The Irish and British flags.
60 years on from the summer months of 1944 Ireland, which remained neutral during the war, remembers it’s soldiers who fought with the British Army. Kevin Connolly reports.
There is one European country where the full picture of what happened during the war is being discovered for the first time.
Neutral Ireland saw no reason to fight against Hitler’s Germany alongside Britain in 1939. It was after all, only 18 years since the country had bloodily secured a partial independence from London after centuries of British rule.
At the time it seemed a reasonable decision, and the political level of neutrality was scrupulously observed. When the first barely believable reports of what was happening in the Nazi concentration camps emerged, they were strictly censored.
The Irish leader Eamonn de Valera even paid his respects to the German representative in Dublin when news of Hitler’s death emerged.
Irishmen who’d volunteered for Britain’s armies were given a tough time when they came home on leave. They were cold-shouldered after the fighting by a de Valera led government. It didn’t see why they should qualify for state welfare payments, when they came home from fighting for a foreign power.
The volunteers went into a kind of a historical black hole – largely because Ireland’s official history - as taught in school curriculums - was always more comfortable with men who’d fought against the crown, rather than men who’d fought for it.
All that is now changing and the Northern Ireland peace process, designed to improve the country’s future, is also illuminating its past.
First came the rehabilitation of the huge and long-ignored contingent of Irish volunteers from the First World War, who’d been away fighting for Britain while Republicans staged the Easter Rising against it in 1916.
When Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein was Lord Mayor of Belfast, he even laid a wreath at the city cenotaph – an extraordinary gesture when you consider his party traces its roots directly back to the Easter Rising.
It is now the turn of the Irish volunteers who fought in the Second World War.
Yvonne McEwen, an historian with a special interest in Irish affairs, has now come up with a detailed estimate of the numbers of Irishmen from both sides of the border who fought for Britain.
Based on the War Office calculation that 22 men served for every one who died, she estimates that 99,997 Irishmen volunteered, with the number divided almost evenly between the North and the South.
The figures are fascinating and still have a certain political resonance. After all, it suggests that while the government of Ireland remained neutral, many people were not.
It also demonstrates that the supposedly non-combatant Irish Free State contributed as many soldiers as Northern Ireland, a region of the UK whose Unionist population prides itself on its loyalty.
In Dublin, the National Museum’s splendid buildings at Collins Barracks, built for the British Army during the days of imperial rule, are to house an exhibition on the history of Irish soldiering. It will take into account this changing view of the Second World War.
Mr Joy sees the job of running a museum as a form of historical story-telling – I wish people like him had been running museums when I was a child – and getting the volunteer’s contribution into the public domain, is part of getting the overall story right.
For a country whose political establishment rather ludicrously used to insist on speaking not of “the Second World War” but of “the Emergency” as though language alone could keep them out of the conflict, it’s a huge step forward.
Given that the war turned out to be a global moral crusade against fascism, rather than just another of Britain’s foreign campaigns, as it may have originally seemed to many in Ireland, it probably suits Irish politicians to discover, that, their country did after all play a significant role.
If you think you may have any medals or military memorabilia which Irish National Museum may be able to borrow for the forthcoming exhibition is invited to contact the curators.
Yvonne McEwen is also interested in further contact with Irish Volunteers.
Or you can E-mail Kevin Connolly and he'll pass your details on.
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