The ‘trackless desert’

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2019), Volume 27

Irish neutrality in the Second World War.

By John Gibney and Michael Kennedy

In September 1939 the Second World War began, and in Ireland the ‘Emergency’ commenced. The common use of the term arose from the 1939 Emergency Powers Act and the declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ by the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera on 2 September 1939 in anticipation of the challenges that the war would present, even to a state such as Ireland which intended not to become embroiled in it. Such plans, however, envisaged that Ireland would be neutral only until it was invaded, after which it was assumed that Ireland would enter the war. The essential, and often overlooked, reason for Ireland’s decision to remain neutral in the Second World War was straightforward: to avoid being dragged into the conflict unless there was no alternative. It was as simple, and as stark, as that.

‘Treaty ports’

Above: ‘Éire sign 44’, Kilcreadaun Point, Co. Clare. In 1943, 83 of these signs (the fada was generally not included) were constructed around the Irish coast, and maps showing the numbered signs were given to Allied aircrews crossing the Atlantic. Axis aircrews flying near Irish territory would see the signs, but without the numbered key to the locations they were of little use as navigation waypoints. (Military Archives)

The prospect of being invaded by either Britain or Germany preoccupied the Irish government in the early years of the war. Independent Ireland had adopted a policy of military neutrality from an early stage, and in the 1920s had joined and engaged with the League of Nations—the multilateral organisation created by the post-war Paris peace conference in April 1919 to oversee international security and disarmament. The mounting international crises of the 1930s, however, saw Ireland warily disengage from the League. A crucial milestone that would enable de Valera’s government to pursue a policy of meaningful neutrality in the Second World War came in 1938, when the three naval bases retained by the British under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921—the so-called ‘Treaty Ports’ of Berehaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly—were returned to Irish control, and British forces finally departed from the 26 counties that made up the Irish Free State. That this transfer took place so soon before the outbreak of the Second World War was later seen by the British—and especially by Winston Churchill—as a major strategic error.

Irish governments in the 1920s and ’30s did not want to be drawn into Britain’s wars (although the British expected Ireland, which was still within the Commonwealth, to support them in such conflicts), not least because following Britain’s lead into any future conflict had the real potential to reignite civil war in Ireland, an issue that remained painfully relevant in 1939. It was no coincidence that in the late 1930s, in meetings with British ministers and officials, de Valera invoked the example of John Redmond, an Irish leader who had been destroyed by his own commitment to the British war effort three decades earlier.

De Valera’s assumption was that on the outbreak of war between major belligerents, one of whom was Ireland’s vastly more powerful nearest neighbour, the only realistic option for a small country such as Ireland was to stay outside the conflict as best it could. This was a rational choice. Irish neutrality was, however, a step into the unknown, or—as the senior diplomat Michael Rynne, legal adviser at the Department of External Affairs and himself a veteran of the independence struggle, would put it in July 1942—‘a journey through the more or less trackless desert of the “neutrality law” of modern wartime’.

Above: A map of military manoeuvres by the Defence Forces along the River Blackwater in Cork, 1942. The location was chosen because nearby Cork Harbour was a likely area for a German amphibious assault, and the land to the east and north-east of the city was a good example of the terrain on which the Defence Forces would have to meet the invading German force. (Military Archives)

Michael Rynne’s memorandum

On the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939 Rynne had composed a lengthy memorandum setting out the realities of what Irish neutrality would entail in practice. The principal duties of a neutral, he wrote, were to ‘oppose any act of hostility which one belligerent may attempt against another on our neutral territory (including the territorial sea) … to refrain from any act of such a kind as to interfere with the military operations of one of the belligerents against another outside our territory; and … to maintain the most complete impartiality in our relations with the two belligerents, abstaining from any action which might amount to auxiliary aid to one of the combatants’. It was essential, in Rynne’s view, to avoid—and, indeed, to actively oppose—any actions, whether by the state itself or by its citizens, that could offer any assistance, directly or indirectly, to any of the belligerent powers. No favour could be publicly shown to either belligerent, but this was not just a passive position; as far as Rynne was concerned, ‘We will be expected to be firm in the enforcement of our neutral rights and we will be legally entitled to be as drastic as circumstances demand’. He was also aware that, for differing reasons, Irish neutrality would suit both Germany and Britain but that this might change according to their requirements; the neutrality of other small states had been violated in the past, after all. Ireland was not the only European state to declare neutrality on the outbreak of the war. That did not spare neutrals such as Belgium from later German invasion.

