Envisaging the unthinkable: planning for Armageddon in 1950s Ireland

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Volume 25


By Michael Kennedy

The impact of a ten-megaton hydrogen bomb on Dublin would be cataclysmic. A 1958 Department of Defence map showed concentric circles of devastation moving out from a notional city centre ‘ground burst’. South to Dundrum, west to the Phoenix Park and north to Santry was labelled ‘total destruction’. All within a three-and-a-half-mile radius of central Dublin would be consumed in a nuclear mushroom cloud. The greater Dublin area in the mid-1950s had a population close to 850,000 out of a total national population of 2.8 million. Dublin would cease to exist, casualties would be horrendous and, depending on wind direction, radioactive fallout could spread across the entire country.

A ten-megaton bomb was the equivalent of ten million tons of TNT. The weapon dropped on Hiroshima was, by contrast, a mere fifteen kilotons. One ten-megaton bomb could incapacitate Ireland. At the height of the Cold War it was thought that the Soviet Union had at least four targets for nuclear weapons on the island of Ireland, including Dublin, Shannon, Derry and Belfast.

Above: General Seán MacEoin, minister for defence—he and the minister for health, T.F. O’Higgins, were the driving force in the second Inter-Party Government pushing emergency planning forward. (RTÉ Stills Library)

In 1955, aware of the contamination and destruction that a nuclear attack on Dublin would bring, Minister for Health T.F. O’Higgins bluntly wrote to Minister for Defence General Seán MacEoin that ‘the next war may involve the stark issue of our survival as a nation’.

Fear of a Third World War haunted Cold War Irish foreign policy. That terror is a familiar theme to readers of the post-1945 volumes of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy. The recently published latest volume in the series, DIFP X, covers 1951 to 1957. It publishes for the first time a number of documents outlining official planning for the state’s transition to World War III. It gives a never-before-seen insight into Ireland’s planning for nuclear attack.

The main ‘War Book’ file in the Department of the Taoiseach for the 1950s (S15475), outlining the responsibilities of Ireland’s government departments in an emergency, remains classified. So do Department of the Taoiseach files from the 1950s and 1960s on Ireland’s preparations for a major emergency, including a large-scale conventional or nuclear attack (S16409). However, associated cabinet minutes and other publicly available files in the National Archives give an insight into Ireland’s planning for the unimaginable.

Above: UN vehicles recrossing the 38th Parallel as they withdraw from Pyongyang in 1950, the most dangerous phase of the Korean War, when Taoiseach John A. Costello established an interdepartmental emergency preparations committee.

Co-operation with the British
In 2003 Peter Hennessy’s The secret state explained in terrifying detail how Whitehall would bring Britain into World War III. There were passing references to Ireland. Hennessy showed that, in the event of a Third World War, co-operation with Ireland had been arranged on sharing weather data, controlling aids to navigation and co-ordinating the Wartime Broadcasting Service that would operate after a nuclear attack. Co-operation on fallout tracking would follow. Irish files also show how Aer Lingus pilots in the RAF Reserve would be able to join their units. This co-operation is perhaps unsurprising, given the advanced level of British–Irish co-operation during the Second World War. Little work has been done to explore the extent of post-war British–Irish defence and civil defence co-operation, and by extension what the Dublin government was planning in case of a nuclear attack on Ireland or Britain.

Popular memory recalls the most significant event in 1950s Irish foreign policy as Ireland’s 1955 admission to the United Nations. Beneath this public diplomacy and away from popular gaze, Irish administrators grappled with, and slowly envisaged, the doomsday scenario of how a nuclear war would affect Ireland.

