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Sunday 21 January 2018

Calling time on the War, censorship and exceptional difficulty

There's victory in Europe but skirmishes in Dublin, writes Patrick Geoghegan as he uncovers the events surrounding the end of WWII, and the challenges ahead

1945 O'Connell Street in Dublin
1945 O'Connell Street in Dublin
New York - May 8, 1945: A kiss in Times Square displays the mood of the world on V-E Day. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
8th May1945, World War Two, VE Day celebrations in London, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives his famous victory sign from the balcony of the Ministry of Health building to a huge crowd below (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

'Europe's nightmare is over" was the dramatic first sentence of the Irish Independent's editorial on the day when Victory in Europe was celebrated, marking the end of six years of "slaughter and desolation" on the continent. The paper suggested that it would be up to future historians to argue over whether "it was the tenacity and resources of the British, the colossal weight of American intervention, or the astonishing power of Russia" which had played the decisive role in Germany's downfall. Looking back at it now it is easier to agree that it was a combination of all three.

The announcement the day before, on May 7, 1945, that the war in Europe was over, occasioned some celebrations in Dublin, as well as protests. As the paper reports on page 3 a group of students in Trinity College Dublin decided to raise the flags of the victorious Allies around 3pm, and the Red Flag, the Union Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the French Tricolour were all flown from the roof. Some students outside cheered, though there was silence from the rest of the crowd, and the gardaí arrived to investigate.

As time went on the crowd outside grew, and an atmosphere that was initially described as "good-natured" became tense as many were offended by the positioning of the Irish Tricolour at the bottom of the mast, underneath the other flags. Some students sang 'God Save the King', 'Rule Britannia' and 'La Marseillaise', and in response two groups attempted to rush inside the front gates but were stopped. Eventually the flags were taken down, except for the Stars and Stripes which was flown a little longer.

This should have been the end of things, except a small group of students decided to provoke further controversy by setting fire to the Irish flag. "Trinity burns the Tricolour" was one placard carried by a young man later that evening, as a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered in Abbey Street at 8pm to protest, many waving tricolours.

One young man, a UCD student, said he did not object to the raising of the Union Flag, "because they all knew the outlook of these people", but he said they objected strongly to the Irish flag being "insultingly at the bottom". The crowd marched to Trinity College, gaining numbers along the way, but they were unable to get through the locked gates. The gardaí were present and drew their batons, and after three or four baton charges the crowd was pressed back to Foster Place. After a "wild scramble" the gardaí ordered the crowd to disperse, and there was a further struggle as the crowd "surged towards Trinity College and were again pressed back". That night 12 people were treated in Mercer's Hospital for slight injuries.

Two future Taoisigh were present at these events, and one had a leading role. Charles J Haughey, then a UCD student at Earlsfort Terrace, is credited with climbing up on a lamp-post outside Trinity and burning a Union flag, in retaliation for what had been done to the Irish flag. This led to a minor riot. A fellow student, Garret FitzGerald invited his future wife, Joan, to join him for the victory celebrations and their first date was spent running away from the baton charges, "jumping over bicycles on the ground". Ten days later he proposed to her.

On VE Day, May 8, the date of this edition, there was a sequel to these events, and it was reported in the Irish Independent the next day. About 100 students from UCD entered Trinity via the Lincoln Place gate and walked around College, arm in arm, singing 'Step Together' by the Young Irelander, Michael Joseph Barry, which had become a popular marching song of the Irish Volunteers in the 1910s. The paper also reported how the protests the night before had continued into the early hours and a number of windows in the college were smashed by groups of men, women and children who threw volleys of stones at them. 'Slap bangs' (little packets of pink or blue paper, filled with tiny fragments of flint and some explosive matter) and homemade smoke bombs were also thrown by the protesters at the gardaí, and a number of people were knocked down in the rushes that ensued. Some reporters got caught in the crossfire. It was recounted that one stone "whizzed by an Irish Independent reporter's head, hit a Guard on the back of the neck, bounced back and hit another reporter on the shoulder". Afterwards the Provost of Trinity felt obliged to apologise to the Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, for the events, and many students and staff distanced themselves from the incidents.

A future Provost of Trinity, FSL Lyons, later compared the isolation of the war years to being "condemned to live in Plato's cave, backs to the fire of life and deriving their only knowledge of what went on from the flickering shadows thrown on the wall before their eyes".

He suggested that the people now "emerged, dazzled, from the cave into the light of day to a new and vastly different world". It is an analysis that has been contested, but in some areas it was undoubtedly true.

