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Pardon for the Disowned Army

Duration:
27 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 08 August 2012

The thousands of Irish soldiers who swapped uniforms to fight with the British against Hitler went on to suffer years of persecution on their return home John Waite's first investigation into their plight, which was broadcast earlier this year, generated huge interest from listeners and was debated in the Irish Parliament.
This was the first broadcast to highlight the injustice they suffered and to hear from them about the on-going repercussions and their continued fight for a pardon.
The programme led directly to the Irish Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, undertaking an urgent review and, just six months after the broadcast, he announced an official pardon.
As John Waite now hears, one of those relieved by the news is 92-year-old Phil Farrington, took part in the D-Day landings and helped liberate the German death camp at Bergen-Belsen. Up until now he has had to wear his service medals in secret after having spent time in a military prison in Cork for deserting the Irish army. He returned to a British unit on his release but has had nightmares that he would be re-arrested by the authorities and punished again for his wartime service.
"They would come and get me, yes they would," he said in a frail voice at his home in the docks area of Dublin. Mr Farrington was one of about 4,500 Irish soldiers who deserted their own neutral army to join the war against fascism and who were brutally punished on their return home as a result. They were formally dismissed from the Irish army, stripped of all pay and pension rights, and prevented from finding work by being banned for seven years from any employment paid for by state or government funds.
A special "list" was drawn up containing their names and addresses, and circulated to every government department, town hall and railway station - anywhere the men might look for a job. It was referred to in the Irish parliament - the Dail - at the time as a "starvation order", and for many of their families the phrase became painfully close to the truth.
John Stout served with the Irish Guards armoured division which raced to Arnhem to capture a key bridge. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge, ending the war as a commando. On his return home to Cork, however, he was treated as a pariah. "What they did to us was wrong. I know that in my heart. They cold-shouldered you. They didn't speak to you.
It was only 20 years since Ireland had won its independence after many years of rule from London, and the Irish list of grievances against Britain was long - as Gerald Morgan, at Trinity College, Dublin, explains. "The uprisings, the civil war, all sorts of reneged promises - I'd estimate that 60% of the population expected or indeed hoped the Germans would win. To prevent civil unrest, Eamon de Valera had to do something. Hence the starvation order and the list."
Today, thanks largely to this BBC investigation, those Irish servicemen have at last been recognised for the part they played in helping defeat fascism.

  • Transcript

    THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

    Waite
    Six months ago Face the Facts reported from Ireland on a group of Second World War heroes who here in their own country had been treated more like villains - ostracised, spat at in the streets, their names put on a special list that made it unlawful to give them a job. Their crime was that they disserted their own neutral army to join in the allied fight against fascism.

    Six weeks ago at the annual royal British Legion wreath laying service at Islandbridge in Dublin a poppy wreath with a tricolour ribbon was among those placed at the foot of Ireland's national war memorial. For the first time ever marking the sacrifice of those thousands of Irishmen who'd left these shores and their own army to fight in the Second World War. A historic moment prompted by the announcement a few weeks earlier that after decades of controversy and recrimination the men were to receive a pardon. Eighty-nine year old ex-prisoner of war Harry Callan laid the wreath.

    Callan
    I feel better that I can be here. I feel a bit sad but grateful that I've made it here so far and was able to lay the wreath for the forgottens, as I call them.

    Waite
    Also at the ceremony William Webb, President of PDFORRA, which represents all current soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Irish defence forces.

    Webb
    Generally people who served in the world war are all acknowledged here and they join together as comrades - there's no differentiation here, as we sit to remember the world war, its terrible effects and of course the prosperity of the world since. So it's a scene, if you like, of comradeship.

    Waite
    Mr Webb has no qualms, wholeheartedly honouring comrades from 70 years ago who ever since have been officially vilified as deserters, not least because a member of his own family quit the ranks of Ireland's then neutral army to take up arms against the Nazis.

    Webb
    I'm delighted to see their contribution acknowledged now and it's my view that they deserve it for all the contribution they made.

    Actuality - service
    ... and in the morning we will remember them.

    Waite
    For nearly 70 years Ireland's disowned army had to live with the official consequences and the public shame of being designated deserters.

    At the Islandbridge ceremony retired British officer Major General David O'Morchoe believes their pardon is just and long overdue.

    O'Morchoe
    I do think they deserved a pardon. I think, first of all, they were never taken into a court and secondly, they were treated abominably. You usually associate deserting with deserting in the face of the enemy, these guys deserted to face the enemy and there was a world war, there were lots of Irishmen involved and while it was the wrong thing to desert from the defence forces I believe it couldn't be the wrong thing to go and fight the tyranny that we were facing - that everybody was facing, Ireland included.

