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That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War Hardcover – August 20, 2007

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Editorial Reviews


The book's emphasis on the quotidian is introduced with a nicely-judged autobiographical portrait of Wills's own family, which describes the rather different experiences of her Irish mother and English father through the 1940s (they married near the end of the decade.) Irish neutrality was a radioactive topic in the Churchill-de Valera years and is still hotly debated now. This account seems to me the most open- yet clear-minded yet available—it shows just how fluctuating were the responses of many people, whether they supported the Allies, the Axis, or neutrality. Frank Aiken's declared fear that if Ireland were to take sides, there would first have to be fought another civil war deciding which side to support rings true, given that for every person who was likely to support the British, there would be another thinking that 'England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity.' (Declan Kiberd, author of Inventing Ireland)

When the world descended into war in 1939 a few European countries remained neutral. Of those, none was more controversial than Ireland. In That Neutral Island Clair Wills sheds new light on what it was actually like in Ireland during that time. She examines the impact of neutrality on everyday life and how the censorship of Irish newspapers contributed to the feeling of isolation in Ireland. She also looks at Ireland's role in the Battle of the Atlantic and whether Ireland really did completely abandon Britain during the conflict. And she unearths the motivations of the thousands who left the country to fight in the British forces, and assesses the reaction of writers like MacNeice and Beckett to Irish neutrality. (Belfast Telegraph 2007-03-10)

This is a big book: in size, in ambition and in its willingness to remain even-handed when dealing with a period that usually attracts lopsided accounts. By and large Wills lets the facts speak for themselves, covering the 150,000 who volunteered for the British armed forces but also the scavengers who stripped the corpses of drowned seamen, and the scam-mongers who then wrote to the relatives asking for money...This is an authoritative and readable account. It is also a fine introduction to the nation that emerged from this crisis into a sometimes unforgiving world. (Robert Douglas-Fairhurst Daily Telegraph 2007-03-17)

Clair Wills's history of wartime Ireland brings a sane, subtle, reconciling spirit where once there was only intransigence... It's hard to imagine a fairer-minded guide...Her book not only fills a gap...it is a model of exhaustive research and illuminating example, taking in a wide range of topics--dancing, films, smuggling, farming, informing, amateur theatre and Step Together fairs--without losing direction or focus. A particular bonus is the attention to Irish writers (Kate O'Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O'Faolain, Brendan Behan and many more), whose ideas and experiences from 1939-45 make a fascinating study in themselves. (Blake Morrison The Guardian 2007-03-17)

[An] intensely researched and crisply written book...That Neutral Island is a psychodrama of guilt and defiance, clarity, resentment and confusion. Instead of a bibliography it has a 'bibliographical essay' no less than 30 pages long, which will be mined for generations to come. (P. J. Kavanaugh The Spectator 2007-03-10)

The sometimes tragic, often brave, confusion that was wartime Ireland is brilliantly unpacked here. This is ground that historians have covered before but none with such a remarkable array of sources--from German military plans, to contemporary poetry, to the sermons of Roman Catholic clergy. By skillful use of her materials, Wills puts together a vivid picture of a little country that tried to stay out of the war, never quite succeeded, and suffered ignominy in the process. (George Rosie Sunday Herald 2007-03-25)

Clair Wills, Professor of Irish Literature at the University of London, set herself the task of looking beyond the narrow world of politics to provide a deeper, more complex study of a nation anxiously clinging to peace in a time of global conflict. She has succeeded triumphantly in this goal. Sweeping in its scope, packed with telling details, written in an easy, fluid style, this is a highly original book about a fascinating period...The book is brilliant on capturing the strange twilight atmosphere that hung over the country, reinforced by ruthless censorship and severe economic shortages...The breadth of Professor Wills's research is formidable, covering everything from the theatre to the mobilisation of the army, from sexual mores to the influence of fascism. The bibliography alone runs to no fewer than 33 pages. And, behind the glittering text, there hangs the fundamental paradox, of which the Irish themselves were only too conscious: that the nation's much-vaunted neutrality, driven by separation from Britain, was wholly dependent on Britain's ultimate victory. (Leo McKinstry Sunday Telegraph 2007-04-01)

