Éamon de Valera inspecting his neutral troops

How It’s New York:  There’s a Jirish component here, which is very New York.  Éamon De Valera, who infamously signed Hitler’s condolence book, was born in New York City.
How It’s Irish:  Ireland was officially neutral during WWII, but that didn’t stop some men from crossing the border to fight with the Allies.  

Ireland and History are closely paired.   The post-Colonial movement in Ireland means ownership of history’s significance.  Some less well known chapters of Irish history are coming to light: WWI and the Irish fascinate the students in Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (read Michelle Woodsreview here).  WWII is more recent, and therefore more contentious– which makes this pardon particularly significant.

Thanks to Mick Moloney for bringing the Irish Times article to my attention.

A pardon appears to be coming  for thousands of Irish soldiers who crossed the border to fight with the Allies during the Second World War.  The Northern Ireland Assembly voted on Monday to back the campaign for pardons, unanimously.

Minister of Defence Alan Shatter calls the soldiers’ dishonorable discharges “untenable.”  4,983 people (about 1/8 of the Irish army) deserted from the Defence Forces to join the Allies, according to the Times, but were barred from State employment when they returned.
A BBC radio documentary by John Waite demonstrates some of what happened to them. Irish Senator Mary Ann O’Brien (who recently visited NYC and won me over to her chocolates) is one of the politicians who have pushed for the pardon of soldiers who were treated as deserters and blacklisted.

Waite told the BBC:

They were put on this blacklist that you mentioned. It was, in fact, a book with all their names and addresses. It was handed around to all town halls, all those public buildings, where if they went for jobs, the people could look up their names and if they were on the list, they weren’t to be given a job, so they could get no work. They could get no pensions, they could get unemployment payment, they could get no widows benefits if their loved one had been killed in the war, their children were often taken into care into institutions which were quite wicked in themselves, state-run and church-run institutions where sexual and physical abuse was wright. They were punished beyond all measure for what, as you say in America and as we would think here in Britain, they ought to have been held as heroes. 

 Veteran John Stout, who fought at the Battle of the Budge, says in the documentary:

We fought for our nations and we liberated the camps. There were people being slaughtered. I would never regret it. I would do it again all over again.

Back in 2005, Mr. Shatter wrote an editorial for the Independent saying that Ireland must apologize for De Valera’s actions.   Kevin Myers wrote a fascinating piece in the Independent today that defends Irish neutrality– up until 1945, when “Dublin becoming the only capital to erect a statue to a Nazi collaborator (Sean Russel).”  Ireland provided shelter to Nazi war criminals, while closing the door to Jewish refugees.

Joseph Quinn, a doctoral candidate at Trinity College,  wrote a strong editorial in the Irish Times on January 14, urging the pardon of the Irish deserters who fought with the allies,
citing the book Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, by Robert Widders.

The Irish Times reports that, at the opening of The Shoah in Europe exhibition at the Department of Justice, Mr. Shatter pointed out the refusal of visa requests from German Jews during the 30s and afterwards, calling Irish neutrality:

“a principle of moral bankruptcy….At a time when neutrality should have ceased to be an issue the government . . . utterly lost its moral compass,” said Mr Shatter.

His speech can be read in full here.  The exhibition takes place at The Atrium, Department of Justice and Equality, 51 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, through 10 February.

What do you think?  Was neutrality justified? 

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.


  1. Avatar
    Tim H / January 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I read the article, it is very interesting and a good piece. I have seen the documentary as well. It is very complex and related to the bitterness of the civil war in 21, which is only now leaving politics here. Shatter’s party were ironically the more anti-semitic traditionally, with DeValera’s crowd having a Jewish TD and ex IRA man Bob Briscoe, who personally trained the head of the Irgun in guerilla fighting in the 40’s. Joking that he was the head of subversion against English imperialism. Russell while going to Germany to seek guns and funds was very much a communist and many of his colleagues fought against Franco. He was very much driven by the age long maxim here that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” Many of those that attended commemorations for him then were Irish ex British army soldiers, nowadays many would be anti-Fascist activists. Not being neutral in the war would have split the country and no one at the time wanted that, for a country who had been wronged for generations, often brutally, it was hard for a lot of people to say we should choose out greedy and violent power over another greedy and violent power, let them at it. I’m off for a walk before it gets dark, enjoy your evening.

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    Mr Henchin / January 26, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    They can have a partial pardon but the fact is they deserted. If they had done so to the British or American or any Army, they would have either been shot or jailed, irregardless of motive. They left the state they had signed up to defend in a weakened position, while it was under threat of invasion from Britain and Germany.

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    Facebook Fear / January 26, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I’m aware that the punishment is years old. You have to remember that all the people making these decision would have had friends and colleagues who were murdered by British soldiers, family houses trashed, sisters attacked. They were justifiably sore at having 5000 men desert, be willing to do it to people here again, if ordered to. The motivation often had more to do with the money rather than anything about the Free World. Plenty of them stated that, themselves.

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    Facebook Fear / January 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Well said Mr Henchin. Stirring stuff.. 😉

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    Gwen Orel / January 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks for the comments–always what I hope for when I do something like this! And thanks too for reprinting them here.

    since these are the same as on the Facebook thread I’ll post my replies below (out of order, but hopefully interesting). I wrote:

    Would you feel the same about men who deserted from the Nazi army? The US pardoned those who fled the draft for Vietnam. Sometimes there’s a higher law, and the pardon recognizes that.


    I’m not saying it is (though IRA men did collaborate), I’m just saying that desertion can be justified, “it was an order” is not always a justification. And they felt that saving the free world was a bigger call than saving Ireland (obviously, ymmv). I’d say, motive really does matter. You wrote that if they had deserted the American army they would have been jailed– well fleeing the draft IS a crime, but the US pardoned the draft dodgers. The penalty, sadly, has already happened (do read the article). Blacklists and punishment, including having children taken into abusive institutions.


    I understand– but I don’t think the punishment fits the crime–after all it was less about fighting FOR Britain than AGAINST fascism, at least for many (of course, for some, money was the motive, as you point out).
    I’m Jewish, and American, so I’m of course seeing it from that lens (my father and two uncles fought). If you read my article (come on, read it) I also excerpt from a recent BBC radio documentary– it’s fascinating stuff, and as you rightly point out, it’s complictaed.

    I would only object to this: “we should choose out greedy and violent power over another greedy and violent power.” Greedy and violent are compliments where the Nazis were concerned– the English massacred and starved and murdered, but the atrocities of the Nazi regime (and what they would have done had they won) went far, far beyond. I realize that much of this was unthinkable at the start, but afterwards, it was known. Onwards…

    LOVING the close reading and discussion!

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    pixapd / February 4, 2012 at 4:13 am

    LET ALL who opposed Hitler be HEROS……….end of story

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    pixapd / February 4, 2012 at 4:18 am

    LET ALL who opposed Hitler be HEROS……….end of story

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    jenifa oadud Nitu / July 9, 2012 at 10:44 am

    As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
    This piece of video helped me forgive and let go of my frustration.

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