    Archive - Churchill
    We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say it is to wage war by sea, land and air with all our....

    Waite
    But while most of Europe waged war Ireland remained neutral. Nevertheless it had a standing army of around 40,000 men and for many it appears there was simply too much standing around.

    Nash
    I think a lot of Irish defence forces men found themselves to be under-employed,

    Waite
    Irish member of parliament Jed Nash.

    Nash
    They joined an army to fight, they joined an army to defend the things that they believed in and many people believed that what was going on in Europe and across the world, in terms of Nazism and Fascism, was wrong and they wanted to stand up and be counted.

    Waite
    A view confirmed by Paddy Reid, whose late father and uncle both deserted the Irish defence forces determined to fight with the allies. And their instincts, he says, were not uncommon.

    Reid
    Well conditions were poor, pay was poor, morale was poor, there was a war going on, these were young men, my father lied about his age to get into the British army, right. He just was so proud that he went - he wanted to be involved.

    Waite
    Paddy Reid senior ended up fighting the Japanese with the Royal Artillery in the jungles of Burma. Other Irish deserters fought on the D-Day beaches, in bomber command, in the Arctic convoys and the African desert. John Stout served throughout the war as a personal runner for a succession of senior officers in the Irish Guards, he was therefore in the frontline most of the time and extremely fortunate to have survived.

    Stout
    My mother saying prayers at home, I said that's what kept me alive - kept me alive.

    Waite
    You believed that did you?

    Stout
    I did I believed that, that's what kept me alive yeah.

    Waite
    John Stout's tank battalion saw action on the Normandy beaches; it took part in the doomed attempt to secure a bridge too far in Holland. Finally it was on to Germany itself and new horrors.

    Stout
    We took two German prisoners, we took a German prisoner and he said there's a hospital down there and then we found out it was a concentration camp.

    Archive
    Beyond the barrier was a welling cloud of dust, the dust of thousands of slowly moving people, laden in itself with the deadly typhus germ...

    Waite
    Could you see the inmates of the camp?

    Stout
    Oh I could see them inside the camp.

    Archive
    ... the smell of death and decay, of corruption and filth...

    Stout
    Terrible.

    Archive
    ... I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of a nightmare...

    Stout
    Yeah I couldn't believe it. Little kids - I couldn't believe it. But you couldn't imagine one human person doing that to another - terrible.

    Waite
    But all those like John who survived the war returned home to face harsh reprisals from their own government. In 1945 it drew up an official list containing some 5,000 names and addresses and what was referred to as a starvation order was imposed. Banned from most employment it became a criminal offence to employ the men, some even had their children taken into care. A starvation order it was called and not without reason, according to Paddy Reid.

    Reid
    The thing that kind of for me is interesting is the psychological effects on the family because for seven years we rarely saw him, he couldn't find work so he had to scour the countryside working - black, you know the black economy for farmers - picking turnips or whatever it was. And the money was absolute crap - not enough to feed a family. We simply couldn't afford to live in anything that was halfway decent, we couldn't afford it. So we ended up moving from one slum area to another. I can remember crying because there was - my mother would try but particularly this day there would be enough, maybe a slice of bread or something that would be it. The overall impression I get from the Irish government's treatment was we're going to make these guys pay in as cruel a way as possible and psychologically we're going to mess with their heads.

    Nash
    The starvation order or the list, as it has become known, it was probably one of the most vindictive measures introduced by any Irish government in fact during the early years of the state.

    Waite
    TD Jed Nash again.

    Nash
    Effectively what it meant and what it resulted in is the treatment of those who effectively deserted the Irish army to fight Nazism they treated them like pariahs as opposed to heroes.

    Waite
    Ninety-one year old Phil Farrington, another D-Day veteran, frail now and hoarse of voice had already spent one harsh spell in an Irish prison during the war, after signing up with the British but being caught coming home on leave. He's rarely spoken of those years, his daughter Teresa told me, not even to her.

    Teresa
    And you were talking to me about the camp and the prison in Cork where you were put for desertion when you were only about 17 or 18, isn't that right?

    Farrington
    Yeah I'd be more like - 19 maybe.

    Teresa
    And the food that they gave you, when I was a small kid you told me, you used to end up eating egg shells you were so hungry.

    Farrington
    Oh you'd be hungry they'd shove you into the cell, they'd throw it at you - eat that.

    Waite
    They'd throw the food on the floor?

    Farrington
    They'd throw it and you'd have to pick it up and eat it.

