That neutral island: a cultural history of Ireland during the Second World War

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 16

That neutral island: a cultural history of Ireland during the Second World War
Clair Wills
(Faber & Faber, €20)
ISBN 9780571234479

Clair Wills’s work integrates two different approaches to history: one focusing on diplomacy and politics, the other on culture and society. She attempts to reverse the trend of concentrating on specific areas of Ireland and the war while trying to avoid writing another general history of the period. She locates her book in the grey area between high politics and the abstract landscape of Irish culture. The result is a refreshing look at Ireland’s place in the conflict.
Because of the hybrid nature of the work, it defies easy classification. It has elements of Brian Fallon’s An age of innocence (1998), illustrating the challenges faced by the ordinary people. The influence of Terence Brown’s Ireland: a cultural and social history, 1922–1985 (1990) is also clear, although Wills’s work is more focused and Brown’s has a far wider time-frame. On the other hand, when she discusses the controversy over the Treaty Ports, she echoes Robert Fisk’s In time of war (1983), while her judgements on Anglo-Irish wartime cooperation have much in common with the measured writing of Geoffrey Roberts, co-author of Ireland and the Second World War (2000).
It takes no great insight to see that emigration was a symptom of the economic backwardness of the new state, but Wills argues that it also created a bond between Ireland and Britain, a connection that was valuable because it was created and controlled by the emigrants and was not tainted by the old colonial tensions. She also illustrates that, despite the economic situation, a small but increasingly prosperous middle class was beginning to rise in Ireland, fuelled by the growth of the Irish industrial and manufacturing sector. She is sometimes unstinting in her criticism of the Fianna Fáil government. By the end of the war, she argues, both Fianna Fáil ideology and the ideal of rural Ireland were dead. De Valera’s response was to cloak himself in the mantle of the inheritor of 1916, illustrated by his immersion in the Easter Parade in 1941, and to bang the anti-partition drum. The depth and breadth of her research are reflected in the structure of the work. The chapters loosely follow the course of the war, but they are not restricted to any one topic. Their wide range means that they read like mini-works in themselves, but Wills never loses sight of her overall theme and threads them together well.
The book’s greatest strength is in the literary aspects of the war, which should come as no surprise as Wills is the Professor of Irish Literature at Queen Mary University of London. She often leads into a discussion of social or cultural issues by referring to literature. The most striking example of this is her chapter on wartime depopulation, which begins with a survey of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘The Great Hunger’ and M. J. Molloy’s play The Old Road. The chapter, poignantly entitled ‘The Vanished Generation’, then ranges over poverty, emigration, republican ideals, economic policy, the IRA, labour and Anglo-Irish cooperation, before arriving at the conclusion that the drain of population from Gaeltacht areas was the real price of neutrality, an argument that is concluded by a close assessment of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille. This illustrates Wills’s approach to the whole book and her research method.
Overall the book works very well. It is written in a clear, concise style, which makes it easy to read, even when dealing with complicated issues. The illustrations scattered throughout the text are a mixture of contemporary posters and cartoons, strategically placed to reinforce the argument. The academic reader might be surprised by the lack of footnotes, but there is compensation in the form of a helpful bibliographical essay at the end of the book. All in all, this is a successful synthesis of a number of differing approaches to the subject, and is a welcome, not to mention useful, addition to the growing body of work on Ireland and the Second World War.

Bernard Kelly is a Ph.D student at NUI Galway, researching Irish soldiers in the Second World War.

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