There are moving stories of the gathering of bodies from the coast, of border smuggling and high anxiety over the leaking of intelligence. An accruing picture of a people and a nation marching slowly into adversity and penury emerges, the most comprehensive of its kind on the subject to date, done with a scrupulousness that make it essential reading. (Tom Adair Scotland on Sunday 2007-03-25)

What a pleasure to read...Simply the best ever social and cultural history of Ireland during the second world war...This is a quite outstanding book, not just for its stunningly nuanced insights into the Irish psyche in time of war, but--often alarmingly--into the Irish psyche overall. (Irish Independent 2007-03-16)

[A] fascinating, brilliant cultural history of Ireland during the second World War...The result is a picture of social conditions and developments in neutral Ireland more detailed and revelatory than anything we have had before...All of which makes for a very good book indeed; but what raises it to the exceptional is its complex meta-narrative, which involves the author in presenting social and cultural analysis based on research while also addressing such difficult issues as how neutrality affected Ireland at various stages of the war, how neutrality was viewed abroad--especially in the United Kingdom and in the United States--and how these often intemperate international perspectives bore on Ireland's sense of itself. In all of this Wills manages to be judicious and insightful... Indeed I came away from this book with renewed respect for the way de Valera kept his nerve, when the fate of the country was an uncertain one and when he had great powers lined up against him. (Terence Brown Irish Times 2007-03-17)

That Neutral Island, sums up for many Ireland's dubious image during the war years: indulging in legalistic niceties and self-righteous pieties while ignoring the struggle elsewhere. But Wills paints a more complex picture. Neutrality was a struggle for those involved, and the policy succeeded despite deep political divisions, economic deprivation and artistic isolation. (Mick Heaney Sunday Times 2007-02-25)

This is historical writing at its very best. Wills...interweaves cultural, social and political history in a beautifully written and subtly argued account of life during wartime in Ireland. There are superb analyses of the work of the major Irish writers working in both English and Irish at this time...as well as interesting analyses of less well-known writers. (Fergus Campbell Tablet 2007-05-10)

Wills does a good job of describing Irish neutrality and its effects, and her portrait of Irish life during World War II is a full one, bolstered by apt quotes from local and visiting writers. (Martin Rubin Washington Times 2007-09-09)

Ireland's determined neutrality in the Second World War was such a sore point for Britain that Churchill couldn't restrain himself--even in 1945, in the hour of triumphant victory--from lashing out at that nation for the lives it had cost. Perhaps Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera's recent condolence visit to the German diplomatic representative in Dublin on Hitler's death had enraged him anew. But as Wills shows in her penetrating account of why and how Ireland stayed neutral while the global conflict literally washed up on its shores, more than passionate nationalist and anti-British feelings were at work in that policy. This far-ranging book not only explores the strategic and political reasoning behind Irish neutrality, which had almost unanimous domestic support, but draws on such resident chroniclers as Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, and John Betjeman to paint a detailed picture of how life was lived on this island of light surrounded by a blacked-out world. (The Atlantic 2007-11-01)

A many-layered, dissecting account not only of the reasons for Ireland's initial decision to remain neutral, but of the evolving character of that neutrality; the use and effect of propaganda and censorship on the Irish people; the effects on the economy and political system; and the consequences of neutrality for the national self-image...The nation led, as she puts it, "an uneasy, suspended form of existence" during the war. Wills examines the nature of that existence coolly from countless perspectives and in the lives and works of writers and politicians. In the end, what we have here is a three-dimensional, untendentious, often unpalatable--we are dealing with human beings, after all--view of a period that has been obscured in murk. (Katherine A. Powers Boston Globe 2008-01-13)

About the Author

Clair Wills is Professor of Irish Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. Her previous books include a study of Paul Muldoon.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; First Edition edition (September 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026829
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026827
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #893,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Along with the Civil War, the "Emergency" (i.e. WW2) is often glossed over in the Irish collective memory.

