I have just finished reading a book that was recommended to me a few years back, “That Neutral Island” by Clair Wills. It is about Ireland in the period 1939 to 1945 when the country managed to remain neutral in the Second World War.
In 1939, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania. Bulgaria, the United States of America, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ireland all remained neutral when Hitler invaded and occupied Poland.
Of these seventeen initially neutral countries , only the last five on the list managed to remain neutral throughout the war and they did so largely because of their geography and topography. The costs of attacking Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and Ireland would have outweighed the benefits for either side in the war. That, rather than the fact that they had declared themselves neutral, is what saved each of them from attack.
Notwithstanding the fact that Poland was a country with which it had significant religious ties, there was no support at all in Ireland for the idea that Ireland should enter the hostilities in 1939 on Poland’s behalf.
Indeed, Irish neutrality did not come under much pressure at all, until after the fall of France and the intense U Boat attacks on shipping off the Irish coast. In the second half of 1940, over 200 bodies of allied seamen were washed up on the west coast of Ireland, and both Britain and America felt that the British Navy would have been able to minimise these losses if it again had use of Irish ports, like those in Lough Swilly and Castletownbeare, which had only been handed over to the Irish authorities in 1938. This feeling was intensified by the fact that some of the supplies being carried in these sunken ships were destined eventually for Ireland itself. At this stage neutrality was questioned in the Dail by James Dillon and in the Senate by Frank McDermott, but they got little support.
The author of the book is a Professor of Literature and she describes the cultural atmosphere of the country by drawing on the work of writers like Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O Faolain and Mairtin O Cadhain.
Neutrality, and the exigencies of the War, meant that Ireland was more cut off from the rest of the world from 1939 to 1945 than at any other time in the modern era. Irish independence from Britain became more pronounced in the political, cultural and economic sense. Self reliance was promoted and some the internal divisions, caused by the Civil War of 1922 to 1923, were reduced by a sense of common threat. But a high price was paid. Malnutrition, and diseases associated with it like typhus, increased a great deal. Internment without trial had to be introduced to choke off the IRA bombing campaign against Britain.
Censorship was used to promote and defend neutrality. Irish people were thus not well informed about the scale of Nazi atrocities, because the Irish censors felt it would be “un neutral” to allow them to see what was going on. Pictures of the emaciated survivors of Buchenwald and Belsen were not allowed to be shown in the Irish media until the war was fully over. While this sort of censorship may have been necessary to prevent indoctrination of the Irish people by allied propaganda, it left a negative legacy.
It bred indifference and insularity, and a smug sense that neutrality is almost always morally superior to participation in war. Neutrality was presented as something more than an arguably intelligent tactic to be adopted by a small country to protect its own interests, and elevated in the public mind into something that is right in principle on moral grounds in almost every conceivable situation.
This is a sentiment that endures in Ireland today to a degree that one will find in none of the other seventeen countries who tried to remain neutral when the war broke out in September 1939.
To a significant degree, the survival of this idea that neutrality is morally superior explains the initial rejection of both the Nice and the Lisbon Treaties in referenda in Ireland, something which other European countries, who actually experienced World War Two fought across their territory, found difficult to understand at the time.

Print Entry