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Communities At War

David Blake Knox

Culture, Northern Ireland and the Second World War, by Guy Woodward, Oxford University Press, 288 pp, £50, ISBN: 978-0198716853

It could be argued that it has taken the best part of a century for Ireland – North and South – to begin to come to terms with the role that Irish men and women played in the First World War. It may take even longer for Ireland’s relationship with the Second World War to be addressed and accepted in a similar way. There is an obvious pathos in the wanton sacrifice of so many young lives in WWI. The Irish dead – whether nationalist or unionist ‑ can be viewed as the hapless victims of those who led them to be slaughtered on the beaches of Gallipoli or on the Western Front.

Things get a lot more complicated when it comes to WWII. Many more Irishmen died in Allied uniforms between 1939 and 1945 than in the War of Independence or in the Civil War that followed – or in both of those wars combined ‑ but their status in the eyes of some of their fellow countrymen remains problematic. The majority of the Irish soldiers who fought in the Second World War came from south of the border ‑ and from an independent state that remained neutral throughout the global conflict. Those southern Irishmen chose, for a variety of reasons, to volunteer to join one of Britain’s armed forces: I should, perhaps, mention that my father was one of them.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the situation is even more complex. There have been some excellent studies that have told the story of “Eire” during the “Emergency” – notably, Clair Wills’s That Neutral Island – but the impact of the world war on the social and cultural life of Northern Ireland has been seriously neglected by Irish historians. Guy Woodward’s new book aims to fill that gap. It might be expected that the war’s impact in Northern Ireland would be determined by simple sectarian criteria – with unionists relishing the opportunity to prove their loyalty to the British state and nationalists stubbornly withholding their support for the war effort. However, as Woodward makes clear, the reality was not quite so clear-cut. In fact, the North’s experience of the war involved a number of convoluted, and, at times, contradictory factors that were often able to cut across the usual political and confessional boundaries.

On one hand, Belfast was subject to several devastating bombing raids by the Luftwaffe that left hundreds of its citizens dead and maimed. Northern Ireland also played an important – some might say, a crucial – role in the Atlantic war. Indeed, if Allied forces had not enjoyed ready access to northern ports, the neutrality of the southern Irish State might have been at risk. Munitions, airplanes and warships for the Allies were manufactured in Belfast and Derry and large quantities of food products were also supplied to “the mainland”. On the other hand, Northern Ireland remained on the periphery of the European conflict – and was even further removed from the other theatres of war. In many ways, everyday life there continued uninterrupted, and seemingly untroubled by the global conflagration. As Woodward points out, this theme – of the North’s relative isolation from the epic savagery of the war – is common to the work of both Protestant and Catholic writers.

“We are King’s Men,” Lord Craigavon, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, told his listeners in a radio broadcast early in 1940. “We will be with you to the end,” he assured the British government. Craigavon had already pledged that “the Ulster people” would “face all the responsibilities” that a state of war might demand – in line with “the rest of the United Kingdom and Empire”. But, in many respects, Northern Ireland was a very different territory from the rest of the UK, and was treated as such by the British. Craigavon had proposed that conscription be applied to Northern Ireland on the same basis as in Great Britain. However, he was unable to achieve that ambition. Nationalist politicians, the Catholic Church hierarchy, and a number of leading trade unionists questioned the right of the British Government to impose any form of conscription on the North.

That position also found support on the far side of the Atlantic among Irish-Americans. The USA had not yet entered the war, and Britain did not want to damage relations with a potential ally, so the idea of conscription was quietly dropped. This meant that – in common with those who joined from south of the border – the Northern Irish who enlisted in the British armed services did so on an entirely voluntary basis. Unionists sometimes criticised nationalists for not being prepared to join the armed forces. However, a sizeable number of Northern Catholics did enlist, and the proportion of Protestants who volunteered for active service was relatively low. Certainly, enlistment figures across the North fell far short of the levels reached during the First World War, and the British services gained more Irish recruits from the Free State than from Northern Ireland – as my father was fond of reminding me.

Woodward’s book does not, however, focus on those who went overseas to fight. Instead, as the title suggests, his primary purpose is to consider those who stayed at home, and whose creative and cultural activities were formed against a backdrop of the world’s first “total war”. In his opening chapter, he includes a detailed analysis of what might be considered a defining text of all the works of fiction set in the North during the world war, The Emperor of Ice Cream, by Brian Moore. Indeed, as Woodward points out, this work seems to have transcended its fictional basis, and has often been cited by academic historians as if it were an instance of contemporary news reportage.