As censorship was lifted a huge backlog of films were now released, and Lucy Glazebrook joked in The Bell that "VE Day, which brought Peace to the rest of Europe, was the signal for celluloid War to descend on Dublin". The effect of catching up on so much at once, she claimed, was "either shattering, or bewildering, or both".

Contributing to the confusion was the fact that newspapers had struggled during the war to present objective and accurate accounts of what was happening. In her superb book, That Neutral Island: a Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War, Clair Wills charts how the Irish Independent fought running battles with the censor over what could be included. The editor, Frank Geary, grew frustrated at the constant interference and occasionally published blank spaces in place of editorials.

Other papers also suffered. Donal Ó Drisceoil's definitive study of wartime censorship includes a quote from one of the censors claiming that it was a good job the editors of the Irish Independent and Irish Times "cannot stand each other" as they were anxious to avoid "an unholy alliance" between the two.

The announcement of the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 7 enabled a wider analysis of the war years. The defeat of Germany had been expected for some time. News of the death of Hitler had broken on the evening of May 1, and the Irish Independent ran a lengthy profile the next day under the wonderful headline "Painter - Orator - Dictator". Recognising that his career was "one of the most amazing in history", it detailed how he had risen from obscure beginnings to become "absolute master" in Germany and a figure held "in almost fanatical devotion".

On May 8, the paper was able to publish a detailed timeline of the six years of the war, as well as a special report on "Ireland in the Emergency".

It is revealing that the front page of the paper, alongside all the regular advertisements, included an official one from the government. It was a small ad and contained an excerpt from the speech of the Minister for Supplies, Seán Lemass, broadcast on March 21, 1945, which recognised that "this may be the last year of exceptional difficulty". However Lemass urged people to "stick it out" and work hard to ensure there were enough supplies to avoid disaster. Other parts of the speech had been run as ads before but the timing of this one was significant. The heading of, "The danger is not past" was a good reminder of the challenges ahead despite the announcement of Victory in Europe.

It was almost four months later before World War II officially came to end. Weeks after the dropping of the two atomic bombs, Japan finally surrendered on September 2, 1945. The editorial in the Irish Independent on September 3 was headed "The End of the War", and it ended on a pessimistic note, warning that unless the nations of the world united to solve the problems of famine, a world order based on justice and not force, and the threat of atomic power, then "the future of the human race is shrouded in a disquieting uncertainty".

Patrick Geoghegan is a professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk

The surrender of Germany in early May 1945 ended an 'Emergency' of almost six years, that left the Irish nation exhausted and broke. De Valera's neutrality policy, even though we were plainly neutral on the side of Britain, had been bitterly resented there as a betrayal, and would push us to the end of the queue for US rebuilding handouts. Dev's call on the German ambassador to offer his condolences on the death of Hitler stirred the bad blood further and caused international outrage.

The war had hardened the physical border, with relations not helped by a visit of Raidió Éireann's quiz show, Question Time, to Belfast. Airing live, the host asked "who is the world's best-known teller of fairy tales?", expecting the answer Hans Christian Anderson. But the contestant replied "Winston Churchill", a breach of neutrality that delighted the mainly nationalist audience but provoked the fury of officials in Belfast and London. There were loud protests in the House of Commons.

But the way back to British hearts quickly proved to be through their stomachs. With the sea routes returning to normal, there was a swift jump in food-tourism to Ireland.

Apart from sugar, tea and some other staples, food rationing here was nothing like as stringent as across the sea. The British arrived in growing droves to enjoy foodstuffs denied to them at home, especially meat, which was abundant here but would remain severely rationed there for a further nine years.

Britain's strict sugar rationing posed a dilemma for Irish visitors taking the boat there. Should they chance their arm and bring sweets for the relations? While tiny amounts of confectionery would generally be waved through British customs, other foodstuffs freely available in Ireland would be seized if anyone was foolish enough to try to send or carry them in food parcels.

The banned list included canned fruits and dried fruits. It was also illegal for family members or friends in Britain to send cash to Ireland in return for chocolates or sweets.

The end of the war heralded the end of the strict press censorship imposed under Ireland's neutrality policy, but there was no letting up in the self-censorship relating to sex. Dublin had become an entertainment spot for US troops stationed in the North (flouting our neutrality, but warmly welcomed). This partly explained a huge jump in STDs which had become so rampant that nearly all the city's hospitals had opened special wards to cope with the upsurge. A lone medic went public - sort of - saying: "The first step will be the obvious one of dispelling the secrecy, ignorance and prejudice which surround the problem." Somewhat undermining his own case, the doctor declined to be identified.

The first and only medic to comment on the STD epidemic using his own name was the President of the Medical Association of Éire, JP Shanley. The only thing he wanted to clarify for the Irish public was that the association had never discussed STDs in any way, shape or form.

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