Ireland and the Second World War—the price of neutrality

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Volume 23

The Irish Pine, torpedoed by U-608 on 15 November 1942. There were no survivors. Its fate and that of its crew did not come to light until over twenty years later. (Kenneth King/Maritime Institute of Ireland)

The Irish Pine, torpedoed by U-608 on 15 November 1942. There were no survivors. Its fate and that of its crew did not come to light until over twenty years later. (Kenneth King/Maritime Institute of Ireland)

The ambiguous relationship between Britain and Ireland was exacerbated during the Second World War. The Irish Free State (referred to as ‘Eire’ [sic] by the British from 1937) was part of the British Commonwealth but more than any other member of that body she remained tied to Britain. Almost all external trade was with Britain; the currency was sterling and controlled by the British treasury; and there was free movement of people between the two states, emphasising the vague status of Irish independence. The Irish were ‘independent’ when it suited but ‘British’ when that was advantageous.

Reluctant acceptance of Irish neutrality by the British
Ireland’s declaration of neutrality when Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 brought many aspects of Irish/British relations to the fore. The use of Irish bases for the defence of shipping was one, and trade and necessary supplies was another. Initially there was a reluctant acceptance of Irish neutrality by the British. The Irish government was pressed for the use of the ‘Treaty ports’, only vacated by British forces the year before. This was refused, but an agreement that a certain percentage of shipping would provide for Irish needs was adhered to up to summer 1940.

This agreement was vital to Ireland. It was far from self-sufficient in many commodities (fertilisers, animal feedstuffs, wheat, coal, timber, tea and tobacco), not to mention manufactured goods. It also had virtually no shipping of its own. The Irish registered merchant fleet consisted of about 50 small ships intended only for voyages to Britain and the near Continent. Many of these were sailing schooners, the majority owned by various Arklow families.

The destruction of the Kerry Head off Cape Clear in sight of watchers ashore on 22 October 1940, one of nine ships lost in that year. There were no survivors. (Kenneth King/Maritime Institute of Ireland)

The destruction of the Kerry Head off Cape Clear in sight of watchers ashore on 22 October 1940, one of nine ships lost in that year. There were no survivors. (Kenneth King/Maritime Institute of Ireland)

Irish/British relations deteriorated dramatically in the summer of 1940. German armies had swept through France; France had capitulated and an invasion of Britain seemed imminent. The Germans now had the French Atlantic ports as submarine bases and the use of airfields there, and attacks on convoys of merchant ships intensified. Winston Churchill became British prime minister. His powerful rhetoric certainly did a lot to rally British morale but he had a visceral detestation for Irish neutrality. Whatever may have been the actual advantages of the use of bases in ‘Eire’ over those in Northern Ireland, Churchill was intent on putting the ‘squeeze’ on ‘Eire’. Why should British shipping carry Irish supplies through submarine and aircraft attacks, where large numbers of ships were being sunk and seamen killed, when ‘Eire’ refused the use of bases for the defence of that shipping?

Hunger and starvation threatened
Microsoft Word - Food shortfall table2.docxBy winter 1940 the squeeze was certainly felt in Ireland. Hunger and starvation were likely, although, with the strict censorship in force, the true extent of the crisis was kept from the public. The few small ships did their best, in spite of being attacked and sunk. Neutral markings—tricolours and ‘EIRE’ in large letters painted on the ships’ sides and floodlighting at night—did little to protect them. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera reported to the Dáil on 20 February 1941 con-cerning attacks on Irish ships in 1940:

‘Of eight attacks, two of them twice, four were sunk, twenty lives lost and seven men injured. In addition to these four ships three others were sunk by mines and the cause of the loss of two others has not been ascertained. Seven of the ten attacks were from the air. In all but one case the attackers were identified as German. It is right to say, however, that I have also received reports of cases in which German planes have circled and examined Irish ships without attacking them.’

He went on to say that the loss of life and the sinkings had ‘occasioned feelings of deep resentment here’ and that they had protested to the German government and lodged a claim for compensation, and ‘reserved all rights to which we are entitled by International Law’. Completing the report, he stated:

‘However, let us be clear as to the position in this regard. On 17 August 1940 the German government declared a large area around Britain to be a scene of warlike operations and announced that ships in this area expose themselves to damage …’

The monument on City Quay in Dublin that records the names of those lost in Irish ships during the Second World War.

The monument on City Quay in Dublin that records the names of those lost in Irish ships during the Second World War.

Apart from the risk of attack, further difficulties imposed on Irish ships were the need to call at Fishguard on each return trip for inspection and a ‘Navicert’, which the British had imposed for shipping in the war zone. In addition, sailing in convoy meant delays, and if sailing independently (to Lisbon almost exclusively) a long course, well to the west, had to be followed. Britain had the almost exclusive control over chartering neutral and other shipping, and the United States had forbidden any of its shipping from entering the ‘war zone’ around Britain and Ireland. Lisbon then became the transhipment port for any American cargoes, putting further delays and restrictions on Irish trade and supplies.