Planning had begun five years earlier in 1950 when, with the Korean War in its most dangerous phase, Taoiseach John A. Costello established an interdepartmental emergency preparations committee. As part of wider Inter-Party Government strategic planning, it recommended to the taoiseach precautionary measures to be undertaken in the event of a world war. A National Security Bill and a National Security order were drafted, and work began on the preparation of a War Book to replace the hastily drafted plans of the summer of 1940, when invasion from Britain or Germany was thought imminent. Each department of state planned within a five-stage process for a transition to a future emergency. These began in peacetime and were:

(1) the preliminary stage;
(2) the preparatory stage—war would commence within one year;
(3) the danger stage—preparations should proceed on the assumption that a ‘time of war’ was imminent;
(4) the emergency stage—commencing immediately on the passing of resolutions by both houses of the Oireachtas declaring a national emergency; and
(5) the war stage—reached if Ireland became a participant in a war.

These were hardly effective guidelines when a thermonuclear war could break out at short notice and where weeks, if not days, might be the run-in time. No mention was yet made by planners of a nuclear attack on an Irish target.

Once the immediate crisis of the Korean War ended, the emergency preparations committee lapsed. It held its last meeting in June 1951, when a new national civil defence plan was approved. Wider emergency preparations were still lacking.

Operation Sandstone, a top-secret British–Irish military operation, saw the armed forces of both states co-operate from 1948 to 1955 in undertaking a new coastal survey of Ireland as part of a wider survey of Britain and Ireland. Carried out at the request of the United States, its purpose was to identify suitable landing grounds should Western forces have to retake Ireland or Britain after a successful Soviet invasion.
Co-operation on sharing wartime weather information and the evacuation of civilian refugees from Britain to Ireland was agreed by 1953. Where Sandstone was undertaken as a military-to-military exercise with little or no civilian civil service involvement, these bilateral Anglo-Irish talks involved both military and civilians across government departments in both countries.

Above: ‘Survival in a Nuclear War—Advice on Protection in the Home and on the Farm’ (sic)—Bás Beatha, a 1965 Civil Defence [Cosaint Shibhialta] pamphlet. (NLI)

Another ‘Emergency’
On 8 May 1953 the cabinet approved a memorandum from Taoiseach Éamon de Valera seeking updated departmental plans for managing the transition to a future emergency. An interdepartmental emergency preparation committee would co-ordinate the process. Just as during the Second World War, the Third World War would be an ‘Emergency’. The state of national emergency initiated in 1939 under Article 28.3.3 of the constitution remained in place and would do so for decades to come. Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken wanted it so. He felt that the ‘premature termination’ of the emergency would ‘lull people into a false sense of security’ and ‘unrealistic disbelief in the necessity for defence preparations at the present time’.

When the second Inter-Party government took office in 1954 they found that emergency planning had stagnated. A small start was made when British–Irish discussions on wartime co-operation recommenced in November 1954. Covering the control of aeronautical navigation beacons and other transmitters, on cabinet instruction they had to be undertaken without military commitment and subject to actual wartime decisions. Cabinet minutes also noted that Ireland’s independence of action and sovereignty had to be preserved.

In summer 1955 the Department of Defence proposed a permanent ‘Committee on Emergency Planning’, chaired by the taoiseach, with the taoiseach as the only permanent member and with other members chosen by him as required. Managed by a small secretariat, along the lines of the British Committee of Imperial Defence, it would examine national administration in the event of an emergency.

Defence now had a small team in Britain consulting with officials on civil defence in the event of a nuclear attack. They hoped soon to have Irish officials participate in British training courses. Much work remained to be done in areas such as the role of the Garda Síochána in time of war; the control and requisitioning of shipping and aircraft; the protection of institutions and places of national importance; rationing; regional administration; censorship; etc.

Minister for Health O’Higgins recognised that there was no clear picture at official or ministerial level of the scenario facing Ireland if a Third World War broke out. O’Higgins wanted a stark appreciation placed before government. He proposed a strategic-level assessment of plans and preparations through an interdepartmental committee chaired by the minister for defence, General Seán MacEoin.

