Clair Wills, ’A Ban on Feeling’, in The Guardian, ([Sat.] 10 March 2007), “Books”.

[ Ireland’s neutrality during the second world war might have divided the nation, but its intellectual and cultural life thrived as writers - such as Elizabeth Bowen and Flann O’Brien - took sides. ]

By the end of the second world war, opinions on the rights and wrongs of Irish neutrality were utterly divided. For the allies it was betrayal. In Ireland it was a story of national survival. But when the war began six years earlier, neutrality had meant something very different. These opposing views became embedded during the conflict, and they were partly the work of Ireland’s writers.

Propaganda work claimed them, and not only on behalf of the allies. In 1940 the novelist Francis Stuart travelled secretly to Berlin, from where he broadcast German propaganda into Ireland. Radio reception was so poor that few people, apart from British intelligence officers, ever heard him. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, Kate O’Brien and Denis Johnston all ended up working for the information and intelligence services in Britain. But in Ireland, too, there was propaganda. The government’s attempts to foster “neutral-mindedness” involved screening out debate over what the war was about. The fiction that both sides were as bad as each other may have been necessary to avoid the country slipping back into the violent rifts of the civil war, but it was responsible for a narrowing of moral vision. When faced with the films of the concentration camps at the end of the war, the well-respected novelist Benedict Kiely, who died recently aged 87, insisted that the Irish must “remember we are still neutral”:

A photograph of charred bodies in ovens can be very horrifying; but for men with a sceptical bias there would also be necessary a photograph of what exactly happened when the bodies went into the ovens ...

The propaganda battle over neutrality began in earnest when Ireland refused to lease back its ports to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic. As the idea began to take hold in Britain that neutrality was a wilful act of hostility against the allies, John Betjeman was drafted in to the Ministry of Information to help calm the situation. Betjeman divided his Irish targets into the following categories:

1) pro-British with relations fighting, but above everything pro-Irish
2) pro-Irish and not caring who wins, so long as Ireland survives as a united nation
3) pro-Irish and anti-British, but also anti-German
4) pro-Irish and pro-German

But it doesn’t really matter what they think. One friend gained for England is one enemy for Germany and that is my job.

The British media were swamped with propaganda stories against neutrality - German submarine crews were being entertained in remote villages in the west of Ireland, wireless transmitters up in the mountains were at the heart of a vast espionage system against Britain - and Betjeman did his best to rein them in. Luckily for future Anglo-Irish relations, he managed to put a stop to the ministry’s plan to disseminate propaganda leaflets in packets of tea, soap and toilet paper.

It was also at this point that Elizabeth Bowen became involved in gathering information on Irish attitudes to the war. An Anglo-Irish novelist at home in both worlds, she was clearly affected by the growing clamour in Britain. At the beginning of the war, Bowen had been able to acknowledge the “sheer disaster” it would be for Ireland to become involved, “in its present growing stages and with its uncertain morale”. By summer 1940, she had grown impatient with what she regarded as Ireland’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the consequences of neutrality for Britain. On July 1, she wrote to Virginia Woolf:

I think I told you I had asked the Ministry of Information if I could do any work, which I felt was wanted in Ireland. On Saturday morning I had a letter from them saying yes, they did want me to go. Now it has come to the point I have rather a feeling of dismay and of not wanting to leave this country.

While “espionage” is too strong a term for what Bowen called her “activities” in Ireland, they did involve sending secret reports to the Ministry of Information, and meetings at the Dominions Office and the War Office. Her job was to convey the climate of opinion in Ireland: to take the temperature among writers and intellectuals in Dublin, and among country people near her home in County Cork. As the body count in the Atlantic grew, her attitude hardened, along with that of many Irish and Anglo-Irish who felt torn in their allegiance.

Through autumn 1940, more and more casualties of submarine warfare began washing up on Ireland’s western coasts. As many as 15 bodies and body parts might be recovered from the shores and coastal waters of Donegal, Sligo and Mayo each day. Those bodies were kept out of the papers and parliamentary debates, but they appeared in imaginative writing. In one of Bowen’s most bitter wartime stories, set in Ireland in the winter of 1940, she imagines a group of well-to-do visitors holed up in a Kerry hotel, intent on blocking out all thoughts of the war. They turn their radios off and barricade themselves in overheated sitting-rooms. But the misty view over the estuary from the windows of the seafront hotel speaks in a half-heard, strangulated way of what the inhabitants refuse to face squarely: “Now and then a soft, sucking sigh came from the water, as though someone were turning over in his sleep”, one of the many bodies taking their last sleep around that western coast.

