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The case of Irish neutrality during the Second World War is oddly defamiliarizing to those from countries whose histories regard that war as a crucial moment in the defense of democracy against fascism. For Britain and the Allies, the Irish position was at best, an irresponsible isolationism and at worst, tantamount to betrayal. Ireland not only refused access to vital ports needed during the Battle of the Atlantic and allowed the presence of legations from the Axis powers, suspected of sending back information to wartime enemies, but also outraged the Allies by the infamous visit by Eamon de Valéra, to the German envoy to offer his condolences on the death of Hitler.
In That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War, Clair Wills negotiates deftly the ambiguity and cross-purposes that characterize the usual interpretations of the Irish position during the war. At one level, the reasons for Irish neutrality were practical and realistic. Ireland had signed a treaty with Britain in 1921, and was an emergent nation protective of its independence: the terms of the treaty had left Ireland partitioned, with deep divisions over its relationship with Britain; and the Frees State was well aware of its weak defenses, having gained control of its ports only in 1938. Wills's reading is distinctive and runs against the grain of prevailing interpretations of the de Valéra period as a time of isolationism and withdrawal. De Valéra felt a duty to the needs and vulnerability of an emergent nation, but he also sought a "positive neutrality" connected with independence and sovereignty.
Wills's book makes room for an historical experience that does not quite fit the received narratives of this period. She conveys a strong sense of the Irish being both in and out of the war; whereas contemporary accounts contrasted the experience of Britain and Ireland,Wills reveals that the wartime experience of the Irish was, in important ways, similar to its neighbor's. This was evident in the general alarm and confusion about what the war meant, along with the passing of the Emergency Powers Act (1939). Neutrality had widespread support in Ireland as a prudent and sensible course, but the stance was essentially one of "friendly neutrality," with many Irish citizens joining the British armed forces or working in the war industries. And despite the stories that circulated in Britain of Dublin's bright lights and extravagant living, the reality was that shortages and rationing hit Ireland hard. The experience of the wartime migrant workers was emblematic of the larger Irish experience during this period—a movement that moved both backward and forward, experiencing the two distinct worlds of war and peace, relative wealth and poverty. [End Page 151]
Far from being aloof and detached, the Irish government and people felt intense pressure during this period, living amid continual rumors of a looming British invasion from the North to secure Ireland in case of an invasion from Germany. German agents were also present in Ireland, engaging in various plots with the IRA. The Irish government sought an armed neutrality, initiating a major recruitment drive and pitching its call to arms in defense of neutrality—" Ireland versus the foreigner"—rather than against a particular enemy. Ireland's neutral position was further stressed when the bodies of combatants were recovered from Ireland's coastal waters after the Battle of the Atlantic. De Valéra continued refusing British access to Irish ports because he was defensive of national sovereignty and cautious about German reaction. After the United States entered the war, a hostile Allied press began to publish lurid stories of Nazi espionage and Irish collaboration. A columnist from Australia claimed to have seen six hundred Nazis sporting swatstika armbands marching in Dublin's streets. The Irish government continued to enforce positive neutrality; in one incident, a group of Anglo-Irish ladies were taken in for questioning for knitting socks and scarves for the Allies. Where propaganda elsewhere mobilized collective feeling, news reports...