    Waite
    Phil's cruel memories of being in prison however pale beside his fear of being on the list, the slim phone book size directory kept in town halls, police stations, public buildings and still circulating as recently as 1990. All government employment, in effect most employment, in the years after the war was barred to those on the list. But the fact that his name and details had been officially recorded by the state has meant that nearly seven decades later Phil was still haunted by the fear of official reprisals.

    Teresa
    Because I remember if you were talking or I was telling someone you'd say don't say anything because you were afraid the authorities would still be looking for you - isn't that true?

    Farrington
    Oh god yeah.

    Waite
    I understand that you worry even today.

    Farrington
    Oh I do yeah.

    Waite
    That you're a deserter and the army may come for you?

    Farrington
    That's right yeah.

    Waite
    Do you still believe you might be arrested as a deserter?

    Farrington
    Oh you would, oh god yeah, oh yeah, yes.

    Waite
    Do you know what this is John? It's called the list.

    Stout
    Of personnel of defence forces - dismissed from.

    Waite
    Dismissed for desertion. Now this is a list of all those people who did what you did, which was to desert the Irish Army, are you on that list?

    Stout
    I dunno whether I am.

    Waite
    The list was officially confidential so it's perhaps not surprising that until we, and in particular author of a book about it Robert Widders, showed a copy of it to John Stout and his family at their home in Cork the ex-Irish Guardsman didn't know of its existence. But he had certainly felt its effects. After four years of fighting he ended up as a commando but on his return to Ireland he too was ostracised for fighting with the British and he couldn't get a job however hard he tried.

    Widders
    You are on the list and here's your entry, if you see over there there's your Irish Army number E416005 and what they did is to check, if someone applied for a job they'd check the name against that list and if your name was on the list you're banned, so you automatically didn't get the job.

    Stout
    Well what they done to us was wrong, no doubt in my heart, what they done to us was wrong.

    Waite
    And how do you feel about being - I mean you had this amazing war, you showed great bravery, you come back to Ireland and you're just a dirty deserter - how do you feel about that?

    Stout
    I mean I was a deserter and that's it, they didn't - they never talk to you about why we done it like.

    Nash
    You couldn't get a job with the electricity supply board, you couldn't get a job with the local authority, with the health board, you were excluded from social positions which would have given relative comfort to a lot of families.

    Waite
    No job and no dole - TD Jed Nash.

    Nash
    Looking at the Doyle debates - the Irish Parliament debates - at the time in many respects it fell along party lines - the Fine Gael Party and I think some of the Labour Party - my own party - didn't support the list and effectively tried to get it revoked, whereas de Valera's Fianna Fail government, which were a much more nationalist and insular bent, where the people who were responsible.

    Stout
    They wanted Germany to win - a lot of people here wanted Germany to win the war.

    Waite
    A lot of Irish people wanted Germany?

    Stout
    Yeah oh yeah, oh yeah they were dead against the British.

    Waite
    And when you say people looked down at you, did they cold shoulder you, did they insult you, I mean what was life like?

    Stout
    Yeah, well you know cold shouldered mostly.

    Waite
    Wouldn't speak to you?

    Stout
    Yeah, yeah, yeah, I had trouble finding work alright.

    Waite
    People turned you away?

    Stout
    Yeah, yeah, and people didn't take kindly to me being in the British Army like you know.

    Waite
    The impact of the list resonated down the decades, although as time has gone on most people prefer to forget it. Not Peter Mulvany, however, he successfully campaigned on several issues of wartime injustice, helping secure pardons for those Irish soldiers in the Great War who were executed for cowardice on the battlefield when in fact they were probably suffering from mental breakdown. And last year when I met up with him he'd turned his attention to the plight of the deserters by campaigning to get them a pardon.

    Mulvany
    The pardoning process that we're after really it's about removing the stigma of that list because that list can actually be bought on the internet and there are people that I know, the names - very familiar names on that list, and I mean people want to leave things behind them. So a pardoning process would not change the history of it but leave the blame at the politicians and let's get on - and close the book on this. And we owe it to them now - look at this with political wisdom and compassion, deal with it and pardon these guys and let the [indistinct words], the wounded survivors that are left open their wheelchairs with their medals on with their heads hanging high.

    Waite
    Our original edition of Face the Facts was broadcast in January this year and immediately, Peter told me, it had a big impact in Ireland and among ex-patriot Irish communities such as in America. It was followed up by in depth media coverage, questions in the Irish Parliament and spirited exchanges in the letters columns of the Irish press. And all because, Peter says, it helped break the silence that has surrounded the issue and the deserters down the years.