Growing up in Ireland in the 70s and 80s, i heard only echoes of the Second World War. My grandfather would tell me about how the government mandated that coils of barbed wire were put into our larger fields to stop warplanes landing. My family was forced to grow tillage on land which was more suitable for cattle and sheep grazing. Canadian relatives stationed in Enniskillen would tell me about weekend trips to Dublin, where there was little or no blackout, and they would drink in bars with German servicemen who were sitting out the war in the Curragh (but were sometimes let out at weekends to visit Dublin). They also told me of the rumours that U-Boats refueled in Clew Bay. English friends explained how the lights of Dublin allowed German bombers to locate Manchester and Liverpool. Our local castle sheltered some Jewish children from mainland Europe, but that initiative was run by an American, not by Irish people (and it raised controvery in the Irish parliment, so a guarantee had to be given that the Jewish children would not mix with the local people. That castle is right in front of our farm). Following the war, many German people arrived in Ireland where there was little or no anti-German sentiment, and many settled a few miles from where I grew up, starting businesses and creating a lot of jobs. The war was never mentioned of course.

So, I always found that period of Irish history personally very interesting. I was really pleased to find this book. Reading this book answered a lot of questions for me. It answers the question "Why was the government neutral?" (there really was little choice).
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'That Neutral Island'..For the reader interested in the period of the Second World War , the relationship of the Irish Free State to Britain and the Axis and how it handled its relationships with both sides is very succintly explained in this book. It also covers in great detail how the internal affairs of the country and its relationship with the Six Counties ( Northern Ireland) were conducted. This book is a fascinating and informative history of events that are often only cursorily covered in the history of WW2 when viewed from the British point-of-view. Definitely recommended as a factual and neutral story of a difficult period in the history of the Irish Free State.
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Format: Hardcover
Clair Wills's That Neutral Island shows how World War II dragged Ireland into the twentieth century and that century's social and political struggles.

Wills describes how the Taoiseach (prime minister) Eamon de Valera used the policy of neutrality to neutralize the IRA, which was still blowing up movie theaters and trying to kill Irish police in its war against the partition. In December 1939, after the war started and when the Irish were as afraid of a German invasion as the British were, the IRA stole a million rounds of ammunition from a magazine fort. But tipsters (or informers, depending on your perspective) helped the police recover most of the ammunition. "The war had put the conflict between the state and the IRA on a different footing."

The de Valera government produced rural "Step Together fairs" with propagandistic tableaux and dramas reminiscent of medieval morality plays.

Most Irish agreed that there was no choice other than to remain neutral. They couldn't defend against a German invasion, and there were advantages to both Britain and Nazi Germany in Ireland's staying one of the "small countries" that didn't officially take sides.

One TD (member of parliament) did call neutrality a policy of "dishonour,"
"not in the true interests, moral or material, of the Irish people." But he was in the minority.

Most Irish seemed to agree with de Valera: "Ordinary prudence is not cowardice."

In 1933 there were over 100,000 "Blueshirts," members of one of the Irish fascist parties.
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Format: Hardcover
As an event, the Second World War was impossible to escape. Though many countries sought to distance themselves from the fighting, nearly all were affected to one degree or another by the global conflagration. One of those was Eire, the nation that had only recently wrested itself from the British empire but now found itself facing the conflict by its proximity to Great Britain. Though the politics and the policies of Ireland during the war have been the subject of numerous books, Clair Wills has written something different, a "cultural history" which examines the impact of the "Emergency" (the name the Irish government gave to the situation) upon Irish life.

Wills begins by setting the scene with a portrait of Ireland in the 1930s. With it, she underscores just how rural and primitive much of Ireland was, and the growing contrast between the "traditional" Ireland of poor farms and the "modern" Ireland of towns and cities. It was in this context that Ireland was grappling with modernity on its own terms, with much of the resistance dictated by the influence of the Catholic church and attitudes of its adherents. Ireland was also only just beginning to emerge from the shadow of British rule, developing its own identity as a nation and dealing with such legacies as the remnants of the Irish Republican Army.

All of this underscores just how unprepared Ireland was to deal with the emerging war on the European continent. Wills reminds readers that Ireland's stance was no different from that of other small European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark, none of whom had the resources (let alone the desire) to be drawn into a large-scale conflict.
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