World War Two is mostly talked about with reference to Germany, Great Britain, the United States and the other big players involved. However, it impacted every country in Europe and many countries further afield too. The normal everyday lives of millions of people were severely disrupted (or much worse) across an entire continent for several years, whether they had a direct involvement in the war or not. Ireland stayed neutral (although the term ‘neutral’ was used quite loosely) throughout the entire war, but still has its fair share of war time stories to tell. Here is a brief summary of the part Ireland played in the Second World War and some of the most dramatic events that unfolded.
Ireland in the Wartime Era
As anyone who knows anything about the history of Ireland will tell you, this small island on the western edge of Europe had already gone through some turbulent periods by the time World War Two came along. After centuries of British rule, Ireland had finally gained a tentative independence in 1922. The road to independence was not an easy one however; the Easter Rising of 1916 resulted in the execution of many of the leaders of the movement and the destroying of Dublin city centre. 1921 to 1922 was fraught with civil war and multiple atrocities on all sides as people fought over the nitty gritty of the Treaty of Independence. A reluctant peace was only reached by dividing the country in two, leaving Northern Ireland to remain as part of the United Kingdom. Just as everything else was beginning to settle down, economic troubles picked up and much of the late 1920s and early 1930s were spent tackling this problem instead. In 1937 a new constitution re-established the country as Ireland (instead of the Irish Free State), and the newly formed country began to deal with the ever increasing threat of dictatorships and war. In the 1930s and 1940s the Catholic church still had a powerful influence over Ireland; almost 93% of the population was Catholic. Most people lived their lives in strict accordance with the religious ethos, and parish priests were often seen as the most important people in a village. The emphasis on Catholicism meant that Anti-Protestant sentiment was rife, and so was anti-British sentiment; the pain of the last few decades was still fresh in people’s minds. Most people weren’t rich, and agriculture was still the primary industry. Outside of the bigger cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick, everything was quite remote. Villages were small, most had no electricity, and many young people moved to the nearest city in search of work and a more interesting life as soon as they could - unless they had family duties at home. Due to economic difficulties, many people emigrated to North America and Great Britain too. Nonetheless, people were optimistic for further positive change and intensely proud of their newly born country, its history and its unique culture.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Ireland was immediately declared neutral by the Taoiseach of the time, Eamon De Valera. The decision was largely supported by the public, not just because it meant the country would avoid the harrowing circumstances that would soon befall other countries, but also because it was a distinct declaration of sovereignty to not side with Britain. The Irish Army did not have any part in the conflict, although some 5,000 Irish troops deserted to volunteer for the British Army. 50,000 ordinary Irish citizens followed suit, and it has been estimated that about 3,600 Irish soldiers lost their lives. The outbreak caused much uproar in Irish politics with officials fearing an invasion from either Allied or Axis forces. Ireland was in a useful strategic position; Allied forces (especially Great Britain and the US) could use it to further defend against attacks from the mainland, while Axis forces, on the other hand, could take advantage of the country’s weaknesses and use it to launch a counterattack on Britain. Procedures were prepared for both scenarios, although thankfully they were never needed. German forces did in fact have a plan in place to invade Ireland, known as Operation Green, to be implemented after Operation Sealion (or the invasion of England after the fall of France). The British army also had a plan to occupy Ireland too, called Plan W, in the event of an attempted German invasion.
This Plan W was actually drafted in secret liaisons with the Irish government, just one of many incidents that revealed Ireland wasn’t all that neutral after all. Naturally these were all only uncovered long after the war was over, or else the country would most likely have suffered much more than it did. Throughout the war the government turned a blind eye to Allied aircrafts and navy vessels using their airspace and skirting their coasts. There was heavy censorship of all war-related reporting in the media; even weather reports were abandoned, and only the public dispatches from each side were read out on the radio news. While this partly for self-preservation purposes, it was also to prevent Axis forces getting hold of any valuable information. There has been evidence of information being covertly passed to Allied forces throughout the war however; in fact, the decision to launch D-Day was made because of a detailed weather report that had been sent to Allied forces from county Mayo! Throughout the war the Irish government insisted on their neutrality in all public forums. They were so strict about it that they never even referred to it as a ‘war’ - it was known as ‘The Emergency’ instead, named after the Emergency Powers Act which the government put in place allowing them to do just about anything to protect the country and its people. Much like other European countries at the time, wages were frozen, food rations were in place, and industries like peat production were encouraged. In some cases (mostly the coastal cities), electricity was cut off after the curfew began. The British government made an attempt to get Ireland involved in the war at one point, offering to agree to united Ireland (meaning Northern Ireland would once again be part of Ireland) but only if the government gave up its neutrality. De Valera refused, knowing that there was no guarantee of the unity lasting once the war was over and weary of opening up old wounds.
Despite not being invaded or having any direct involvement in the war, Ireland didn’t get off scot free. While it can’t be compared in scale to the sufferings of other countries involved, Ireland still suffered civilian casualties, property damage and general hardship - not to mention the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives overseas. Here are some of the most significant war-related events that happened...
As part of the United Kingdom, Belfast was as much of a target as any other British city during the Battle of Britain - not least because of the huge Harland and Wolff shipyards that were constructing RAF ships for the war effort. After a preliminary air raid the week before (where eight people died), on 15th April 1941 180 Luftwaffe bombers attacked the city. With minimal defence to hand, much damage was caused. 1000 people died and half of the city’s houses were hit, leaving 100,000 homeless and earning the sombre title of the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the whole of the Battle of Britain. Another raid came on 4th May, although this time it was mostly confined to the shipywards.
Dublin was mistakenly bombed on 31st May 1941 by a Luftwaffe air squadron. The North side of the city was hit, with 38 deaths and 70 homes destroyed in the Summerhill, North Strand and North Circular Road areas. Like Belfast, the city had little defence in place and since there was now blackout in force like in British cities, it was an easy target. Germany apologised immediately for their mistake, which they said was caused by high winds and British interference with navigation signals (they were aiming for the British mainland, not Ireland). After the war, West Germany later paid some compensation for the mistake.
Ettie Steinberg and her son Leon are Ireland’s first and only known Holocaust victims. Ettie was born in Czechslovakia but her family moved to Ireland in the 1920s (when she was still a baby) to raise their children. Ettie was educated in Dublin and became a talented seamstress before marrying a Belgian and moving to Antwerp. After the war broke out (shortly after her son was born), they moved from place to place in France attempting to escape the Vichy regime, while her family in Ireland organised visas for them so they could travel to Northern Ireland. Sadly, they were arrested the day before the passports arrived. On the train on the way to meet their fates at a concentration camp, Ettie managed to write a coded postcard to her family and throw it out the window. Miraculously a passer-by picked it up and posted it, allowing her family to find out what happened.
When the war broke out, many Irish soldiers deserted the army in favour of joining the war effort under the British army. Given Anglo-Irish relations at the time and the general mood of the country, this was not exactly the most politically correct decision to make. When the war was over, the government passed a motion to punish the deserters in order to prevent it happening in future, and to ensure that those who had remained faithful would be given first preference when it came to jobs, local authorities etc. Deserters were denied state pensions, unemployment benefits, forbidden to take up public sector jobs, and denied pay and allowances for the period of their absence. An amnesty was only declared for the deserters in 2013.