    Mulvany
    Effectively it gave the families, the real people involved in this, the ones that were hurt so many years ago because of government action, it gave them a voice and that has been really worthwhile but it has taken this onto a worldwide plain and people have come onboard and more so in support now and it's fantastic. It lifts some of this stigma from the families, it will because what you did John, the BBC gave the voiceless a voice.

    Waite
    And Paddy Reid, whose family had had to endure so much growing up because their father had fought with the British in Burma was also heartened by the public's reaction to what they'd heard on the radio.

    Reid
    I'm pleased that it appears to be that there's much more awareness of the whole issue. In the past it was a forgotten subject and the awareness is there and people are opening up and I've talked to fellow family members who talk about the repressed nature of things in their lives, there was an air of shame, stigma and guilt.

    Waite
    It's been really huge hasn't it this outpouring here in Ireland of support for these men, men like your father.

    Reid
    For family members, for the younger ones and for the generations to come, it's a wonderful thing. They won't have to go through that sense of being wrong or being born into the wrong family or the sense of hurt or guilt.

    Waite
    On the streets of Dublin itself meanwhile the groundswell of public support for the families and men of the forgotten army showed itself in the brisk business campaigner Peter Mulvany was doing - collecting signatures for a petition outside the GPO building.

    Passer-by
    I'll sign yeah.

    Waite
    You're going to sign the petition?

    Passer-by
    Yeah I'll sign it.

    Yeah I think it's very valid.

    Passer-by
    It's about time we buried everything and just remembered those people.

    Waite
    By no means everyone in Ireland, however, believed a pardon was the right or just thing to grant to Ireland's absentee soldiers. Tommy Graham is the editor of the country's influential magazine History Ireland.

    Graham
    We don't know how many of these 5,000 odd people who deserted the Irish Army actually enlisted in the British Army, some estimates I've heard say about 50%. So in other words they weren't penalised for joining the British Army, they were penalised for deserting and the point is no army that calls itself an army can allow for desertion without sanction.

    Waite
    If I may interrupt you there Mr Graham, it's a curious kind of desertion, I mean one definition surely is for a deserter you go from a place of harm to a place of safety, these men all went the other way - they went towards gunfire. They may have been deserting an army but they weren't deserting their call to arms.

    Graham
    The point is it wasn't clear back then that was the case. I mean first of all like every other state in Europe Ireland would have been threatened with a possible German invasion and then subsequently threatened with a possible British or even American invasion. And the records show that that these were real threats. So our neutrality had to be defended. Now this has been acknowledged by Peter Mulvany and the pardons' campaign, their problem is that these deserters didn't get due process of military justice.

    Waite
    Very few were court marshalled.

    Graham
    I don't think any of them were court marshalled, now that would have been far more severe, I mean that would have meant rounding up thousands of these people, court marshalling them and their almost certain conviction because the fact of their desertion was not in dispute, so they would have ended up in jail because also the seven year bar on public employment was not as severe as it seems at first sight because...

    Waite
    Well it was to the people we heard from on the programme - if you can't get work and you can't get unemployment pay, it was called a starvation order and we heard on the programme that's what it nearly led to in some cases.

    Graham
    Well that's true but the point is that just like in Britain our government was keen to get demobilised military people back to work. So pressure was put on employers, private and public, to give preferential treatment to ex-military people, Irish Army people, with an unblemished military record. Now that meant they had to have possession of a military discharge certificate. The problem for the guys who deserted - and this is separate from emergency powers order 362 - they were automatically excluded because the fact that their desertion meant they didn't have the military discharge certificate so they weren't even at first base to seek employment. I've every sympathy for the individuals concerned but the problem is they had deserted and the thing is that if we are an independent sovereign state, if we have a standing army, we have to defend the integrity of that army and it also might set a precedent for the future because any deserter in future could cite this precedent well these guys deserted and they got a pardon. I mean what would the British Army do?

    Nash
    Nobody is denying that these men were deserters but nobody can deny either that this was an extraordinary set of circumstances.

    Waite
    TD Jed Nash again.

    Nash
    The biggest catastrophe to befall the world in that period of the 20th Century desertion's a very serious matter for any defence force, including the Irish Army and it's important that we recognise that but these were an extraordinary set of circumstances.

    Waite
    So you don't fear that this would send out the wrong message to current defence forces - this has happened in the case of these men so therefore we can desert, we can quit the army when we like and we'd expect a pardon too?

    Nash
    I don't accept that particular line of thought at all. The defence forces are a key part of our sovereignty as an independent nation state, we respect that, we give our allegiance to the Irish defence forces but these are extraordinary times. I don't think that we can apply those norms now.

