How we stayed neutral and what Dev said to Churchill

Although the people who remember the Second World War and the years just before it are growing scarce, there are still a number who remember the ration cards, the black bread, the petrol allowance, the scarcity of cigarettes, (Remember the 'Camel' and the 'Yorktown'?) shortage of clothing, the shops with the empty shelves and the many other articles we had taken for granted. Remember Ireland, well 26 counties of it, were neutral, and still being an island nation the shortage of cargo shipping took its toll. The shortage of rubber left cycle and motor tyres almost impossible to get, unless, like a lot of other things, bought on the 'Black Market'. Like many other countries Ireland had people who made money out of the shortage of certain types of goods by procuring them at a price and finding those ready to buy them at double, and sometimes treble the correct price. Remember that it was not too long before the war that Britain had handed back possession of several ports to the Irish Government, and those ports they now badly needed. Before the war the question had been often asked what would the Irish Government do? Who would they support? How would they act? In the end, the answer was simple, Ireland stayed neutral. The fear now was would the Germans invade along the south or west coast to build a bridge- head for attacking England - remember they had the power to do so after already steamrolling over every country in Europe and Rommel was "king of the castle in North Africa". Worse still would the British be forced to cross the border for that very same reason, to prevent such an action and make sure that there was no one going to come into what was virtually their back yard and try to take them from the rear?

In the meantime, the Irish Government had to make the effort to be prepared should any attack come from either side. Thousands flocked to the defence forces, regular army and other sections of the defence and auxiliary forces in the country. These included the Local Defence Force which was organised in two groups, A and B. The A group were armed and trained in the use of all types of weapons, B group were a lookout group who were trained in small arms and other defence force activity. Other sections of the forces were the Red Cross section which included women and who learned how to treat wounds and other injuries. Fire fighters, map readers, dispatch riders and other members of the community were involved in other services. No one was fool enough to think that the Irish forces on their own could restrain either of the big powers for any length of time but there was no doubt that at the first sign of an attack by one side would be countered by help from the other. The fact that we were neutral did not prevent us from helping a member of either side if they were in trouble, such a ship driven on to the Irish shore in a storm, or saving her crew if they were in danger of death, or in other circumstances.This was proved on several occasions. When Belfast was bombed on 15th April 1941, the Prime Minster, Basil Brook gave permission for a request to Dublin for help. De Valera agreed immediately and thirteen fire engines from Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Drogheda and Dundalk were sent to Belfast on this mission of mercy.Another raid took place on Belfast on the night of the 4th - 5th May 1941 in which approximately 96,000 incendiary bombs and 257 tons of high explosive bombs were dropped on the city. Again, 13 fire brigades rushed up from the south to give assistance but there was little they could do. There was a mass departure from the city to the countryside so that 220,000 people had left Belfast by the end of May. It was a quirk of fate that the last German bombing raid on the country took place not on Northern Ireland, but on Dublin. A bomb which fell in the Phoenix Park near the Zoo only caused minor damage, including breaking the windows of Aras an Uachtarain, but created consternation and panic among the zoo animals. Other bombs fell on the North Strand area, the North Circular Rd, Ballybough and at Summerhill Parade. Many houses were demolished and the final toll resulted in 32 dead and over 80 injured. (After the war the British Air Ministry confirmed in 1946 that they had diverted the wireless beam used for navigation purposes by the Germans, who thought they were over Britain when they released their bombs over Dublin. In the 1950s the Germans paid £327,000 to the Irish Government as compensation for this atrocity).As time went on rationing in Ireland grew a lot stricter. Tea was reduced to about 15gms per person per week. Footwear, sugar and butter were impossible to get. Coal supplies were low and the emphasis for fuel was put on turf as it was possible to get this locally. Turf was cut, dried and brought to Dublin where it was stored in the Phoenix Park. It is estimated that there was between 500,000 and 600,000 tons available for the city of Dublin. Local people in towns and villages used turf bogs near their homes to obtain their own supplies, which they cut and dried and stored in outhouses.As can be seen from the foregoing, Ireland suffered severely during the war but maintained her neutrality despite moments of inducement to back one side or the other. It was as a result of this that when at the end of the war on 13 May 1945, Winston Churchill made a victory speech in which he paid tribute to Northern Ireland for its part in the war just ended but in which he bitterly criticised Ireland's neutrality and in his speech said “had it not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr De Valera. However, his Majesty's government never laid a violent hand upon them though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural, and we left the Dublin government to frolic with the Germans and later with Japanese representatives to their hearts' content.De Valera replied on 17 May - "Mr Churchill makes it clear that in certain circumstances he would have violated our neutrality and that he would justify his action by Britain's necessity. It seems strange to me that Mr Churchill does not see that this, if accepted, would mean that Britain's necessity would become a moral code that, when this necessity became sufficiently great, other people's rights were not to count - this same code is precisely why we have the disastrous succession of wars....."

This restrained and stately reply met with widespread approval by Irish men and women. De Valera could have stated that over 50,000 Irish served in the Allied forces, that British aircraft were allowed to fly over Donegal to attack German U-boats in the North Atlantic, that Allied Servicemen had been rescued and returned across the border to rejoin their units, etc.While that reply was made over 70 years ago, she is now one of the leading European nations while maintaining her neutrality and independence.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist