Neutrality, Aiseirighe and Liam Ó Laoghaire

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Letters, Letters, Volume 17

Sir,

—The truest answer to R. M. Douglas’s opening question in his article on Ailtirí na hAiseirighe (HI 17.5, Sept./Oct. 2009), as to ‘which side the country favoured in World War II’, is ‘ours’. Certainly, neither the US nor British leaders were impressed by southern Ireland’s stance; the one real difference southern Ireland might have made to the Allied war effort was offering assistance in the war in the Atlantic, something de Valera steadfastly refused to do.
The move from an understanding of southern Ireland’s position during the war as neutral to ‘neutral-on-the-Allied-side’ is, I believe, politically motivated and was most clearly articulated by Dermot Ahern when minister for foreign affairs. On the one hand, it puts southern Ireland on the side of the virtuous, always a pleasant place to be, while on the other it softens any residual antagonism felt in the north of Ireland on account of southern Ireland’s failure to offer assistance to its neighbour in its deepest hour of need. The poet Louis MacNeice had no doubt as to southern Ireland’s very real neutrality, and damned the place on account of it. Also, there is a subliminal implication: if southern Ireland wasn’t really neutral during the Second World War, should Ireland be neutral now? Unfortunately for those people who would seek to reinterpret southern Ireland’s role during the war, the evidence as presented in Brian Girvan’s and Clair Wills’s books on the period does not support them.
Douglas makes clear that not everyone associated with Craobh na hAiseirighe was by any means fascist: this, I think, needs to be emphasised in relation to the founder of film studies in Ireland, Liam Ó Laoghaire. Ó Laoghaire had shown Eisenstein in Dublin in the 1930s; during the war he showed a Soviet film, We from Kronstadt. The required reading for admission to his film school was an eclectic mix of modernism, including James Joyce and T. S. Elliot, François Mauriac for ethics, James Connolly for politics, and Orson Wells and John Steinbeck, both of whom were on the American left, for film.
Some confusion may arise because there are records of two pieces of film in the Irish Film Archive (in the Irish Film Institute, Temple Bar) titled ‘Aiseirighe’. One, of which there is no known copy, was made by Ó Laoghaire to mark an anniversary of Conradh na Gaeilge. The second was deposited by Ó Cuinnegáin’s granddaughter and is footage of a march by Aiseirighe in Dublin and a meeting held on the border. There is nothing to associate Ó Laoghaire with the second film.
For those of us who grew up in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Film Institute was a window on a world to which we had no other access; there is perhaps a parallel with the work being put on in the Gate theatre at that time. It was (and of course still is) the antithesis of everything Aiseirighe stood for.

—Yours etc.,
EOIN DILLON
Dublin 8

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