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


"Word of Nazi atrocities were filtering back to Ireland, partly through the media and partly through people like Dubliner Albert Sutton, who visited Belsen soon after it was liberated and saw harrowing scenes there," Kelly said at the launch of his book.

"But the whole experience of neutrality had opened an emotional breach between the Irish population and the U.K. Censorship, isolation and neutrality meant that while many people in Ireland were well aware of the war, they had no attachment to it. There was a genuine sense of pride and satisfaction that Ireland had avoided the war, despite pressure from London and Washington.

"When ex-servicemen returned their friends and family were delighted to see them, but they encountered indifference from the government and much of the population. There were no bands out to meet them because most people did not see the Second World War as Ireland's war; it wasn't something to be celebrated.

"From the government's point of view, they had not fought for Ireland, so they were not Dublin's responsibility. As for the bulk of the public, they simply didn't understand what the veterans had been through," Kelly said.

One writer quoted by Kelly recalls that in his home city of Cork they "were more concerned with the horrors of rationing than with anything that was happening in Europe.”  Which sums up Irish attitudes at the time.
The whole business is still a very sensitive subject, even today.  When Kelly was doing interviews for the book many of the surviving veterans and the families of deceased veterans asked him not to use their surnames or addresses.  For that reason the servicemen and women are referred to in the book on a first name only basis.

A man called George returned to Dublin from service with the Royal Navy, and he said it felt "as if you didn’t exist -- nobody wanted us."

Another man called William, who left Dublin to join the RAF, was dumbfounded by the ignorance of the war in Ireland.  He was told by his neighbors that stories about German concentration camps were simply "British propaganda."

Another man called Larry, who left Wicklow to join the Royal Navy, was absolutely "shattered" by people’s attitudes when he returned home. He says that his fellow countrymen were interested only in "drinking themselves into oblivion, not a single thought about what was going on beyond the horizon. And they didn’t care a damn either."

One can understand the anger of many Irish ex-servicemen who had been though a lot during the war, in ways that changed their lives forever. Back home, however, people did not want to know or just didn't care.
John Kelly, the guy in the bar in Tunis, is an example.   He was aboard the Polish ship Chobry when it was sunk off the Norwegian coast in April 1940, and barely escaped with his life. He fought his way through North Africa and stormed ashore at Anzio in Italy in 1944, where he was severely wounded and almost died.

He says he was rescued by a Kerryman, but then was further wounded by an RAF airstrike. He was evacuated and was invalided out of the army afterwards.

His brother fought in the Far East. John died in 2009 and there are pictures of him in the book.
But my favorite picture is the one on the cover of the book, which you see here.  The two young men are Michael and  Paddy Devlin, both from Longford Town.

Like many Irish from the south, they crossed the border to join the British army in Enniskillen in 1939 at the start of the war.  They were posted to different units and fought in France.

Their units were smashed by the German attack in May 1940. Both were evacuated from French beaches.  The men survived the ordeal but are now deceased.

Based on interviews with surviving veterans and drawing on a wide array of archival sources, Returning Home explores how the Irish ex-servicemen coped with the frosty welcome they got when they came back to Ireland, with the difficult task of re-integration, their economic difficulties and psychological problems.

The treatment of deserters from the Irish Army who joined the British to fight in the war is only now being addressed, nearly 67 years after they came home.   The minister for defense here made a statement in February indicating that official steps are being taken to issue a formal pardon to all such veterans, alive or dead.

It's been a long time coming.  It's disgraceful that it has taken so long.

But of course the delay did not stop people here getting all misty-eyed over movies like The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan over the years.

Overall, Returning Home makes an important contribution to how we view Ireland's connection to the Second World War and Irish participation in it.

The book is published by Merrion, the new history imprint of the Irish Academic Press.  Kelly is currently working as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.