglas Hyde, Seán T O’Kelly, James Dillon and Cardinal Joseph MacRory, provide some light relief, and a sort of gossipy ramble through his social life and chats. But the narrative is truncated and badly structured, with an abundance of partial citations of documents and many inaccuracies – he informs us at one stage that Desmond FitzGerald was minister for defence during the War of Independence (he was appointed in 1927) and that de Valera was “defeated by the inter-party coalition in 1943” (it was 1948).

He often refers to Irish “mass opinion”, though it becomes clear from his round of lunches, golf trips and cocktail soirees – all recounted in excruciating detail – that the confidantes he relied on, including James Dillon, the only TD to oppose neutrality publicly, were hardly representative and had their own agendas. If de Valera had been honest with the Irish people, he dubiously contends, they would have “flocked to the allies”. He praises Cardinal MacRory for being “one of the few Irishmen that I met in high places who said openly what he thought”, and therein lies the evidence of Gray’s failure to understand: for those involved in managing Irish neutrality, the summer of 1940 was not a time for giving hostages to fortune through overexplicitness.

A more rigorous approach by Bew to the editing process could have resulted in a text less fractured and meandering, but perhaps to excise some of the excessive detail would be to shield the reader from the extent of Gray’s long-winded self-importance. Bew is keen to rehabilitate Gray and commend his “moral clarity”, but the impression that lingers is of an arrogant, vengeful and ill-informed petulance.


Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His book Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s will be published later this month by Profile Books

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