Returning home: Irish ex-servicemen after the Second World War Bernard Kelly (Merrion, €17.99) ISBN 9781908928009

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 20

Returning home: Irish ex-servicemen after the Second World WarBernard Kelly (Merrion, €17.99) ISBN 9781908928009

Returning home: Irish ex-servicemen after the Second World War
Bernard Kelly
(Merrion, €17.99)
ISBN 9781908928009

Returning home explores, without being sentimental or shrill, the post-war experiences in Ireland of the 130,000 Irish men and women from widely different backgrounds who joined the British military during World War II. Ireland was the only European neutral whose nationals voluntarily joined a belligerent power on a large scale. Other 1939 neutrals were either invaded by Germany or the Soviet Union or saw numbers only a fraction of the size of Ireland’s joining the armies of the warring powers. Though Ireland was independent, World War II showed its continuing cultural, economic and geographic interrelationship with Britain, something neutrality and censorship could not conceal. Those who left Ireland and served overseas were changed for ever by their experience. When they returned to their native land they were not welcomed as conquering heroes. They resettled in an indifferent country that ignored and often excluded them. Creating their own subculture, ex-servicemen established their own networks across Ireland. Internationally they took solace in being part of a global community of veterans.  Kelly’s style is easy yet authoritative, and unemotional yet moving. He begins with an overview of the ‘Irish ex-serviceman’ from the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. Though playing an often overlooked role in the Irish Revolution and Civil War on both sides, ex-servicemen thereafter retreated to the periphery of Irish society between the wars. This was despite having some vocal supporters in the Dáil, in particular William Redmond and Bryan Cooper. The Cosgrave administration was happy to leave ex-servicemen on the sidelines.Examining the motivation of those who joined up from 1939 to 1945 and their subsequent treatment by the state they left behind, Kelly allows his interviewees to relate their wartime experiences—this is as much their book as his. They often rediscovered their Irishness in the British Army and found that their Irishness transcended the sectarian divisions of North and South in the wider international groupings of the British military.One could be forgiven for initially comparing Irish servicemen with other groups of Irish emigrants. The attraction of overseas experience and the exotic, albeit in uniform, was a dominant motivation to leave de Valera’s Ireland. One volunteer wrote in his memoir of the lure of far-away places, and of the war changing ‘imaginative longing into realisable adventure’ (p. 28). Contrary to currently fashionable opinion, joining up for political or moral reasons was much less frequent. The horrors of Nazism and the death camps became a retrospective justification for joining up, not reasons in themselves. Great things were happening worldwide and the simple dominating reason to join up was to see some of the action. ‘Oh what a lovely war’, the reader could be lured into thinking. Such thoughts are demolished in Chapter 4 (‘Health’), where the post-traumatic stress of war and the mental trauma of killing are brought into sharp focus. So too in the veterans’ own words is the shattering first-hand experience of entering concentration camps: ‘Jesus, we were stopped dead. Don’t want to remember it; want to forget about it, not worth thinking about’, Frank, a former Grenadier Guardsman, recalled of Belsen (p. 74).  Such experiences illustrate the post-war dislocation that ex-servicemen felt on returning to an Ireland unscarred by global war. There was the shock of the normal and of having to fit in and be accepted (or not) in peacetime Ireland. There were pressing post-war problems facing ex-servicemen. Were former jobs still open? Would family relations be maintained? How would they manage alone in ‘civvy street’, their lives having been regulated by the armed forces? Readjustment was difficult—as is vividly explained in Chapter 5 (‘Money’). Kelly then moves from these personal experiences to state-level responses to demobilisation in Dublin and London. The provision of unemployment insurance for ex-servicemen was a significant British–Irish diplomatic issue in the immediate post-war years.  The expected, perhaps feared, wave of ex-servicemen did not materialise in Ireland. Most ex-servicemen rebuilt their lives in Britain. Here they could immerse themselves in the shared experience of the war and its aftermath. This was impossible in Ireland. Chapter 6 (‘Remembrance’) shows one aspect of why this was so; Chapter 7, on the wearing of uniforms, shows another. Made to feel unwelcome in many quarters of Irish society, it is easy to see why ex-servicemen chose to settle outside Ireland.  The book concludes with a measured chapter on Irish Defence Forces deserters who joined the British Army. It is an antidote to the recent over-emotional and ill-informed debate in the national media. Kelly covers the issue dispassionately. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but he sums up well that, by choosing an emergency powers order over military law, the Irish state dealt with Defence Forces deserters swiftly, cheaply and without publicity. He concludes that the issue, like the de Valera administration’s treatment of other issues concerning ex-servicemen, was shaped by pragmatism rather than by malice.Service in the British armed forces illustrates the complexities and blurred allegiances of Irishness. One-dimensional mid-twentieth-century Irish nationalism could not accommodate these paradigms. The reality was that one could fight for Britain and still be Irish. The reality, too, was that post-war Irish nationalism was too immature and insular to accommodate this fact. Its early 21st-century version shows signs of being more accommodating and understanding.  HI

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


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