A Yankee in de Valera’s Ireland: the memoir of David Gray

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 21

A Yankee in de Valera’s Ireland:  the memoir of David Gray  Paul Bew (ed.) (Royal Irish Academy, €20) ISBN 9781908996053

A Yankee in de Valera’s Ireland: the memoir of David Gray Paul Bew (ed.) (Royal Irish Academy, €20) ISBN 9781908996053

‘The accumulating evidence supports the view that, even before the fall of France in 1940, de Valera believed that Hitler would win the war and in payment for keeping the Allies out of the Éire ports, he would obtain Northern Ireland on his own terms,’ the US wartime minister to Ireland David Gray wrote in 1956. He set out to prove this in his memoir, but he cited no convincing evidence in support of his thesis. ‘Gray himself appears to have been ignorant of the degree of genuine co-operation, especially in the intelligence field between neutral Ireland and belligerent Britain,’ Prof. Paul Bew notes in his introduction. Gray’s initial ignorance could possibly be attributed to his outspoken and undiplomatic behaviour. Few really trusted him. The British were reluctant to take him into their confidence. Sir John Maffey, the British representative in Dublin, was under instructions not to inform Gray about certain matters. As early as 1941 Taoiseach Eamon de Valera said that he would have asked for Gray’s recall if he were not a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and married to an aunt of the president’s wife.


In May 1940 Gray suggested to de Valera that there should be Anglo-Irish staff talks to prepare for a possible German invasion. Within a week the taoiseach sent Joe Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, to London to propose such talks, but he did not tell Gray. After America entered the war the British informed Gray about the secret Anglo-Irish military liaison. ‘A mutual good feeling and confidence have been established between the Irish and British military chiefs beyond what might reasonably have been believed possible,’ Gray reported at the time—but he omitted mention of this cooperation in his memoir.

De Valera had arranged for all Irish coast-watching stations to radio reports of any sightings to Dublin on an agreed frequency in a code supplied by the British. This was tantamount to reporting directly to the British. The Royal Navy was allowed to station an armed naval tug at Killybegs for air–sea rescue purposes, and the British were permitted to establish radar and direction-finding equipment on the Donegal and Cork coasts. In addition, the Irish meteorological service secretly shared its weather information with the British. All German air and naval personnel, as well as all German spies, were interned in Ireland for the duration of the war, including 165 German sailors rescued in the Bay of Biscay by an Irish ship. Under international law they should have been released. While the German legation was compelled to surrender its radio transmitter, the British legation was allowed to keep its transmitters.

All American servicemen who landed in Ireland were promptly released. Although all but one of the American spies sent to Ireland were promptly uncovered, none was ever apprehended. In fact, the Irish set up an intelligence liaison with American intelligence through one of the spies. American intelligence officers found de Valera so helpful that they asked him to use Irish diplomats in Berlin, Rome and Vichy as American spies. He readily agreed.

Gray was informed about the secret Irish cooperation but he ignores it in his memoir. No historian had then—or has since—uncovered any evidence that the Irish government ever favoured or facilitated the Germans in any similar way during World War II. Yet Gray argued that de Valera formed a Dublin–Berlin axis to collude with Hitler in the hope that he would win the war and end partition. Little over a week before Britain declared war on Germany, Joe Walshe told the German minister Edouard Hempel that, if Germany respected Irish neutrality, Irish-Americans could be important in preventing the United States siding with Britain. This was his opinion, not evidence of collusion, as suggested by Gray.

Gray warned Maffey against the British seizure of Irish bases because of ‘its effect upon American opinion, and the opportunity it would give enemies of Britain in the United States’. In essence, Gray used a similar argument with Maffey to that Walshe had used with Hempel. That did not mean that Walshe was pro-German any more than Gray was pro-Nazi. Gray grossly distorted the importance of Irish ports. In 1943, when he persuaded Roosevelt and Churchill to ask de Valera for Irish bases, British and American military and naval authorities blocked the move because the bases would not only be worthless but would actually be a liability to the Allied war effort.

If de Valera had informed James Dillon, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, about a secret British offer to end partition in return for Irish bases in June 1940, Gray wrote, ‘the course of Irish history would in all likelihood have been different’. Elsewhere in the book, however, he noted that Dillon was informed. ‘If de Valera tried to carry the country on the strength of the present British promises, he would be beaten,’ Dillon told Gray even before de Valera had formally rejected the British offer.

‘It is possible to doubt significant aspects of Gray’s analysis,’ Prof. Bew notes in his introduction, yet he repeatedly fails to note Gray’s blatant contradictions, or his historical distortions. The only real value of this memoir is the tortuous insight it provides into the twisted mind of David Gray, who was no more a historian than a diplomat. His reckless book is a testament to his pathological determination to discredit de Valera by sheer distortion.  HI

T. Ryle Dwyer is author of Behind the green curtain: Ireland’s phony neutrality during World War II (Gill & Macmillan, 2009).

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