Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: Fiction: Returning Home by Bernard Kelly

Merrion, €17.99, pbk, 288 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Historian Bernard Kelly's Returning Home gives a full account of the shameful way the estimated 12,000 Irish veterans who returned to Ireland after the end of World War Two were treated. It's a long way from The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan.

After fighting Hitler's armies the returning ex-servicemen might have expected a hero's welcome home. But they didn't get that. Instead they came back to a country that was scornful, or even openly hostile. Their service in the British forces was seen by many as anti-national.

The book includes the stories of Irish servicemen such as John Kelly who left rural Kilkenny to join the British army and ended up fighting the Germans in North Africa.

One day in May 1943, after the battle to liberate Tunis, Kelly was sitting in a bar in the city centre having a drink. Also there celebrating were some American conscript soldiers.

Hearing his Irish accent, the Americans said: "Say, you guys are neutral, you're not in the war at all!"

Kelly explained that he was a volunteer. The reaction of the Americans was: "Are you God damn mad or something?"

It was a fair question. John Kelly, and thousands like him, had left the safety of neutral Ireland and risked death or injury to fight in World War Two. They played their part in defeating Hitler. But they got no thanks for it when they came home. In fact the attitude to them was so poisonous they quickly learned to keep their war service secret.

Even worse, of the 12,000 Irish veterans an estimated 5,000 had deserted from the Irish Army and they faced severe punishment when they came back.

All of the veterans also had a practical reason for keeping their mouths shut -- the country was severely depressed and being an ex-serviceman did not help in the search for a job.

There was a lot of ignorance in Ireland about the war, the book makes clear. Unlike in Britain, where the entire country had been caught up in the war effort, the Irish public had little understanding of the veterans' experiences. All the Irish public had been through were the inconveniences of The Emergency.

"The whole experience of neutrality had opened an emotional breach between the Irish population and the UK. Censorship, isolation and neutrality meant that while many people in Ireland were well aware of the war, they had no attachment to it," author Bernard Kelly says.

"When ex-servicemen returned, they encountered indifference from the government and much of the population. There were no bands out to meet them because most people did not see the Second World War as Ireland's war; it wasn't something to be celebrated.

"From the government's point of view, they had not fought for Ireland, so they were not Dublin's responsibility. As for the bulk of the public, they simply didn't understand what the veterans had been through."

Even revelations about concentration camps did little to change attitudes here at the end of the war.

"Word of Nazi atrocities were filtering back to Ireland, partly through the media and partly through people like Dubliner Albert Sutton, who visited Belsen soon after it was liberated," Dr Kelly says. But it did not make any difference.

It's still a sensitive subject, even today. So many of the veterans or their families asked the author not to use surnames that only first names appear in the book.

One man, George, who returned to Dublin from service with the Royal Navy, says it felt "as if you didn't exist -- nobody wanted us".

Another Dublin man, William, who joined the RAF, was dumbfounded by the ignorance of the war in Ireland. He was told by his neighbours that stories about German concentration camps were simply "British propaganda".

Larry, who left Wicklow to join the Royal Navy, was "shattered" by people's attitudes when he returned home. He says that his fellow countrymen did not have "a single thought about what was going on beyond the horizon. And they didn't care a damn either."

The cover of the book features brothers Michael and Paddy Devlin, both from Longford Town. They joined the British army in Enniskillen in 1939, were posted to different units and fought in France.

Their units were smashed by the German attack in May 1940 and both were evacuated from French beaches. The men survived the ordeal but are now deceased.

The treatment of deserters from the Irish Army who joined the British to fight in the war is only now being addressed, 67 years after they came home. The Minister for Defence indicated recently that steps are being taken to issue a formal pardon to all such veterans.

It's been a long time coming.

Returning Home is published by Merrion, the new history imprint of the Irish Academic Press. Dr Kelly is currently working as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

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