Ryle Dwyer: Ireland’s neutrality had plenty of grey areas

On the 75th anniversary this month of the death of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ryle Dwyer recalls the political reaction to his death in Ireland
Ryle Dwyer: Ireland’s neutrality had plenty of grey areas

On the 75th anniversary this month of the death of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ryle Dwyer recalls the political reaction to his death in Ireland


When US president Franklin D Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, the response of the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera was certainly not neutral.

He had the regular sitting of Dáil Éireann suspended next day, and a special session convened as a tribute to the deceased American president.

“President Roosevelt will go down to history as one of the greatest of the long line of Americans presidents,” he said.

“Personally, I regard his death as a loss to the world, for I believe his whole career has shown that he could ultimately be depended upon, when this war had ended, to throw his great influence behind and devote his great energy to the establishment of a world organisation which would be just, and which being just, could hope to save humanity from recurring calamities like the present war.”

After the other party leaders paid short tributes, the Dáil adjourned as a mark of respect. All flags on Leinster House and Government Buildings were flown at half-mast, as well as on many public buildings, private businesses, and offices throughout Dublin.

“I thought I knew this country and its people but this was something new,” David Gray, the American minister, wrote to the president’s widow. “There was a great deal of genuine feeling.”

Why was Gray so surprised? For the answer to that intriguing question, one must look back over five years, because ever since his arrival in Dublin in 1940, Gray had been highly critical of de Valera, whom he believed was quietly sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazis, even though Gray’s intelligence advisers had assured him strongly to the contrary.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ireland was virtually defenceless, and de Valera was in no position to allow the British to use the naval bases that had been very valuable to the Royal Navy during the First World War.

But he did secretly assure the British he would provide all the help he could, short of war. He implemented this promise by authorising extraordinary secret co-operation with the British in many ways.

A telegraph cable that connected Ireland directly with continental Europe was cut, and de Valera agreed that Ireland would only use a continental cable link that passed through England.

No efforts were made to restrict British diplomats using radio transmitters to contact Britain, but the German legation was instructed not to use its radio transmitters, and the Irish kept the legation under electronic surveillance. As a result, the German Legation’s only means of electronic communication with the continent was through the cable that passed through Britain.

The Irish also helped Britain by setting up their defence system in such a way that any belligerent sightings by Irish Lookout Posts (LOPs) around the coast were reported to Dublin by radio on an agreed frequency. The British and Germans were free to listen in, but German forces were too far away to make much use of this information, while the British were close enough to react.

At the request of the British, reports from the LOPs were later transmitted in a code secretly supplied by the British. Thus, the LOPs sightings were essentially being sent to Dublin and the British at the same time.

The British were allowed to set up and operate radar equipment on the Cork and Donegal coasts, and the Royal Navy was allowed to base a seaplane at Foynes to search for German submarines, while an armed admiralty tug was based in Killybegs, Co Donegal, for air-sea rescue purposes. The Irish indicated that the same facility could possibly be provided in Cobh, or Berehaven, if the British desired, but they never followed up on this offer.

During the war, 18 German military aircraft came down on Irish territory and all but two of their survivors were interned for the duration of the conflict in a special internment camp at the Curragh.

The two exceptions were a seriously incapacitated airman, who was handed to the British for repatriation to Germany by the Red Cross in October 1943, and an internee who escaped from the Curragh but was handed over to the British when he was discovered as a stowaway on a ship bound for Portugal.

Over 140 Allied planes came down in Ireland during the war. About 100 of those were based in Britain. Twenty-nine were quietly allowed to fly away, many after being refuelled. Another 17 were salvaged and returned by road. While all the German airmen were interned, 225 of their Allied counterparts were quietly let go, though 46 were officially interned for a time in order to preserve a semblance of neutrality.

After the United States entered the war in December 1941, 39 US aircraft came down in Ireland. Eighteen were refuelled and allowed to fly away, and 10 were salvaged and transferred by road to Northern Ireland. All 265 American survivors were promptly released.

No Allied seamen were interned in Ireland, but 213 German sailors were interned in the Curragh camp, even though over 150 of those should, under international law, have been released as stranded mariners.

