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Review: Documents on Irish Foreign Policy: Volume VII 1941-1945 Edited by Michael Kennedy, Catriona Crowe, et al

'Whole Legation quarter destroyed within a short time mainly by fire, on November 22 ... in spite of strenuous efforts, everything lost ... I have lost much clothing and most of my personal effects, but escaped injury except for inflammation of the eyes caused during our fight against the flames ... please ask my parents to send shirts, heavy underwear and socks, and request coupons out of supplies.''

This is William Warnock, our charge d'affaires in Berlin in 1943, reporting with graphic immediacy to his Dublin boss on a devastating Allied air raid -- "within the space of half an hour, the inner city was a sea of flames and blinding smoke".

Warnock's personal involvement reminds us that Irish diplomatic representatives in Europe during the Second World War, far from being securely ensconced in a cocoon of neutrality, sometimes experienced frontline conditions for themselves.

This is the seventh volume in a project undertaken in the mid-Nineties by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Archives, and given the prestigious publishing seal of the Royal Irish Academy. The idea was to make sources for understanding Irish foreign policy easily available to the interested reader who might not be able to access the archives directly. For us old fogies not skilfully familiar with material online, it has been additionally welcome to have this treasure trove accumulating between (handsome) hard covers on our shelves.

The first volume, dealing with the foundation years 1919-1922, was published in 1998 followed at two-year intervals by successor volumes of equally absorbing interest, arguably none more so than the book under review. This is because the most formative period in the development of this State's personality has been neutrality during the Second World War.

That policy should be seen in the context of its own time, and not viewed through the lens of its later, quasi- ideological development -- still less through its nebulous and increasingly meaningless present-day manifestation.

War-time neutrality was conducted as a pragmatic policy, based on a widespread consensus and on Ireland's realisation of the futility of the "collective security" notion of the inter-war period. Neutrality was about keeping us "out of the war" and avoiding the threat of renewed civil conflict and foreign occupation, which belligerent involvement would bring.

Neutrality put Ireland's interests first and it was the supreme test of the State's new-found sovereignty. In the words of Joseph Walshe, secretary of the department of external affairs: "Small nations like Ireland do not and cannot assume the role of defenders of just causes except their own.''

Certainly, neutrality was not pursued out of high-minded principle, but was an expression of realpolitik, which allowed for "a certain consideration" for Britain's interests in Eamon de Valera's phrase. For all that, it was a genuine policy, seriously conducted until the end, even to the bizarre extreme of De Valera's ill-conceived expression of condolences on the death of Hitler. Moreover, there was no jumping on bandwagon towards the end of the conflict.

All this emerges clearly from the correspondence, memoranda, cabinet minutes and other documents here presented. Collectively, they form a corrective to the ahistorical criticisms expressed (even by historians) in our own day that neutrality was a hypocritical facade and a lamentable moral failure to take part in the crusade against Nazi tyranny.

Equally wide of the historical map is FSL Lyons' much-quoted metaphor of Plato's cave to describe the war years in Ireland -- that is, a whole people living in total isolation and seeing external events only as flickering reflections. In fact, life in neutral Ireland had its own vigorous dynamic: there was great popular interest in developments in the various theatres of war, and our diplomatic missions abroad kept the Department of External Affairs in Dublin well-supplied with information, often presented in a lively, personal manner.

One of the most frequently asked questions about the period concerns the extent of Dublin's awareness of the Holocaust. Certainly, it appears from these documents that our diplomats knew about Nazi incarceration of European Jews in named concentration camps, but not, it would seem, about their ultimate, terrible fate. The German foreign ministry reacted to frequent Irish enquiries with stonewalling and denial. Proposals to give neutral visas to certain Jews came to nothing, as did a De Valera-backed move to bring 500 Jewish children from Germany to Ireland.

THE volume has interesting references to well-known Irish expatriates. Our charge d'affaires in Berne reported to Joseph Walshe in Dublin on the details of James Joyce's final illness in January 1941 and on the financial circumstances of the family. Walshe wanted to know "if he died a Catholic". There are caustic letters from Samuel Beckett in Roussillon to Irish representatives concerning his finances, restrictions on his personal movements and insufferable questioning by the local gendarmes -- "they can't believe I can be called Samuel and am not a Jew". He wonders querulously "in what exactly does the advantage of Irish nationality consist. Might I not as well be a Pole?"

Meanwhile, the Irish authorities indignantly complain about the broadcasts of the writer Francis Stuart from Berlin, particularly his advice to Irish listeners to vote Fine Gael in the forthcoming 1943 elections. Not surprisingly, External Affairs later refused to renew his Irish passport -- "he has forfeited any claims to our diplomatic protection by unneutral and disloyal behaviour".

From a volume packed with fascinating material, space permits me to mention only one other intriguing item. This concerns Churchill's well-known flamboyant telegram to Dev on the news of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941: "Now is your chance. Now or never. 'A Nation once again!'" Almost immediately, Lord Cranborne, the Dominions Secretary, explained to Sir John Maffey, the British minister in Dublin, that Churchill "certainly contemplated no deal over partition" and simply meant that "by coming into the war, Ireland would regain her soul."

Maffey was instructed to deliver the telegram immediately (at an ungodly hour) to Dev, who reacted with his customary calm and caution. Though he suspected for a time that it was an ultimatum (resulting in an Irish army alert), the conclusion was soon reached on the Irish side "that Churchill had been imbibing heavily that night" after hearing about Pearl Harbor "and that his effusion had flowed into the message".

It is tempting to link this to Dev's famous "reply" to Churchill's victory speech three and a half years later, when the Taoiseach was prepared to make allowances, tongue in cheek, for the prime minister speaking in "the first flush of victory".

The reader's enjoyment of this volume is enhanced by the high professional level of editing, the enlightening introduction, potted biographies of the personalities involved, informative footnotes and a comprehensive index. The series is an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the State's historical development.

John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at UCC

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