Irish Shipping Ltd established
The supply situation became dire. Transport came to a halt, domestic gas almost ceased, and tea and many normal foodstuffs were severely rationed. An indication of the extent of the restriction on Irish supply can be seen from the table (above left). Faced with such a critical situation, the Irish government embarked on a dangerous and risky project in spring 1941: it established its own merchant shipping fleet. Almost the entire US dollar holding of the state was used. Fortunately there was expertise in shipping operations and brokerage available in the existing Irish companies, principally Palgrave Murphy’s Ltd, the Wexford Steamship Company and the Limerick Steamship Company. Also, officials of the various government departments, often accused of lack of imagination and restrictive attitudes and practices, proved enthusiastic and imaginative, notably John Leydon, permanent secretary of the Department of Supplies, and J.J. McElligott, secretary of the Department of Finance. It is an instructive example of what can be done by Irish politicians and administrators in a crisis.

The first difficulty was finding ships. Ships were scarce and prices exorbitant. The first acquired was a Greek ship that had been abandoned in the Bay of Biscay after an attack and towed into a northern Spanish port by fishermen. When a crew was sent out from Ireland to Lisbon to travel overland to the ship, Spanish authorities would not let them in because of suspicion that one of them had been involved on the anti-Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. A crew had to be hired locally to get the ship to Lisbon. While there, one of the masts collapsed during loading, indicating the general condition of the ship. She became the Irish Poplar, but it took months of repair before she was fit for service. Several others were acquired, some that had been interned in Irish ports because of their states’ involvement in the war. With great difficulty two ships were chartered from the United States. Even though neutral itself, the Roosevelt government condemned Irish neutrality, and a disastrous visit by Minister for Defence Frank Aiken did little to improve relations. Ironically, one of the hindrances in chartering ships was the necessity of clearing the financial transaction with the British treasury. There was also considerable delay, as the project became mired in US bureaucracy and politics. Both of these ships were lost in Irish service owing to belligerent action, although the fate of one, the Irish Pine and her entire crew, did not come to light until over twenty years later. As a consequence the US would not provide any more ships because the Irish government did not protest to the Germans about these sinkings.

Another ship was found abandoned and adrift off Dingle Bay by the Irish patrol vessel Fort Rannoch. The patrol vessel’s crew managed to raise steam and brought the ship into Valentia Harbour. She had been abandoned when attacked by German aircraft. She was purchased from her Yugoslav owners and became the Irish Beech.

Fifteen ships were eventually acquired by various means. Initially they sailed in convoy, but after a disastrous convoy battle in August 1941, in which one Irish ship was among two dozen others sunk, Irish ships generally sailed independently. This increased productivity, and although the Allies imposed circuitous routes this was compensated for by the elimination of delays in convoy assembly.

What of the men? The long tradition of Irish seafaring came to the nation’s aid at this critical time. Whatever the difficulties in acquiring ships, no ship was held up for lack of crew. This tradition, based on most of the coastal towns, with particular emphasis on Arklow and Wexford, had found its outlet mainly in the world-dominating British mercantile marine. Many of these Irish seafarers continued in their employment in British ships, enduring all the wartime dangers and horrors that this implied. But this source of expertise and manpower was available to the Irish nation when required. The wartime sacrifices of the British merchant navy is one of the great accounts of endurance and fortitude in which that nation justifiably takes immense pride. The magnificent monument to them is on Tower Hill, near the Tower of London, with all the names of those lost during two world wars. There are dozens of Irish names there.

The sacrifice of those civilian seamen who supplied Ireland in the Second World War is no less heroic than those of their brothers in the British merchant navy, if less recognised by modern Ireland. Sixteen merchant ships were sunk in nearly 40 attacks; 149 men were killed and 32 wounded owing to belligerent action. This was out of no more than c. 800 at most. It is also worth mentioning that Irish ships rescued 521 men of all nationalities from ships attacked or sunk during the war. An impressive monument on City Quay in Dublin records the names of those lost in Irish ships during that war. A series of sparsely attended ecumenical services organised by the Maritime Institute of Ireland take place in Dublin and Cork each November.

Irish Shipping Ltd carried 712,000 tons of wheat, 178,000 tons of coal, 63,000 tons of phosphates, 24,000 tons of tobacco, 19,000 tons of newsprint and 10,000 tons of timber to Ireland in those critical years, not forgetting the efforts of the fleet of smaller ships. This allowed the government to continue its policy of neutrality, which otherwise it would very likely have been forced to abandon in 1941 or later. This may or may not have provoked attack by Germany, but most students of the period are of the opinion that it would certainly have brought about serious internal divisions, and very probably violence and civil war. It is a great pity that the role of these few men, fundamental in the development of the modern Irish state, is not given the recognition that it deserves.

Daire Brunicardi is a retired lecturer of the National Maritime College of Ireland and has written several books on Irish maritime history.

Further reading

R. Fisk, In time of war: Ireland, Ulster and the price of neutrality 1939–1945 (London, 1983).
F. Forde, The long watch: World War II and the Irish mercantile marine (Dublin, 2000).
R.J. Raymond, ‘World War II and the foundation of Irish Shipping Ltd, 1941–1945’, Éire-Ireland (Fomhar/Fall 1984).


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