They had been rescued by the Irish freighter Kerlogue in the Bay of Biscay after their naval vessels was sunk by the British. The Kerlogue was supposed to put into a British port before returning to Ireland, but some of the men were in such dire need of medical treatment, that the ship radioed that it was heading straight for Cobh for prompt medical assistance.

John Maffey, the British representative to Ireland, learned of this and tried to insist that the ship head for a British port, or transfer the German sailors to a British destroyer, but these suggestions were rejected as they could lead to fatal delays.

Maffey, therefore, insisted the Germans should be interned, at least.

“I replied that I felt certain that that was the intention of the Taoiseach,” Joseph P Walshe, the secretary of the Department of External Affair reported. All of the survivors were duly interned.

This was just another of the many ways in which de Valera implemented his promise of secretly providing Britain with all possible help short of declaring war. In reality, there was precious little semblance of neutrality in the Irish treatment of the two sides in the conflict, but some prominent Allied authorities refused to recognise the true situation.

Following the fall of France in the summer of 1940, the stationing of German aircraft in France rendered the sea route around the south of England too vulnerable to German air attack, so Britain’s transatlantic shipping went around Northern Ireland, through the North Channel.

Thus Irish naval bases would no longer have been of value to the British, who already had the use of sea bases in Northern Ireland. They also had a base for seaplanes on Lough Erne, that provided invaluable air coverage for the north Atlantic shipping.

de Valera facilitated the British by allowing their aircraft from Lough Erne to fly directly to and from the Atlantic over what was called the Donegal corridor. It was a British aircraft flying that route that actually located the German battleship, Bismarck in the Atlantic on May 26, 1941. It was then sunk the following day.

After the US entered the war in December 1941, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, stationed three undercover agents in Ireland.

The first was Ervin “Spike” Marlin, who was designated as an economic adviser at the American legation. He was an American, who had studied at Trinity College Dublin from 1929 to 1932.

One of his first tasks was to assess the sympathies of Irish politicians. He reported that three Fianna Fáil deputies were pro-German — backbenchers Dan Breen and Tom McEllistrim, and the minister for posts and telegraphs Patrick J Little.

As this report was being transmitted in the diplomatic bag, Gray insisted on reading it, and then demanded to know Marlin’s source for the information on Little. Marlin reluctantly told him it was Erskine Childers, a junior minister in de Valera’s government.

Marlin received a call a few days later from Childers, who said that Gray had not only protested to the government about Little being pro-German, but had gone on to commit the appalling indiscretion of naming Childers, as the source of this information.

Realising that Marlin was an OSS agent, Joseph P Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, offered that Irish Intelligence (G2) would co-operate with the OSS through Marlin. Walshe had already arranged a similar set-up between G2 and Britain’s MI5.

Gray vigorously opposed the suggestion, but the OSS accepted the offer. G2 gave Marlin voluminous reports on German spies already captured, as well as the names and addresses of over 4,000 people in the US to whom German nationals living in Ireland, or pro-German Irish people, were writing.

Gray was so sour over this co-operation, that the OSS moved Marlin to London, from where he would travel back to Dublin when necessary. G2 kept in contact with him with regular reports that were sent to London through the Department of External Affairs in the Irish diplomatic bag.

Walshe was so helpful that Marlin suggested that the Irish might agree to use their diplomats on the continent to collect information for the OSS. R Carter Nicholas, the head of the Éire Desk at OSS headquarters in Washington DC, visited Dublin to explore this possibility in September 1943. Nicholas asked Walshe about the possibility of the Americans receiving information from Irish diplomatic sources.

With de Valera’s approval, Walshe acceded to the request. He read out excerpts from reports from Irish diplomats on the continent in which Nicholas and Marlin might be interested.

He also agreed to transmit to the Irish Chargé d’Affaires in Berlin, “a request for information on the political situation in Germany at the top.”

In the following weeks, Marlin supplied questions to Walshe for the respective Irish representatives in Berlin, Rome, and Vichy. Walshe asked the questions of the respective diplomats and then forwarded their replies to Marlin.

The Irish diplomats were, in effect, being used as US spies.

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