Shane Hegarty, interview with Clair Wills, in The Irish Times, Weekend (10 March 2007).

That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War, by Clair Wills, will be published by Faber on Thursday, £14.99. It will be reviewed next Saturday by Terence Brown.

Clair Wills has written a book about how the Emergency and neutrality affected Irish culture, in which she challenges the perception of an island stagnating under censorship. She talks to Shane Hegarty

When Clair Wills takes a moment to analyse her career, she doesn’t need to grab hold of a Freud reader to give her guidance. Born to a nurse who had left post-war Skibbereen, Wills describes herself as a “child of the NHS”. Brought up in England, with an English father, she visited Ireland regularly throughout her 1960s childhood. Now Professor of Irish Literature at Queen Mary, University of London, her CV is heavy with examinations of Irish identity. An editor of the fifth Field Day Anthology - Ethnicities, she has also written extensively on Northern Irish poetry. And this Thursday sees the publication of That Neutral Island, a cultural history of Ireland during what we still so delicately describe as “the Emergency”.

It seems obvious to point out that in examining the identity of others she is also examining her own. “For a long time I thought I just liked literature. But I’d say the kinds of writers I’ve been drawn to are the kinds who are getting to the heart of what’s home, somehow. All this stuff of travelling back and forth, and where you place your identity and allegiances.” And in turning to Ireland’s neutrality, it wasn’t so much of a step from Northern Irish poetry as she had envisaged. “I think, if I psychoanalyse my own work, the Northern Irish work probably had to do with an interest in fissures and boundaries and the relationship between Britain and Ireland. And, in a way, coming back to this period [the Emergency], I thought it might be difficult, but in a way it’s very similar. What I’m still thinking about is this rubbing up of the two countries against each other and war and the question of allegiance - how you work out allegiances and how you’re true to your own and how you understand the other person.”

That Neutral Island is interested in the everyday life in Ireland during a somewhat bizarre time in our history, during which the island was separate from the war and yet having to exist within it. But it is also a history of the Irish arts during this period, and challenges the perception of an island stagnating under censorship and isolation. Instead, it tells of a brief spell in which an influx of cultural “refugees” mixed with local artists, many of whom began to look inward rather than outward, so that Irish culture was sparked into life for a time.

Wills first approached this period of history through its literature, with the social and political history falling in behind. It perhaps explains the fluency and subtlety of the writing, and what makes a book on a complex subject consistently absorbing. “I believe in my heart that the literature can help us see things we mightn’t have seen. It’s our task as literary scholars or as historians to give that its due,” she says. “It’s kind of about hearing the tone, where it came from and why it was there.”

THE SIX YEARS of war fostered an Ireland apparently stultified by the censorship, paranoia and claustrophobia, in which the dedication to neutrality - on the surface at least - had become sacred. It led to what Elizabeth Bowen referred to as a “ban on feeling”, as the populace was anaesthetised by neutrality. “What did O’Faolain say? It feels like you’re at this tea party and all anybody talks about is the weather. And there’s a sense you can’t break through or break out,” says Wills. “But the other side of it was that people weren’t really cut off. They thought they were more cut off than they were, because they were travelling back and forth for war work. Okay, the radio wasn’t working and newspapers were difficult to get hold off. But people living close to the border, particularly, weren’t really cut off. So there’s a weird kind of double think going on. We’re not supposed to know, yet we do know.”

And into this came those “refugees”. Some, such as writers Benedict Kiely and Roy McFadden, came from the North. Painters returning from France included Patrick Hennessy, Sybil le Brocquy and her son Louis. And Ireland became a “magnet” for foreign pacifists, some painters and writers, bringing with them their allegiances to the likes of the Cobra and White Stag movements. It triggered imitation, which was mocked at the time by Flann O’Brien in The Irish Times. “I have quite a lot of sympathy with him,” admits Wills. “It must have been quite annoying, this crowd of so-called pacifists prancing about obsessed with French culture - I have a lot of impatience with O’Brien on other things, but I can see his point on that.”

But it also fed into a growing cultural dynamism. This was the period of Sean O’Faolain’s The Bell, the sparking of an indigenous film industry, and a thriving amateur dramatic scene. An Béal Bocht and The Great Hunger emerged from this period, while even among the most isolated - the IRA prisoners at the Curragh camp - the cultural insularity birthed Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille. “We’re very aware in Britain that the blitz spirit created a form of thinking about Britain in a different way and it created a certain form of literature,” explains Wills. “And I suppose I hadn’t been sufficiently aware when I started the book the extent to which a lot of the creativity here was to do with the following through of a kind of neutral Ireland line.

”We’ll look to ourselves and see what we have going for us. And the fact that even Muintir na Tíre starts producing films, it’s very interesting - that sense of needing to uncover the realities of Irish life. It’s one of the good effects of the Emergency.”