    Waite
    Well five months following our programme on June 12th the Irish government showed which side it had finally settled on when its Minister of Defence, Alan Shatter, got up in the Doyle to announce:

    Shatter
    It is time for understanding and forgiveness. Also at a time of greater insight and understanding of the shared history and experiences of Ireland and Britain it is right that the role played by Irish veterans who fought on the allied side be recognised and the rejection they experienced be understood. To that end this government has now resolved to provide a legal mechanism that will provide an amnesty to those who absented themselves from our defence forces and fought with the allied forces in World War II and to provide a pardon to those who were individually court marshalled. This will be achieved without undermining the general principle regarding desertion...

    Waite
    News of a pardon so soon took virtually everyone by surprise, including the daughter and grandson of D-Day veteran Phil Farrington.

    Grandson of Phil Farrington
    Well I was overjoyed that it happened so soon in the campaign.

    Teresa
    I did shed a tear, oh it was emotional because he loved Britain and he was glad to be part of the war.

    Waite
    They couldn't wait to tell him but frail and confused as he is these days they can't be sure it really sank in.

    Grandson of Phil Farrington
    We spoke to him today and it doesn't register to him that anything's changed, we say are you happy about getting pardoned, he just straightaway goes back to talking about the war.

    Waite
    Well a couple of weeks ago when I met up again with the 91 year old it wasn't clear to me either but old and frail as Phil is now the fact of his being pardoned has truly registered. However, it was a very different story when I travelled on to Cork to be greeted at the door by a beaming former Irish Guardsman John Stout and his daughter Marion.

    Hello John, how are you?

    Stout
    Not too bad.

    Waite
    Oh you're in fine fettle coming to the door.

    Marion
    Yeah he's doing very well now really.

    Stout
    It's hard to believe. I want to thank those people for having the common sense to see the true light and at least now I know there was someone backing us up.

    Marion
    It's very good that the men will be remembered as proper soldiers rather than deserters.

    Waite
    Here at Leinster House in the centre of Dublin, the Irish Parliament, the Doyle, is currently in summer recess, however, work is progressing behind the scenes on how the pardon, announced but not elaborated upon, will work in practice, details that should be made public in the autumn. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien, one of the members here who spoke up for the disowned army, has her views of what it should entail.

    O'Brien
    It would be lovely to have an all-inclusive ceremony with the families there to give them that recognition and that closure that I think is needed and that this long overdue pardon will give them.

    Teresa
    Some of the men who are left maybe could do with some kind of physical contact, even a shake of the hand.

    Waite
    Phil Farrington's daughter Teresa.

    Teresa
    Do you what I mean?

    Waite
    Is that what you'd like to see?

    Teresa
    I would like that yeah, if he manages to survive that long. The actual physical thing of it is to be seen, for them to be seen, the remainder of the people, so I think that would great, yeah.

    Waite
    That vision of a healing ceremony between old soldiers and current officials is one that Phil Farrington's daughter and grandson very much share. As we've heard Phil was haunted all his life by the fear of further reprisals, that they would come to get him, as he told me. He still likes someone to be with him at all times, if that's possible. So like all the other ex-servicemen I spoke to Phil's whole family has suffered the punishment that this once dirty deserter received.

    Here's Phil, he's looking through the door, shall we...

    Grandson of Phil Farrington
    He is okay?

    Teresa
    Are you alright? Did you get nervous being on your own? There sit down. He'll be okay.

    Farrington
    Oh no I'm not too bad, too bad at the moment.

    Waite
    Feeling okay at the moment?

    Farrington
    Yeah, some days it's [indistinct words].

    Grandson of Phil Farrington
    I would agree I'd like to see something done publicly.

    Waite
    Phil's grandson Patrick.

    Grandson of Phil Farrington
    There's not a lot of survivors left so it would be great if they could all be brought together from across the country to the Doyle, one last time that they're all together as they would have been in the '40s.

    Waite
    Well whatever the Irish government does we'll let you know. At least for thousands of its soldiers who went AWOL - absent without leave - because they were off fighting a war have now finally been included in the annual commemoration at Islandbridge. Honoured at last with all the other thousands of wartime heroes that between 1939 and 1945 Ireland sacrificed for peace.

    Reid
    Well it does mean a lot, it means that you are thinking of someone because they were forgotten.

    Islandbridge commemoration
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

    Reid
    And they must have - they must have had an awful life all these years.

    Islandbridge commemoration
    We will remember them. [Together] We will remember them.

    Stout
    It's because I done the right thing, the war was on and I wasn't going to be down here doing nothing when I could be doing something.

    Waite
    What do you think, this pardon - what does it mean to you?

    Stout
    Oh it'll just tell me I was right. I was right all along. So I done the right thing.

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