During the war some 60,000-70,000 Irish citizens served in the British armed forces, considerably more than the number of volunteers from loyalist Northern Ireland.
Among them were several thousand deserters from the Irish army, about 10% of its wartime strength. After the war de Valera used the Emergency Powers Act to summarily dismiss them from service, which meant they were ineligible for public employment for seven years.
In rescinding de Valera’s decree Shatter argued that while desertion was not to be condoned, the exceptional circumstances had to be taken into account. In fighting for the allies the deserters were defending Ireland’s independence, democracy and freedom.
In may be that Bernard Kelly’s book influenced Shatter’s decision since it carries a very warm endorsement from the minister on the back cover. Interestingly, Kelly himself is ambivalent on the deserter issue, concluding that “it is questionable whether a blanket pardon is the way forward.”
Kelly devotes an illuminating chapter to the deserters but his main focus is on the rest of the volunteers, 12,000 of whom returned to Ireland after the war. Most considered they had fought for Ireland as well as Britain and the allies and their war service had broadened and reinforced their sense of Irish identity.
Not surprisingly, they were disappointed when they returned home after the war and discovered the people of Emergency Ireland — whose experience had been very different from their own — did not understand or appreciate what they had been through. They found themselves isolated politically, socially and culturally, and written out of Irish history.
Kelly uses official documentation and veteran testimony to reconstruct the postwar experience of the returning volunteers. In some respects they were treated badly: they were not allowed to wear their British military uniforms; their commemoration events were curtailed; ex-Irish army personnel had preference when it came to public jobs; and some Fianna Fáil politicians attacked them as traitors. But they were not that badly off and the Irish government collaborated with the British in facilitating the volunteers’ return to civilian life. For example, based on their wartime service in the British armed forces, veterans were paid insurance benefit by the Irish state which was then refunded by Britain. As Kelly relates, de Valera tried unsuccessfully to use this arrangement to negotiate a more wide-ranging agreement whereby Britain would pay benefits to Irish workers who had returned home after working in British industry during the war.
Exclusion from the Irish story was the main discrimination suffered by volunteers who had no place in the nationalist narrative propagated by Fianna Fáil. In this respect their position was similar to those Irish volunteers who had fought for Britain during World War I. They, too, thought they were fighting for Ireland but had found themselves written out of the story of the struggle for Irish independence, although World War I veterans could not be ignored entirely. There had been more than 200,000 Irish volunteers during that war, 30,000 of whom died. Far fewer veterans returned after World War II 5,000 had perished during the war) and they were more isolated politically.
Second World War veterans had some champions, including James Dillon, former deputy leader of Fine Gael who had opposed Irish neutrality during the war, and RM Smyllie, editor of the Irish Times who argued the high number of volunteers showed Ireland had been neutral on the side of the allies. de Valera’s government also unofficially talked up the number of volunteers as a means of overcoming Ireland’s isolation in the postwar allied world — which viewed Irish wartime neutrality with disdain. But there was no public acknowledgement of the volunteers’ contribution to safeguarding Ireland’s independence — that would have been a slap in the face to those who had served in the Irish armed forces and would have undermined the fiction that Ireland was strictly neutral during the war. It would also have opened up a debate about whether or not neutral Ireland could and should have done more to aid the allies, including supporting those of its citizens who had chosen fight on the allied side.
Returning Home is a story told mainly from the point of view of the volunteers themselves and Kelly makes excellent use of oral history interviews, including those he conducted himself. The focus is on the immediate postwar period but there are also good sections on the war itself and on developments up to the present day. The writing is accessible and the conclusions well-judged. It is a significant and essential contribution to the history of the Irish volunteers of the World War II.
Another important source for Kelly was the archive of The Volunteers Project at University College Cork. This was set up in the mid-1990s by myself and Cork native Professor Brian Girvin. Our aim was to collect as much oral testimony as we could from surviving Irish veterans. The interviews were conducted by Tina Neylon, former Irish Examiner literary editor. We were particularly interested in the reasons why Irish people fought for Britain and the allies.
As Kelly notes, volunteer motives were many and varied. For some it was the adventure of war that attracted, for others it was just a job. Many volunteers came from families with a tradition of service in the British armed forces. A good number of the volunteers were Irish Protestants but the great majority of those from southern Ireland were Catholic. Only a minority were politically-motivated anti-fascists. But it is safe to say that almost all volunteers believed in the virtue of the allied cause — a conviction reinforced by revelations of the full extent of Nazi atrocities during the war, not least the murder of six million Jews. Returning Home contains gruesome and moving testimony from Irish volunteers who helped to liberate the concentration camps.
Alan Shatter’s decision to pardon the deserters was not welcomed by everyone but it seems to command a wide consensus. It demonstrates the esteem that contemporary Ireland now has for the Irish volunteers of the Second World War. Their welcome today into the national pantheon of heroes stands in stark contrast to how they were shunned and marginalised in the 1940s.
Professor Geoffrey Roberts is Head of the School of History at University College Cork and his biography of Marshal Zhukov was published earlier this year.