‘Imaginative and enthusiastic’?

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Letters, Volume 23

Sir,—I am delighted that Fionnula Smyth (Letters, HI 23.4, July/Aug. 2015) was pleased with my article on wartime Irish shipping in the preceding issue. She takes exception to my ‘imaginative and enthusiastic’ comments on the government’s actions in setting up Irish Shipping Ltd. She is also critical of the government for not having set up an Irish mercantile marine before the war. Certainly there was lack of action and appreciation of the possibilities in the maritime sector in the years leading up to the Second World War. But criticising the lack of a native mercantile fleet in those years is using the benefit of hindsight. Irish mercantile ships, like those of the other dominions of the British Commonwealth, were considered British, and part of a world-dominating organisation. The matter of the Irish mercantile marine was raised from time to time in the Dáil, but shipping interests in Ireland, moved by commercial rather than strategic considerations, showed no enthusiasm for stepping outside the status quo.

Furthermore, the country was in a dire condition economically, with huge social problems. An ‘economic war’ with Britain had just ended, and the all-powerful Department of Finance grudged every penny of public money. Whatever about the perceived lack of foresight in not setting up a native mercantile marine, one only has to look at the state of Irish military defences to get an idea of the mind-set at the time. The army had been decimated and starved of resources over the years since independence. Every submission made by the army high command (and these were modest under the circumstances of imminent war) was belittled by the Department of Finance, with petty criticisms in detail. Even after approving a modest Defence vote in 1939, this was reduced in early 1940 when the war seemed dormant. By spring 1940, when the ‘Blitzkreig’ started, weapons and war materials were vainly sought. As France capitulated and the German armed forces seemed unstoppable, Ireland had two small ex-fisheries patrol vessels and one tiny motor torpedo boat to defend its waters, apart from a hastily enlarged and ill-equipped land force.

The ‘imaginative and enthusiastic’ comment was inspired by the surprising change in attitude of the Department of Finance when it came to setting up Irish Shipping Ltd. Risking meagre financial reserves in such a questionable venture was so uncharacteristic as to be remarkable. It demonstrates what can be done when the ‘back is to the wall’. It’s unfortunate that it takes such crises to inspire enthusiastic and imaginative action.—Yours etc.,



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