It was a persistent rumour of the war years, popular with the Irish government’s critics in Britain, that German U-boats refuelled regularly along Ireland’s south and west coasts.
Knowing this, I was intrigued by a story from Clare reader Dr Maccon JC Macnamara, who heard it some years ago via George O’Malley, then chairman of the Wine Promotion Board.
The story arose from a conference O'Malley had attended in Hamburg where two Germans asked him if he was familiar with west Clare. He was, and also with the village of Quilty, and with a pub there named Casey's (since closed) of which the Germans had fond memories. It emerged that, during the second World War, they had been naval officers on a submarine patrolling waters west of Ireland, a country they were in the habit of visiting from time to time.
It was difficult to be patient with stories about German submarines openly refuelling at bases along the south and west coast.
As Dr Macnamara summarised: “They frequently at night would surface off Quilty, put on their civilian clothes and with the aid of a small dinghy row ashore and retire to Casey’s pub for several pints of Guinness, before returning to their submarines. All this passed without any comment from the locals, who seemed to be unaware of the occupation of the two strangers.”
It was refuelling of a kind, I suppose, if not designed to advance the German war effort. But as to the more traditional allegation, I am also now reminded this was something much investigated by the late Robert Fisk, who did his PhD on Irish war-time neutrality, later published in a book.
Although his conclusion was that it never happened, he revisited the subject in the London Independent in 2011, on foot of a letter from a man whose father had been a Royal Navy officer during the war, based in Derry. An expert in explosives, the father was periodically responsible for supplying a tugboat called the Tamara, disguised as a fishing trawler but really (as Fisk recalled) searching for the U-boats presumed to frequent Irish ports.
The British navy men were also in the habit of visiting Free State pubs when off-duty, especially in Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal. Fisk's correspondent recalled his father claiming that in a bar there, they once found the snug already occupied by "U-boat officers" who, unlike the ones in Clare, were in full uniform. Of this unlikely claim, Fisk underlined his letter writer's own point that, in the early 1940s, Irish police and military personnel wore "very German-looking uniforms", later changed.
Fisk also mentioned a claim by Britain's war-time director of counter-espionage that he had once asked his Irish counterpart, Col Liam Archer, about U-boat landings in Ireland, to be told: "They are here in force, we can't do anything." More specifically, Archer was quoted by the British as saying that a U-boat called in "three times a week at a base at the mouth of the Doonbeg river, Co Clare". He was also said to have admitted that at some ports, Ireland had no permanent guards.
A former Irishman's Diarist was among those responsible for defending Irish ports during the Emergency. Patrick Campbell was stationed in Dublin Harbour, where U-boats were less likely, although according to his memoirs, he did see some unusual activity and was under orders to ignore it: "[We] were instructed not to have anything to do with certain British & Irish boats from Liverpool, which arrived at the North Wall in the middle of the night with what was called 'special cargo' […]Bren gun carriers, anti-aircraft guns and similar items, provided by the hard-pressed British government. They were shrouded in tarpaulins and quickly whipped away in Army lorries before anyone could have a look […]."
The biggest fear locally, Campbell noted, was not the German navy but the IRA. The army was “more concerned about our ability to defend our weapons against raids by fellow Irishmen,” he wrote. As for the rumoured U-boat incursions elsewhere: “While this was going on, it was difficult to be patient with stories about German submarines openly refuelling at bases along the south and west coast.”
Fisk took the word of wartime minister for defence Frank Aiken who in 1979 told him: "No German U-boat landed on the Irish coast; if it had done, I think I would have heard about it."
And the British government never produced evidence of refuelling, Fisk noted. On the other hand, he quoted then recently released Cabinet papers that might fit with the Quilty case, in which the British suggested that U-boats may occasionally have landed crews “for purposes of relaxation and obtaining fresh provisions”.