Moore’s novel was published twenty years after the war had ended, and, although he described his book as “autobiographical”, he freely admitted that he had conflated certain incidents and invented others. Perhaps some historians have been led astray by the novel’s unmistakable ring of authenticity. The Emperor tells the “coming-of-age” story of Gavin Burke, a teenager from a middle-class Catholic family in Belfast. Gavin joins the Air Raid Precautions service against the wishes of his fervently nationalist father, who believes that “the German jackboot isn’t half as hard as the heel of John Bull”. At the heart of the novel is Moore’s vivid description of the effects of an apocalyptic air raid on Belfast in 1941 in which hundreds of civilians were killed.

Woodward argues that the war was a time when Moore’s own “literary, cultural and political horizons expanded”. Certainly, his novel expresses a powerful sense of personal liberation, and captures the extreme and conflicting emotions that can often accompany such intense release. Gavin Burke is gripped by an “”extraordinary elation” in the early stages of the German air raid, and is delighted that “the world and the war has come to him at last”. He is exhilarated by the explosive force that the Luftwaffe has unleashed, and hopes that its bombs will wipe out all the features of the city that he finds oppressive – including Queen’s University, Harland and Wolff’s shipyards and “the Orange Hall”. His initial delight, at seeing the “grown-ups’ world in ruins”, is soon replaced by the horror he feels in the morgue where the mutilated bodies of the bombing’s victims have been brought. What he witnesses there is related by Moore in graphic and uncompromising terms.

The type of experience that Moore describes was not unique to his protagonist: the war helped to change the perspective of many others – and it is not hard to see why. At least 300,000 military personnel passed through Northern Ireland during the war. There were over 100,000 US soldiers billeted there – including a substantial number of black soldiers – and there were also Czechs, Free French, Poles, Dutch, Norwegians, Australians, New Zealanders and Russians present. As Woodward observes, in Moore’s novel Belfast has been transformed into a place “of unprecedented positive cultural, economic and social change”.

During the war, Northern Ireland was visited by leading celebrities from the worlds of politics and entertainment – such as Bob Hope and Glenn Miller, Lord Mountbatten and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Generals Eisenhower and Patten. Local businesses boomed, and unemployment fell dramatically. The visual arts also received official support with the creation of a new Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts – which organised programmes of travelling exhibitions and lectures. For the first time, cinemas and bars were allowed to open on the Sabbath, and baseball matches were staged in Windsor Park – home of the Linfield soccer team. The American troops also brought jazz and blues music with them – which may help to explain the subsequent career of one George Ivan Morrison. A relative of mine acted as a liaison officer between the UK and US forces, and from what I could gather much of his time was spent organising a succession of dinners, parties and dances.

Not everyone found these outside influences to their liking. Writing in the 1944 Capuchin Annual, Mairin Allen voiced her unease at a recent trip to the North, and expressed her fear that traditional Irish culture was under threat from these new and “strangely cosmopolitan” arrivals. As Woodworth comments, Allen seemed “particularly troubled” at the manner in which the local population was “busy catering for the amusement of British and Canadian and American soldiers and airmen and marines” – who, she noted, included “coloured” as well as white troops. Of course, not all southern writers looked to the North with such disdain. Writing in The Bell, Sean O’Faolain stated his belief that “the great strength of the North is that she does and lives in the Now. Belfast has immediacy. Ulster has contemporaneity.” Sadly, this state of affairs was not to last. Shortly after the war was over, an anonymous “Special Correspondent” with the Dublin Catholic newspaper The Standard, predicted, with grim satisfaction, that “Belfast’s short day of wartime glamour is at an end”. From now on, he (or she) believed that the city would revert to its “pre-war way of life” – which was dismissed as one of “unemployment and religious bigotry”.

Perhaps what remains exceptional about The Emperor of Ice Cream is Moore’s ability to resist being held captive by such predictable forms of reaction. Instead, his novel challenges the dominant nationalist and unionist interpretations of the war. As Woodward observes, he dissents both from “Irish nationalist discourse” and the Unionists’ “narrative of collective endeavor”. Such irreverence and scepticism may help to explain the continuing relevance and popularity of his work. Some of the other writers considered by Woodward in this chapter – and elsewhere in his book – are less well-known, and less accomplished than Moore. Indeed, much of their work has been out of print for many years.

