A piece of Irish history to be proud of


ON July 27th, 1946, 88 German children disembarked from a passenger ferry and walked blinking into the sunlight at Dun Laoghaire Pier. Lined up at the shore, rows of Red Cross workers clutched neatly wrapped food parcels and waved.

Groups of anxious parents and their families stood together self consciously, seeking out the girl or boy who would eventually become their temporary child for the next three years.

As the children gazed at the oranges and chocolate cake contained in their parcels, organisers began the introductions. There was shy seven year old Hans Ottengraf, whose father was a prisoner of war in France. There was pretty Ursula Becker, a five year old whose wake up call for most of her life had been the sound of air raid sirens and bomb raids. Eight year old Elizabeth Kohlberg knew nothing of where she was and wondered if she was being sent to a slaughter house.

This was the beginning of Operation Shamrock, as the evacuation of children from several parts of Europe to Ireland after the second World War has become known. The visit tomorrow by the President of Germany, Dr Roman Herzog, represents a thank you to Ireland for giving safety and shelter to between 500 and 600 German refugees after the war. For the first time tomorrow, 50 of the children who remained here will be reunited with those who returned home to Germany.

The ordinary Irish men and women gathered in the Shelbourne Hall, Dublin, on October 16th, 1945, could scarcely have envisaged the extent to which their ambitious plans would come to fruition. At the time this newspaper reported that the founding meeting of the Save the German Children Society was attended by "over 300 people".

Dr Kathleen Murphy, a paediatrician, was appointed chairwoman. She said that they were concentrating on German people because they were the most "necessitous" and that as Christians it was their duty to help "starving German children".

Not everyone at the meeting was as generous. A Colonel J.J. O'Byrne declared he supported the society on the grounds of his pro German feelings and his hatred of Britain. Someone else said they should help the children because the freedom the Irish people had achieved had been got with German guns.

IT WAS these unfortunate remarks that have somehow relegated the society to a lesser place in Irish history than it truly deserved. After this meeting the British authorities - most of the German children lived in the province of North Rhine Westphalia, which was British controlled - branded the society fascist and said they would only work directly with the Irish Red Cross.

"There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the children who came here were offered anything but a secure environment, healthy food and an abundance of love by Irish people," says Cathy Molohon, who has just completed a PhD thesis in German Irish relations at Hamburg University.

Grateful that neutrality had spared them the full horror of war, there was a willingness on the part of the Irish to help the children and often those on modest incomes and with big families already took in the German refugees.

But Dr Murphy's assertion that children should be helped "irrespective of creed" was not to be. The majority were Catholic, and only a small number were Protestant children. It was thought bringing up Jewish children would prove too difficult a task in a predominantly Catholic society.

With the society alienated from the British authorities they concentrated on securing good homes, for the children while the Irish Red Cross took on the task of sidestepping the considerable bureaucratic obstacles and arranging transportation.

Protestant and Catholic relief agencies in Germany selected children between the ages of five and 15 who were brought here in 1946 and 1947; first to St Kevin's Hostel in Co Wicklow (now appropriately the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation) and later to their temporary homes.

Some of the refugees were orphans, but most had parents who, faced with the consequences of war, could not look after their children. So they sent them to Ireland. To Louth where they soon, learned English and forgot their German. To Limerick where they played hurling and won prizes for Irish dancing. To the Dublin suburbs of Rathgar and Terenure where they went to Mass and grew big and strong on bread and butter and other foods they had never seen.

THE arrangement was originally intended to last for a three year period, but such close bonds were formed the eventual departure of refugees was marked with heartbreaking scenes at Dun Laoghaire - that the Government decided that children could stay as long as both the Irish foster parents and their German parents agreed.

Many of those who left remained in touch with their Irish families. Those who stayed got married and raised Irish families of their own. In 1954 the German Gratitude Fund sent a bronze fountain to the Irish people in memory of their contribution. It still stands in St Stephen's Green.

Tomorrow, in the presence of 160 of the original 500 foster children and 180 foster families, President Herzog will place a commemorative plaque on the fountain and lead a delegation to Glencree where it all began.

It may be 51 years later, but finally the living reminders of a piece of Irish history to be proud of will have their day in the sun.