I had a personal reason for wanting to read “No Way Out, the Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945” by Isadore Ryan (Mercier Press).
This is because my aunt, Hilda Delany (1916-1956) from Culmullen was one of the Irish trapped in France, when the German Army quickly over ran, and occupied the country in the summer of 1940.
Hilda had joined the Bon Sauveur Order of nuns in 1938 and was sent to France for training.
She spent the entire war in France, only returning to her convent in Holyhead in Wales in September 1945.
She died when I was only 9 years of age, so I did not get to know her well, although I do remember my mother bringing me to visit her in Holyhead on the Mail Boat. Conditions seem to have been very difficult in occupied France and food was scarce, and these privations may have contributed to her death at such an early age.
While my aunt is not mentioned in Isadore Ryan’s thoroughly researched book, there are many stories of other individual Irish individual people (including nuns), who found themselves trapped in France with minimal means of communication with, or receipt of support from, their families or communities back in Ireland.
The Irish Legation in Vichy France did its best to provide support but there were limits on what it could do. There were advantages in having a neutral Irish, rather than a British, passport at this time. The British passport holders were liable to be interned, whereas the Irish enjoyed some internal freedom of movement.
But the only way the Irish could get home to Ireland was by land to Spain and then by air or sea from Portugal to Britain. This was expensive, slow, and hazardous so very few attempted it.
Isadore Ryan ‘s book provides glimpses into the lives of many of the Irish, some of them well known like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. He also describes the lives and troubles of others who were priests, businessman, teachers of English, governesses, entertainers and nurses.
Some, like Beckett and Janie McCarthy were active in the French Resistance. A small number fraternized with the Germans, to the extent that they were suspected of collaboration with them.
Interestingly, very few returned to Ireland when the war was over, a sign of straitened condition of this country in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
Many Irish readers will find mention of families they know in this book.
It gives a glimpse into a more difficult time, which will put in proper proportion some of the constraints now imposed by the battle against Covid 19.