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Irish WWII neutrality examined

Theresa Civantos | Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ireland’s neutral stance during World War II did not keep the Irish people from experiencing the effects of the war, despite media censorship by the Irish government, an Irish scholar said in a lecture Tuesday.

Clair Wills, a professor of Irish Literature at Queen Mary’s College at the University of London, spoke about her book, “That Neutral Ireland: A Cultural History of Ireland during the Second World War” in Flanner Hall.

Ireland’s neutral stance during World War II, she said, was very controversial at the time.

“In a sense, neutrality was not peace, but war with both sides,” Wills said of the people’s mixed feelings about Ireland’s decision to not pick a side in the conflict.

Wills followed this observation with a discussion of the harsh wartime measures imposed on the Irish people, despite their neutrality.

“The Irish underwent severe austerity measures without the satisfaction of fighting,” Wills said.

The battle between Germany and Britain was both visible and tangible northwest of Ireland, Wills said, creating a major problem for the Irish government as it tried to censor war news. Officials could not prevent corpses of German and British soldiers from washing up on the Irish coast.

“As many as 10 or 15 bodies washed up each day,” Wills said.

Faced with such hard evidence of the war’s destruction and its repercussions, the Irish spent the duration of the conflict in “a really detailed and complex public discourse” on how to handle and approach the events around them, she said.

Eventually, Ireland resolved to follow Catholic social teaching throughout the entire neutrality experience, “focusing on justice with compassion,” Wills said.

Wills noted the importance of propaganda during the war. British propaganda referred to the Irish “betrayal” while American propaganda accused Ireland of “cowardice,” Wills said.

Despite these charges against Ireland, “what remained in Ireland was pride in having pulled it off, in resisting Allied pressure,” Wills said.

But the propaganda didn’t just come from the Allies, she said.

The Irish government used censorship during the war to try to make neutrality popular. Wills referenced a series of memos among top-ranking Irish government officials at the time which emphasized the need for the press to “talk about other neutral states, keep up morale, tell the Irish how the Pope is really pleased with [Ireland] for being neutral.”

Despite these efforts, neutrality created “a deep awkwardness for the Irish people over not having taken part in the war,” which still exists today.