It was the late Lord Deedes who once succinctly explained to me what it was like to live through the second world war. I had said to him, ‘Those Battle of Britain boys were so brave’.And he had replied, almost impatiently, ‘No, it wasn’t bravery we felt. It was a strange, deep, primitive compulsion that we were up against it. We had our backs to the wall. It was us or them.’
To any defender of Irish neutrality during the second world war — among whom I would count myself — the Deedes doctrine explains everything. It particularly illuminates Winston Churchill’s leadership. He felt that compulsion — to defend the realm at all costs — in such a profound and magnified way that it enabled him to lead his imperilled nation with unique resolve.
Churchill deplored Eire’s neutrality: he remained enraged that Neville Chamberlain had restored the Atlantic ports to the Irish Free State in 1938, and convinced that these were a danger to the interests of the United Kingdom in time of war. Winston didn’t even believe that Eire was legally entitled to neutrality — it was still, technically, a Dominion within the Commonwealth. For two pins, he would have invaded the Irish state, had he not been advised by intelligence that the game wasn’t worth the candle — even the pro-British elements within Eire would not have supported the venture.
Eunan O’Halpin is the foremost living authority on intelligence networks in Ireland during the second world war, and this dense and voluminous book is an invaluable source of data for historians researching the subject and the period. Professor O’Halpin’s knowledge is matchless, and we can be thankful that he has put his superb research at the service of such historians.
Yet O’Halpin seems to know every inch of the wood without quite seeing the whole forest. He chronicles in great detail the spy networks — British and German — which criss-crossed Eire, particularly in the early phases of the war. Some of these characters were hilarious, such as Roddy Keith, an advertising man sent as SOE’s ‘whisperer’ in Dublin, spreading rumours about Mussolini’s insatiable sexual appetite for nurses; or Joseph Lenihan, the black sheep of a renowned Irish political family, a cheerfully anti-British British spy. Particularly entertaining were Wilhelm Preetz and Joseph Donohue, despatched by the Reich to Ireland, spending ‘two dissolute weeks in Dublin blowing the Abwehr’s money on women and drink’: surely the best use of Nazi gold yet known.
There is a huge amount of incidental, and often fascinating, information: James Larkin, the idolised Irish Labour leader whose statue adorns O’Connell Street, was a Communist Party member, though Moscow found him somewhat ‘unmanageable’: as was the esteemed writer Peader O’Donnell. The Vatican did try to help individual Jews and there is some good Irish archival material on this. And Ireland’s home intelligence network was often pretty effective.
But some of O’Halpin’s own judgments are just personal opinions, unsupported by evidence. He dismisses Jimmy Thomas, the 1930s Dominions Secretary, as an ‘erratic buffoon’: I recently did some research on Thomas, and it is my opinion that he was an honourable and decent politician. O’Halpin describes the Marquis of Tavistock (of 1939) as a ‘do-gooder’: maybe so, but he was also a busy appeaser with some Fascist associates. He describes Guy Burgess as ‘erratic but stimulating’: yes, but a traitor just the same.
O’Halpin’s main point of hostility is Winston Churchill, whom he sees at every turn as an enemy of Ireland. This really is unfair. Churchill championed Home Rule for Ireland from 1906 — he was pelted with rotten fish in Belfast for his pains. He defended the Free State valiantly on the floor of the House of Commons in May 1922, as described in Mary Bromage’s meticulous study of Churchill and Ireland (not cited here). And later in the 1940s, as Roy Foster has shown, Winston spoke affectionately about the Irish state and praised its ‘Roman Catholic civilisation’. The National Archives of Ireland also refer to Churchill’s continued diplomatic support for Irish unity in 1948.
All this should be factored into an overall picture of Churchill and Ireland. What worried Winston, obsessively, was the defence of the realm, and that was a justifiably sore point in 1940-41. The big picture is that Churchill was entitled to do what he could to defend the United Kingdom: and the Irish Free State was entitled to choose its own terms for neutrality. Actually, 150,000 Irishmen volunteered to serve the Crown. An Irishman will usually respond to the call of arms, but he’s damned if he’s going to be coerced.