The momentum appears to have stalled soon after the war, although Wills feels it’s not as simple as that. “I know less about it but can hazard an opinion, if you look at late 1940s or 1950s, things like Kavanagh’s Weekly or The Envoy or these attempts to create rootedly Irish journals also producing interesting Irish writing. Irish literature runs from 1946 onwards and there’s some very good material in it. But I think there’s a sense, probably related to an embarrassment over the war, that Dublin isn’t the place where things are happening. And people leave. Particularly the dramatists. The excitement is happening elsewhere. But I would say that if one were to look a lot closer at the late 1940s, early 1950s, there’s a lot more dynamism than we might think.”

THE MOST OBVIOUS, and consistently relevant, inheritance from the time is Ireland’s continued obsession with neutrality. The modern debate, she says, is “like a replay. But my sense is that the political elite in Ireland feel neutrality isn’t the way Ireland can define itself. And yet the ordinary people feel it’s part of what makes Ireland ’Irish’, or independent more to the point. And de Valera did manage during that period to create a sense that independence or sovereignty was linked to neutrality as opposed to linked to the united Ireland. He had to. But it worked to a certain extent.”

In That Neutral Island, Wills also writes of the scepticism that greeted the news of the concentration camps, how many Irish commentators were suspicious of their propaganda value, at times carrying the whiff of moral equivocation.

”I think one needs to be quite careful about this,” says Wills. “It would be quite easy to sensationalise this into a kind of fascist sympathy. It certainly wasn’t. It wasn’t just the sense of neutrality being created within the country that is creating these misjudgements, but a sense of ’how can we trust British propaganda?’ Particularly because Ireland had been a target of British propaganda. So not only did you have a fear of a return to civil war and a sense of a military need for neutrality, but also a sense that Britain and Ireland were already engaged in a kind of propaganda war.

”It made it very difficult, I think, for some people - not everyone - to appreciate that the war might have been for a morally good cause. The truth is, at the beginning it wasn’t a war to save the Jews. It wasn’t that for a lot of the war. It was only at the end that it became couched in this way and - while I’m not trying to defend it here - the way that neutrality unfolded created that narrowing of moral vision.”

She says that we shouldn’t lose sight of how quickly Irish commentators at the time condemned the bombing of Hiroshima. But was that not the result of a growing post-war guilt, as censorship lifted and some clarity began to seep in? “I think that there’s a sense in which Hiroshima might have been experienced as getting Irish neutrality off the hook by saying ‘look, this crowd is just as bad’. The Russians, as we know, were just as bad. Look, I think it’s easy to reduce it. It’s quite a complex moment, really.”

There have been histories of Ireland’s neutrality, and the subject has been dramatised lately, such as in Arthur Riordan’s play Improbable Frequency, but Wills feels that the dynamism of the time has been largely overlooked.

“There’s a sense in which opinions about war and neutrality have not changed, as if they were put in aspic at the end of the war. And I think that was because of the kind of propaganda war with Britain,” she explains. “British people, if they knew about Irish neutrality at all, which many don’t, they saw it simply as betrayal. And in Ireland I would say there’s a kind of defensiveness, pride and a sense that neutrality was right and inevitable, that we managed it. But at the same time a kind of embarrassment . . . I think there’s really a need for a debate in what was really happening on a day-to-day level, how neutrality was experienced, and how it changed during the war.”

Wills is currently in Boston College’s Dublin base and is researching rural Ireland in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “I’m slightly obsessed,” she admits. “I can’t leave it alone.” Again, she wants to challenge the notion of a stagnant post-war culture. “I’m trying to think about what it might have felt like. I’m looking at literature as well, not so much the emigrant narrative, but what living in a depleted and depleting community might have done to people on a day-to-day level. Because I don’t think that word ’stagnant’ is right: ’stagnant’ Ireland during neutrality; ’stagnant’ Ireland during the 1950s ... There’s this sense of everything leaching out of the community. But I don’t believe in the idea that any community is static. Ever.”

DOES HER ENGLISHNESS give her a certain objectivity when writing about these delicate areas of Irish culture? “I like to think it helps,” she laughs, “although some people might say it wouldn’t at all. But I think from my perspective, reading Elizabeth Bowen or Louis MacNeice, who similarly have a foot in both camps, I was drawn to their sense of what it might be like shifting backwards and forwards, their complicated sense of allegiance. I mean both of them end up being very critical of Ireland during the war, but they’re not always critical.”

Now, the seam of Irishness running through her own family is visible in how her children have taken fiddle lessons. The Skibbereen roots still anchor her family. “If you looked at my family, it’s lovely being a stereotype, but we are a stereotype. The 30-acre farm, most of us emigrating, and now most of us coming back in some form or other. So two of my sisters live back here, the third actually has a house here, but she lives in Vietnam. I’ve written about Irish literature and culture for 20 years.” She pauses for a moment. “I suppose there’s lots of ways of returning.” [END]