Over the course of the war Rynne and other key officials and politicians sought to grapple with how the principle of neutrality could be balanced with the realities that they faced. Ireland’s peripheral location on the fringe of Western Europe was now of central importance in the conflict, and two possible futures flowed from this. One was invasion and occupation by the Germans in the course of any attack on Britain. The other was invasion and occupation by the British, who already had a foothold on the island of Ireland and who might wish to invade Ireland to fight a German invasion force or to seize strategic assets on Irish soil, such as port facilities to extend their reach into the Atlantic.

Above: Members of the Army Nursing Service parade through Patrick Street, Cork, on the conclusion of the Blackwater exercises in September 1942. The Irish government made a point of securing public support for its policy of neutrality. (Military Archives)

Military implications

There were very real military implications to be considered here, despite the moralistic rhetoric in which Irish neutrality was sometimes cloaked. De Valera’s attitude was one of pragmatic calculation, as he and his officials displayed a surprising degree of empathy with the strategic realities of the position in which Britain found itself early in the war. Britain could keep Germany at bay and could be mollified by surreptitious co-operation, though the official Irish position throughout the war was one of strict and public neutrality. The ‘Phoney War’ of 1939–40 passed without presenting any direct threat to Ireland, but from an Irish perspective the summer of 1940 was potentially the most dangerous period of the entire war. The fall of France on 22 June and the advance of German forces to the French coast concentrated Irish minds on the possibility of a German invasion of Ireland as part of, or as a diversionary raid leading to, an invasion of Britain.

Ireland’s foreign and defence policies during the war increasingly reflected de Valera’s admission in August 1939 that Dublin would show a ‘certain consideration’ for Britain and her allies. Germany was seen as the principal danger. As early as November 1939 Joseph P. Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs (and thus Ireland’s most senior diplomat), noted that ‘the general feeling amongst our people is anti-Hitler because of his persecution of Christians and Jews’. At the same time, he wrote, ‘Britain’s propaganda about small nations [was] received with scepticism and … always will be until her new leaf has been turned over a little more completely’. It was not impossible, after all, that the British might invade should they deem it necessary to seize naval facilities (such as the old ‘Treaty ports’) or to head off a German attack. Walshe also suggested that, as Britain was apparently seeking ‘the establishment of a regime of right and justice in the world’, there were certain limits within which she would have to operate, and consequently ‘we do not believe that she will make any attempt to violate our sovereignty’. The Irish government did agree that in the event of a German landing they would request British military assistance, but a certain wariness of British intentions lingered in Irish official circles.

De Valera’s government assumed that Britain, if in sufficiently desperate straits, might pose a threat, and so they sought to navigate a path between the two belligerent powers, both of which were correctly suspected of having plans to invade Ireland if necessity required. Both Britain and Germany made it very clear that they expected Ireland to remain neutral, and that should Ireland lean towards one side or the other there could be very serious consequences. In May 1940, for example, Germany made its displeasure felt after de Valera described the invasions of Holland and Belgium as a ‘cruel wrong’ during a speech in Galway. On the other hand, in the same month Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain reminded John Dulanty, the Irish high commissioner in London, that neutrality had not spared other countries and that the British attitude to Irish neutrality would not change as long as Ireland did ‘nothing to provoke them’. The implication was obvious.