Bowen’s impatience with what she diagnosed as a form of moral indifference was directed in this story at the English and Anglo-Irish who used Ireland as an escape from their responsibilities, rather than at the local Irish. By contrast, MacNeice lambasted the country as a whole. Like Bowen, MacNeice’s views shifted dramatically after the fall of France. He had kept out of the war for a year, living in Ireland and then the still-neutral US. Back in England from January 1941, he pleaded for indulgence: “I would ask you to remember that the feeling in Eire is now predominantly pro-British (though still opposed to participation in the war), that the pro-German minority is extremely small and de Valera’s position is agonisingly difficult. Those who propose the application of the strong hand to Eire are forgetting their history.” But a year later, MacNeice wrote perhaps the most heartfelt indictment of Ireland’s stance. In his poem “Neutrality”, he charged “The neutral island facing the Atlantic”:

But then look eastward from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat - on the flesh of your kin.

Rumours of refuelling subs were unfounded, but may have sprung from stories of fishermen selling their catches to U-boat commanders. In a macabre parody of self-sufficiency, MacNeice indicted Ireland for feeding off the harvest of corpses produced by neutrality.

By the middle of the war, the idea that neutrality meant indifference to the fate of Britain, and to democracy itself, was widely accepted outside Ireland. And some Irish, too, worried that they had bartered their moral conscience for immunity. A root cause of the problem was Irish wartime censorship, which came in for increasing levels of criticism as the war progressed. With the Irish civil war a very recent memory, the government was determined to avoid a return to internal battles. Civic “neutral-mindedness” was fostered through the volunteer defence forces and a series of campaigns designed to encourage citizens to accept the food and fuel shortages, to do their bit in growing wheat and harvesting turf. But a major plank of neutrality propaganda was the strict censorship of war news.

The government felt that in order to maintain “balance” in the community, all radio, press and film coverage of the war had to be balanced between the belligerents. (The film censor said of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator: “If that film had been shown in this country, it would have meant riots and bloodshed.”) Newsreels were cut if they showed war preparations or partisan comment about any of the countries involved in the war. British newsreel companies had to produce special editions for the Irish market. Newspapers were required to print rival communiqués side by side. And all stories of atrocities were stopped, for fear of their propaganda value. Irish readers learnt nothing of the Katyn massacre, for example, and nothing from their own sources of the persecution and cruelty in German-occupied Europe.

With films and publications gagged, some argued that the whole society felt muffled and subdued. “The result is a queer feeling of unrealism,” complained the novelist Sean O’Faolain. “This perpetual silence, this guarded reticence” he likened to the atmosphere of a genteel tea party where the topic ends up being the weather (though, in fact, even the weather was censored as possibly helpful to invasion plans). Bowen went further, evoking what she called “a ban on feeling”. In her view, it was as though the whole country had been anaesthetised.

As she reported to the Dominions Office in November 1940, this feeling of “cut-offness” was exacerbated by wartime travel restrictions:

Dublin, as a society - or rather as a complex of societies - seemed to be suffering from claustrophobia and restlessness. The suspension of travel to and from England is being very much felt. Socially and culturally speaking, the virtual closing of the Irish Channel is equivalent, for the more intelligent and Europeanly minded people in Dublin and throughout Ireland, to a closing of the Burma Road.

As a portrait of Dublin in general, this description hardly held water, but as an insight into the world of the allied-friendly Dublin intelligentsia, it was right on target. If it closely reflected O’Faolain’s views, this was hardly surprising, given that he and Bowen were friends and had been lovers (Bowen called it a “marriage”) until the outbreak of war.

The idea that intelligence went along with being “Europeanly minded”, and had been devastated by the difficulty of crossing the Irish sea, was scarcely going to please the more “nationally minded”. It is little wonder that they were dismissed in nationalist circles as pampered Anglophiles, afflicted by a national inferiority complex. “Wot? Benned in Ahland? Bet wy?” goaded Flann O’Brien, writing as Myles na gCopaleen in the Irish Times. O’Brien was sceptical of the drive towards civic neutral-mindedness, but equally scathing about the handwringing liberal intellectuals. Their endless complaints about cultural stagnation showed not that they were more broad-minded, but that they were more British-minded.

And in fact, far from being stagnant, Ireland’s cultural and intellectual life grew more robust during the war. Cut off from publishing outlets in Britain, and keyed up by an injection of energy brought by small groups of pacifists from Britain and refugees from elsewhere in Europe, writers and artists turned to an Irish audience. The most well-known initiative was the journal The Bell, begun by Peadar O’Donnell and Sean O’Faolain in October 1940, but the war also provided the conditions for Patrick Kavanagh’s masterpiece “The Great Hunger”, for O’Brien’s columns, for the growth of regional drama and Irish exhibitions of the visual arts. It is in this less overtly propagandist work that we get a feel for the experience of living in Ireland in those six years - poised precariously between peace and war, marked by shortages, rising unemployment, and emigration for war work, and war service.

But Ireland’s wartime isolation had made it vulnerable to the charge of turning its back on humanity. As censorship was lifted in May 1945 and news of the concentration camps filtered through, there was disturbing evidence, in letters to newspapers and in reviews of films of the camps, that “neutral-mindedness” made it difficult to accept the facts of the Holocaust. The debate had polarised between those who attacked the immorality of Ireland’s wartime stance and those who argued for Ireland’s moral right to stand aside.

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