Why Ireland’s second World War veterans matter
They may not have known it but they served the cause of neutral Éire
D-Day veteran Donald Hendrey looks at the monument on Juno beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer in Normandy, north-western France, on June 7, 2019 as commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the World War II Allied landings in Normandy continue. BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
The 75th anniversary commemorations of the Allied landing in Normandy on this week marked a poignant moment in the life of the celebrant nations, principally France, Britain, Canada and the United States.
Visitors from other Allied nations, whose soldiers partook in the fighting in Normandy, principally Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland, also made their pilgrimage to the Normandy battle sites to remember their war dead deceased veterans.
There was a profound feeling of sadness; a grateful sadness, but a nonetheless heavy emotional sensation. The veterans of the Normandy campaign are now saying goodbye.
Most of those veterans in attendance at the Bayeux War Cemetery were undoubtedly saluting their fallen comrades for the last time. At the incredibly moving service held in Bayeux Cathedral on Thursday, the smiling faces of several Irish veterans of the campaign re appeared in my minds eye as the Last Post and Reveille were sounded.
Over the course of many years I had come to know these men, and their families, as they generously shared their stories with me. What I have always found intensely frustrating, in spite of the growing public interest at home, is how poorly understood the contribution of Ireland’s veterans is among the general public, and how reluctant the Irish state have been to even acknowledge their existence.
In 1995, then Taoiseach, John Bruton, at the reopening and rededication of the National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge made an emotional tribute to 150,000 Irish people who had ‘volunteered to fight against Nazi tyranny in Europe, at least 10,000 of whom were killed while serving in British uniforms’.
The historian, Professor Brian Girvin, observed that Bruton had shed light on ‘a little-known aspect of Irish involvement in the Second World War’. Girvin notes that for the majority of the post-war period both ‘the Irish state and popular nationalist opinion ignored the contribution of the volunteers and even questioned the motives of those who left to fight’. This has been the default position of almost all Irish governments, with occasional voices dissenting from this view. The former minister for Justice and Defence, Alan Shatter, in overseeing the Amnesty for Irish defence forces deserters in 2013, stated that these men had played ‘no small part’ in the battle against Nazism.
However, even the generous tributes of both Bruton and Shatter belie the true value of what Ireland’s volunteers did in the war. In 1939, there were approximately 20,000 Irishmen already serving in the British forces; these were joined by an additional 70,000 recruits who enlisted in Northern Ireland, and an unknown number of Irish volunteers and conscripts who were in enrolled in Britain.
At least 100,000 men and women from the island of Ireland served in British uniform, but throughout the course of the war, figures of 200,000, 250,000 and even 300,000 were advanced by both British and Irish sources, figures that were never confirmed. It becomes plain, from reading British memoranda, that the existence of such a large contingent of Irish in their armed forces was a factor that mitigated heavily against any harsh or aggressive action against the Irish state because of its neutrality.
Though the bulk of Irish service personnel may have been unaware of it, they were not merely going into battle for Britain, the Allies and the cause of freedom; in truth, the war effort that were servicing was that of neutral Eire. Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, understood this fact very well. He never placed any barriers in the path of departing Irish migrants who left the state to join the British forces, and only requested of British officials that Irish personnel exchange their uniforms for civvies before they boarded the mailboat at Holyhead.
For many years, the Department of Justice permitted An Garda Siochana to act as vetting service for the War Office and Admiralty recruitment applications; this practice continued until 1941, a flagrant violation of neutral policy. The same applied to Irish war workers; Department of Commerce & Industry facilitated British Ministry of Labour requests for more Irish migrant workers.
The combined manpower resources placed at the disposal of Britain’s war effort by the cooperation of the Irish government far exceeded the fabled ‘quarter of a million’ statistic that has frequently been cited. De Valera’s diplomats would not fail to remind Allied nations of this fact when they engaged in a post-war propaganda campaign to rescue the tarnished image of Eire among the disgruntled societies of the victorious belligerents.
From Ottawa to Canberra, New York to Paris, carefully crafted newspaper articles illustrated the extent to which neutral Ireland had served the cause of the Allied powers. The Irish government shamelessly extolled the achievements of their volunteers in the British forces, and this clearly served the purposes of the state in a hostile post-war climate. The soon-to-be Republic was, indeed, crippled in the economic wasteland of the 1950s, but the fact that Eire received Marshall Aid was very likely down the sacrifice of Irishmen who had fought in battle for the Allies.
On this most solemn anniversary, it is impossible to forget that the majority of surviving Irish veterans have gone to their graves without receiving the acknowledgement they deserve from the government. Ireland should make no apology for being a neutral nation in the war. It was our right, and in 1939 we asserted that right within the bounds of international law like the majority of nations in Western Europe. However, the enlistment of Irish volunteers in Britain’s forces, an evidently state-sponsored contribution, was the price we paid for that neutrality. Each and every single ex-serviceman, or women, who returned home to endure the long silence had been a commodity that our state very willingly used. As the last Irish veterans disappear from our midst, let us finally give them the gratitude they deserve.
Dr Joseph Quinn is a lecturer and academic tutor at the School of History in UCD.