British offer an end to partition

In June 1940 the former British Dominions secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, arrived in Dublin to discuss immediate Irish participation in the war, with the implausible prospect of an end to partition being held out by the British as a bargaining chip (which naturally raised the question of how the Germans might respond to any acceptance of such an offer). MacDonald’s offer was rejected; de Valera believed that Ireland would only suffer by involvement in the war and that, as a small state, her own national interests would hold little weight in the event of either a British or a German victory. He made clear to MacDonald that he and his colleagues would not leave Ireland ‘mercilessly exposed to the horrors of modern wars’, though ‘if war were forced upon them, it would be another matter’. The implications of this were very real, however. In July 1940 Walshe, writing to de Valera, warned that abandoning neutrality could lead to ‘perpetual occupation’ by a victorious Germany, with Ireland little more than a ‘barren German fortress’ in the event of the defeat of Britain that he then felt was inevitable. It would also ‘accept Britain’s conception of our place in the world’—but it was telling that his assertion of the principle of Ireland’s standing in the world came after the blunt reality of national survival.

Though Dublin considered the immediate German threat to have declined as July 1940 ended, the threat from Britain was not seen to have entirely abated during this period. The prospect of the British using force to obtain the use of Irish naval bases was extremely problematic. One of the reasons, after all, that the Treaty ports had been returned was the acceptance by the British that it would be virtually impossible, in military terms, to make use of them without the consent of the Irish government. In July 1940 Dulanty raised the question of whether the British might seize the ports with Chamberlain, whose exasperated response was to exclaim, ‘Good God, haven’t we enough trouble already?’ In the end, the British opted for economic pressure rather than force in its attempts to obtain the use of the ports for their campaign in the Atlantic. Britain and Germany both made it clear, however, that if either violated Ireland’s neutrality, the other would assume that Ireland had become a target and would act accordingly. The official stance of the Irish government was that it would fight, however hopelessly, against whomever violated their neutrality first. The wartime Defence Forces had been expanded enormously to that end, but the fact that the Irish authorities sought to procure the weapons that they would require from Britain and the US rather than Germany spoke volumes about whom they viewed as the greater danger. As one Irish officer put it to a British counterpart in April 1941, ‘We didn’t get rid of your government to tamely accept the Germans’. In public, however, Irish neutrality forced de Valera and his officials to maintain a delicate balancing act. The ‘trackless desert’ referred to by Michael Rynne presented dangers on many sides.

British demands for the use of the ports intensified when Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister, but the perceived threat to Ireland decreased greatly as German plans to invade Britain faded and the focus of the war in Europe shifted eastward. The deployment of US troops and British air and naval forces to Northern Ireland diminished the value of the southern ports to the British and eased concerns about a British incursion. Fears of a US invasion of Ireland by forces based in Northern Ireland flared up in February 1944, after the US minister in Dublin, David Gray, was seen to have used threatening language when demanding that Dublin curtail the activities of Axis diplomatic staff in Ireland. The prospect of a US incursion from Northern Ireland in the run-up to D-Day was taken so seriously that reassurance was sought from the State Department that a US invasion was not actually planned.

All of which brings us to the crux of the matter: the Second World War was seen as a crisis of the most profound importance by the Irish government, and they sought to safeguard the Irish state as best they could against belligerent intentions. In the early years of the war, neutrality was not only about protecting Ireland’s international sovereignty but also about countering the very real prospect of Ireland’s becoming a battlefield between the warring powers, with the devastating consequences that would inevitably follow. Suggestions that Irish neutrality was born of insularity or Anglophobia are wide of the mark. The government of Éamon de Valera was acutely aware of the fate that befell much of Western Europe after the war broke out in 1939. Their fundamental objective in the conflict that followed was to avoid sharing it.

Above: Dursey Coast Watching Service lookout post (LOP No. 32), Co. Cork. Although built as temporary structures during the war, the concrete shells of LOPs can still be found in many locations around the Irish coast. (Michael Kennedy)

John Gibney and Michael Kennedy are Assistant Editor and Executive Editor respectively with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.



D. Ayiotis, J. Gibney & M. Kennedy, The Emergency: a visual history of Ireland’s Defence Forces during the Second World War, 1939–45 (Dublin, 2019).

C. Crowe, R. Fanning, M. Kennedy, D. Keogh & E. O’Halpin (eds), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, VI–VII (Dublin, 2008–10).


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