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“GOOD RELATIONS”: IRISH NEUTRALITY AND THE PROPAGANDA OF JOHN BETJEMAN, 1941–43 ROBERT COLE of all the neutral European nations during World War II, Éire proved to be the most diYcult for Great Britain to inXuence through propaganda. The extent to which British propaganda enjoyed any success at all with the Irish owed much to the particular talents—the “art,” if you will—of the poet John Betjeman. Wit, raconteur, enthusiast of architecture, a devoted High Churchman, and future laureate of England, Betjeman was a writer on Wrst-name terms with many Irish and English literary and theatrical personalities , and it was he who directed British propaganda eVorts in Éire between January, 1941, and June, 1943. The Irish resisted propaganda as few other neutrals did, and, once the Battle of the Atlantic was fully under way, Éire’s importance to Britain escalated dramatically. The point was strategic. Ireland lay at the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean, through which ran the supply lines linking Britain with North America. So long as Éire refused to join in the fray, it should remain a benevolent neutral and do whatever it could to aid the British cause. The reality was that the British feared Éire’s neutrality might actually work against Britain’s Atlantic situation by letting the German’s use the waters oV the rugged West Coast of Ireland as a hiding place for U-boats, the result of which could be devastating. British eVorts at making the Irish see the danger their neutrality posed to Britain ultimately had to be enhanced by the deployment of eVective propaganda. “Neutrality in war has never been regarded as an act of much honour,” Robert Fisk observed, “and self-interest on the part of a nation Wghting for its life can take on an ugly shape. . . . “1 The Irish could be easily oVended if their IRISH NEUTRALITY AND THE PROPAGANDA OF JOHN BETJEMAN, 1941–43 33 1 Robert Fisk, In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939– 45 (London , 1983), p. ix. honor was questioned, and the British government could become increasingly impatient with Éire and act precipitously, if the war went badly for them, and Éire’s neutrality seemed to enhance in any way their diYculties . Both factors produced considerable diYculties for British propagandists . However, the actual work of disseminating propaganda in Éire was some time in coming. During the period of the “phoney war” of 1939–40, the Ministry of Information, which ran war-time propaganda aimed at neutral countries, was among the most disorganized departments in the British government. Consequently, very little British propaganda was directed at Éire or at any other neutral. With reference to Éire, virtually nothing was done beyond letting British newspapers and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Home Service provide war news as well as broadcasts concerning member nations of the British Commonwealth— to which Éire “belonged,” until 1949—which had either denounced neutrality or proclaimed sympathy with Britain and France. After South Africa declared war, for example, the BBC reported: “When the Assembly on Monday night decided against neutrality, the news spread like wildWre through the vast crowd gathered in the streets. . . . “ Similarly, from India came this report: “All sections of India have condemned Nazi aggression . Mahatma Gandhi has said: ‘I told His Excellency the Viceroy that my own sympathies are with England and France.’”2 Neither the directorship of the Ministry of Information nor the BBC had yet grasped the subjective nature of propaganda, and, in the interest of the detachment to which the BBC remained dedicated until well into the war, their broadcasts presented German war communiqués along side British ones. For the Irish, this had the eVect of being pro-enemy propaganda.3 So far as Éire was concerned, there was an additional reason for the absence of much early propaganda, BBC war news notwithstanding. Whether it was in a memorandum from the likes of Elizabeth Bowen, who reported to the Ministry of Information in November, 1940, on the state of Irish opinion, memoranda from Frank Pakenham, John Betjeman’s predecessor as Britain’s chief propagandist in Éire, or from Betjeman himself, who delivered a report to the ministry...


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