O’Higgins and MacEoin were the driving force pushing emergency planning forward in the second Inter-Party government. They did not see eye to eye, yet both knew that in the mid-1950s emergency preparations were virtually non-existent in Ireland. The War Book, prepared in leisurely fashion, remained incomplete. Agreeing that emergency planning had been too laid-back and had suffered as departments were immersed in everyday planning, O’Higgins and MacEoin tried to agree a feasible process within which to commence planning.

In an attempt to put reality into the ethereal planning undertaken since 1950, in late May 1956 O’Higgins wrote to Costello outlining in detail the impact of a nuclear attack on Dublin. Even if resources were not available to meet the threat, O’Higgins felt that the Irish government had to take expert scientific advice and realise the nature of the problem facing them.

In July 1956 the cabinet agreed a proposal from the minister for finance that the minister for defence establish a full-time working party on emergency preparation. It would undertake a broad appraisal of the hazards facing Ireland and the protective action necessary. Comprising senior officials from the Departments of Defence, Health, Justice, Local Government, Agriculture and Industry and Commerce, its staff were civil servants who had ‘experience of kindred work’ or who exhibited suitable ‘qualities of energy and imagination’. They would be assisted by the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, local authorities and transport bodies.

The working party, retitled ‘the Working Party on Certain Aspects of Civil Defence’, proceeded on the assumption that in a Third World War nuclear weapons would be used on western British cities, Belfast or Dublin as part of a co-ordinated attack on Britain and Ireland. This was the first time that any Irish department of state anticipated the possibility of a nuclear attack on Ireland.

The Suez Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956 prompted a further, but informal, cabinet discussion on ‘preparation for the emergency that would arise in the event of a grave deterioration in the existing international situation’. The cabinet received an outline of emergency preparation since 1950, details of the National Security Bill and the drafting of orders to be made thereunder, and an update on the position of the draft War Book.

When the Department of Posts and Telegraphs submitted its War Book return in February 1957, the process begun in 1953 was finally complete. It had been leisurely, given the critical concerns under discussion. The finalising of the War Book and the ultimate report of the parallel working party on emergency preparation now became interlinked.
Published in August 1958, the report of the 1956 Working Party on Certain Aspects of Civil Defence was a watershed document. Coming in at 250 pages, it was the first serious assessment of the impact of nuclear weapons detonated near Ireland, or on an Irish target on either side of the border. It tried to lay out responses to meet the scenarios envisaged by cabinet in 1956.

The report was essentially an analytical document, assessing previously unimaginable scenarios. For example, the possibility of deep civilian shelters for Dublin was examined and ruled out as too expensive. Strategic evacuation was instead proposed for people living in the likely ‘area of total destruction’. When dealing with the ‘many thousands of deaths’ that would follow a nuclear attack on the capital, ‘there might be no question of endeavouring to follow the ordinary laws and customs relating to burial’. Mass graves or simply leaving bodies to rot in contaminated zones might be necessary. The report showed that a nuclear attack would ‘deliver a blow from which the country would not recover for several generations’.

O’Higgins and MacEoin already realised that if nuclear weapons were used on Dublin what O’Higgins called ‘the complete breakdown of all organised life’ would result. The report re-emphasised this and, in doing so, starkly highlighted the inadequacy of emergency planning and civil defence in Ireland. It uncompromisingly presented the appalling vista of the complete destruction of the main apparatus of the Irish state in the blink of an eye. Its authors explained that ‘the life we now know and the complex structure of finance and commerce on which it is based would disappear. What would take their place cannot be adequately foreseen.’ As the 1950s ended, it remained too much for the Irish state to prepare its citizens for this possibility. In the age of the four-minute warning, Ireland’s emergency planning remained hopelessly inadequate.

Michael Kennedy is Executive Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

Department of Defence, Bás Beatha: Survival in a nuclear war (Dublin, 1965).
P. Hennessy, The secret state: Whitehall and the Cold War (London, 2003).
M. Kennedy et al. (eds), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, X, 1951–7 (Dublin, 2016).
G. Warner, ‘Operation Sandstone, a story of British–Irish post-war co-operation’, The Irish Sword 26 (105) (2009), 325–42.


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