Monday 11 December 2017

Day the Nazis surrendered and a young CJ Haughey burned the Union Jack

Seventy years ago this week a defeated Germany succumbed to the inevitable, but while the rest of Europe rejoiced, V-E Day sparked a riot in Dublin.

Party time: British women and soldiers celebrate V-E day in Trafalgar Square, London
Party time: British women and soldiers celebrate V-E day in Trafalgar Square, London

Damian Corless

The Trinity College riots, which took place 70 years ago this week, were a skirmish that grew with the telling, as they announced the arrival of a young man who would, in time, come to be one of the defining figures of his age. His name was Charles J Haughey. They also highlighted the highly ambiguous attitude of many Irish ­people to the Nazi regime, even after it had been exposed as monstrous.

Since it was established in the reign of the original Queen Elizabeth, Trinity led a parallel existence to much of Irish society. It was for centuries a little patch of an imagined ­England in the heart of Dublin. That ­relationship could sometimes turn thorny, which it did on V-E Day, May 7, 1945. V-E signalled Victory in Europe for the Allies.

As the news filtered through, a group of around 50 Trinity students celebrated wildly, hanging Union Jack flags from college buildings. This display didn't go down well with students at University College Dublin, the Catholic-Nationalist rival to Trinity. Legend has it that a band of students, led by a young Haughey, rushed to the scene in time to witness a "tired and emotional" Trinity student set fire to an Irish Tricolour. According to the same legend, Haughey got himself a Union Jack and set it alight in response.

Things escalated. Swastikas, according to reports, began to appear from all directions and both the college grounds and the surrounding streets were engulfed in violent chaos. None of this was particularly new. The rulers of the newly established Free State had only settled on 'The Soldier's Song' as their national anthem in 1926 after members of Trinity College and the Royal Dublin Society persisted in loudly singing 'God Save the King' at official events.

And the swastika was not an uncommon sight in the Ireland of the time. The trucks of the Swastika Laundry service could be seen trundling around the streets of Dublin until the 1980s, without apparently causing too much offence.

Ireland at the start of World War II, or 'The Emergency' as it was officially dubbed, had made the break with British rule less than two decades earlier. The frosty relationship between the Free State and the North became positively icy after the start of the conflict when Northern unionists viewed the South's neutrality as an act of hostility.

In a rare gesture of cross-border conciliation, Radio Éireann arranged to broadcast an instalment of the hugely popular quiz show Question Time from Belfast. Everything went smoothly until quizmaster Joe Linnane asked for the name of the world's most famous teller of fairytales, expecting the answer Hans Christian Anderson. The reply he didn't expect was "Winston Churchill", which prompted a roar of approval from the nationalist audience. Question Time never was never allowed North again and relations with Britain slumped to another new low. By then, the sense of alliance with Germany was already formed. Two centuries earlier an embittered Jonathan Swift had said "burn everything English but their coal", and when the Free State got its freedom, that was precisely the attitude of its first leaders.

The most ambitious project in the early years of independent Ireland was the ­Shannon rural electrification scheme, and from the outset the notion was to turn to anyone but Britain, and the Germans seemed just the people. When word reached Britain that the Irish government was in negotiations with Siemens-Schuckert, the British government and media went ballistic. The Daily Mail ran a condemnation headlined: "German Intrigue in Ireland - Bid for Economic Control".

The Mail claimed the "Siemens Syndicate" was plotting to use the scheme as a Trojan Horse to set up a German-controlled state on Britain's back doorstep. First, the Germans would establish an electricity monopoly, which they'd use to take over Ireland's industry, which they'd use as a cash cow to repatriate profits into a German economy still struggling to pay back crippling reparation penalties from WWI. Despite the taunts of the British press, the Shannon Electricity Bill passed into law and rural Ireland was transformed.

Ireland's ambiguous relationship with the Nazi regime was complicated, and compounded, by a deep and abiding anti-Semitism in parts of Irish society. This country's record of giving sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Nazi terror before and during the war was perfectly and tragically captured in the infamous refrain, "we never let them in". Records show the authorities trotted out two reasons for refusing entry. The first was that Ireland was too poor, and the second that if Jewish people were let in, the Irish would become anti-Semitic.

Taoiseach De Valera's official condolences to the German Embassy on the death of Hitler remain a black day in Irish history, but his action disguised the fact that Official Ireland was always "neutral on the side of Britain" during WWII. Perhaps the most important weather forecast in world history was transmitted in June 1944 from the granite lighthouse station that stands in Blacksod Bay in Mayo. Strictly speaking, it was a grave breach of neutrality.

The report, filed by postmaster Ted Sweeney to the British military, delayed the Allied invasion of Normandy by 24 hours. Had the landings gone ahead as planned on June 5 rather than June 6, the landing conditions would have been wild and the outcome of the war may have been very different.

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