The Irish World War II shame - Irish soldiers faced hostility after arriving home


Bernard Kelly's new book: Returning Home

This week we're going to give you a break from the mind-numbing economics and politics of the euro crisis and the referendum here on the Fiscal Compact Treaty.  It will be unavoidable  next week in the run up to the vote in Ireland on May 31, so make the most of your time off!

So this week we will ignore all that euro stuff.  There also happens to be a good reason for switching the focus this week because it gives us the chance to take a look at an important new book which was published in Dublin on Tuesday, May 22.  

The book, Returning Home, is by the young Galway historian Bernard Kelly, and it investigates the shameful way the estimated 12,000 Irish veterans who returned to Ireland after the end of the Second World War were treated.

Let's put it like this -- it's a long way from Saving Private Ryan.

You would think that after fighting Hitler's armies the returning ex-servicemen would have got a hero's welcome home.  But they didn't.

Instead they came back to a country that was scornful of, ignorant of and indifferent about what they had been through.  In many cases they faced open hostility.  Their service in the British forces was seen by many at home as  anti-national, almost traitorous.

The book tells the stories of many of these Irish servicemen and women who fought in the war, but I particularly liked the one about a guy called John Kelly who left rural Kilkenny to join the British Army and ended up fighting the Germans in North Africa.

In 1943, after the heat of the battle to liberate Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, he was sitting in a bar in the city center having a drink.  Also there celebrating the liberation of the city were some American conscript soldiers.

Hearing his Irish accent, the Americans said, “Say, you guys are neutral, you’re not in the war at all!” Kelly explained that he was a volunteer.   The reaction of the Americans was, “Are you goddamn mad or something?”

It was a fair question.  Kelly, and thousands of other Irishmen like him, had left the safety of neutral Ireland and risked death or injury to fight in the Second World War.  They played their part in  defeating Hitler.
But they got no thanks for it when they came home.  It's a disgraceful and shameful part of recent Irish history.  It shows how small minded and inward looking Ireland was at the time.

De Valera had kept Ireland neutral during the war while the British and the Americans fought the most brutal and evil regime the world had ever seen.

Whether that decision was morally justifiable given the murder and mayhem unleashed across Europe by Hitler is arguable.  One can take the view that as a weak, newly independent country we had other priorities.
But at the very least the sacrifice made by thousands of Irish people who volunteered to fight Hitler should have been recognized when they came back.  After fighting the Nazis the 12,000 Irish veterans deserved that much.

Instead they came back to a country where the attitude to them was so poisonous they quickly learned to keep their war service secret.

Even worse, of the 12,000 Irish veterans an estimated 5,000 had deserted from the Irish Army to join the British and fight Hitler and they faced potentially severe punishment when they returned home.  All of the veterans also had a practical reason for keeping their mouths shut -- they came back to a country that was severely depressed, and being an ex-serviceman did not help in the search for a job.

There was a lot of ignorance in Ireland about the war.  Unlike in Britain, where the entire country had been caught up in the war effort and as a result had great admiration for the returning soldiers, the Irish public had little understanding of the veteran's experiences.

All the Irish public had been through were the minor inconveniences of what de Valera called "the Emergency,"  which involved keeping the country on alert and putting up with some shortages and rationing.
Even the terminology says a lot about Ireland at the time.  The rest of the world had a world war.  In Ireland we had "the Emergency."

Despite the ignorance here, however, by 1945/’46 many Irish people were aware that details of Nazi atrocities were emerging.  You would think that this might have changed attitudes. But it didn't.