Woodward concedes that the material he addresses in his book is “variable in quality”. He argues that his aim in analysing such work is to recover “submerged and neglected texts and artifacts which articulate the effect of the war (…) with the hope of enlarging the sphere of (Northern Ireland’s) twentieth century cultural history”. It is true that, at times, the reader’s understanding of Woodward’s analyses may be inhibited by a lack of familiarity with the texts that he is discussing. However, by drawing upon a wide range of diverse sources - painting, poetry, fiction, autobiography and political writing ‑ he is able to convey a persuasive sense of the artistic and intellectual energy that seems to have been released in Northern Ireland at that time.

This emergence of new cultural horizons led some to hope that the war would help to heal the deep divisions between Protestants and Catholics. Certainly, it seems to have provided new opportunities for some individuals to cross the old sectarian lines. However, any notion that the shared experience of the war would bring nationalists and unionists together ‑ in some form of harmony – proved to have little substance. It is clear that the two communities in Northern Ireland each held a different relationship to the world war. Obviously there were exceptions, but, put crudely, Northern Protestants tended to view World War II as “their” war – whereas Northern Catholics tended to see themselves as unwilling participants in someone else’s conflict. It did not take long for the old divisions to reassert themselves – if they had ever gone away.

The port of Lisahally, close to Derry, had played a central role in the Battle of the Atlantic, and therefore made a vital contribution to Britain’s war effort. However, the contribution made by the city to the defeat of Nazism was something that its nationalist majority did not seem to wish to remember – let alone celebrate. Ulster’s unionists also found that there was little room for their story to be heard in the aftermath of the war. As Woodward points out, it is London and the southeast of England that have provided the typical settings for popular narratives of the war. Events which occurred there – such as the Blitz and the Battle of Britain – have assumed a mythical status, while the battles waged at sea off the west coast of Ireland have remained relatively obscure. The Unionist government tried to remedy this shortfall by commissioning several histories of Northern Ireland in the war years. These were clearly intended to promote the notion of an indissoluble bond that had been forged between Northern Ireland  and the British people but they were generally of poor quality, and now seem inept and naive in their historical approach. More comprehensive and credible analyses of the North’s role in the war have remained conspicuous by their absence.

On the cover of Woodward’s book is a photo of a mural of James Magennis, the only combatant from Northern Ireland to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the course of World War Two. Magennis was a Catholic from the traditional republican stronghold of the Falls Road in Belfast, and Woodward suggests that the ways in which his story has been “celebrated, contested, forgotten, remembered, and, more recently, memorialized” provides an insight to the relationship ‑ “sometimes fraught and often muted” – between Northern Ireland and the Second World War.

As it happens, I can recall the late Gerry Fitt telling the story of James Magennis to my young son at a function in Belfast in the late 1990s. There was no mistaking the pride – and sense of ownership – taken by him as he recounted in detail the hazardous circumstances in which Magennis had carried out his daring underwater raid on a Japanese heavy cruiser in 1945. A different kind of passion, but a similar sense of ownership, was evident as Lord Fitt went on to relate how small-minded unionist politicians had denied Magennis a civic reception, and the freedom of the city ‑ because he was working class and a Catholic. In fact, Magennis was also snubbed by the Catholic community in which he had been born: when he returned to Belfast, and visited his old school on the Falls Road, the children were reported to have refused to stand to welcome him.

Although an official memorial to James Magennis was unveiled outside Belfast City Hall in 1999, the striking mural that features on the cover of Woodward’s book comes from a gable wall in the Tullycarnet district of the city. This is a loyalist part of east Belfast, which was recently described in one Northern newspaper as the hub of a paramilitary money-making machine, and the home of several illegal shebeens, and various drug-pushing rackets. In that context, there are both benign and malign interpretations of the mural dedicated to Magennis. It could mark an attempt to reach across the sectarian frontier, to recognise that courage is not confined to any one section of Northern Ireland, and to acknowledge that one’s religion need not determine one’s political views. Or it could be seen as a provocative gesture to “the other side” and a warning that there might still be other potential “traitors” in their midst. Either way – or both – it demonstrates the continuing potency that anything concerning World War II can exert in Ulster

Guy Woodward has written a valuable and an important book. Although at times his material may seem overly compressed, in general he has given us a very well-written, cogently argued and stimulating study. It not only provides impressive and original insights into a critical period in Ireland’s recent history, but opens up new ground for future scholars to explore.
01/01/2016

David Blake Knox is a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His book Suddenly, While Abroad: Hitler’s Irish Slaves was published in 2012 by New Island Books.

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