When Johnny Goes Marching
Maurice Earls writes: As some may recall, a few years ago genetic studies emerged which revealed that in excess of twenty per cent of males in the northwest of Ireland are descendants of one individual (possibly Niall of the Nine Hostages) or, perhaps more likely, of a few closely related males who were founders, around the year 500, of the very successful Ui Neill Ulster dynasty.
Some might wonder what happened the men who would have gone on to father children had the Ui Neill clan not taken over. It is probably safe to assume that they were seen as disposable and slaughtered. Their existing children would have been dispersed into slavery. The traumatised women on the other hand offered the Ui Neill the opportunity for a relatively rapid expansion and consolidation of the clan through the violence of mass rape. If that were the plan, it appears to have been highly successful. The Ui Neills were dominant for five hundred years, until Brian Boru finally put a stop to their gallop.
It all seems very remote. But throughout the history of warfare young men have routinely been regarded as disposable, by their own side as much as by their enemies. As recently as the early years of the last century vast numbers of young men were regarded as such, as is evidenced by the order they received to run directly into machine gun fire. The population of England had increased exponentially over the nineteenth century, so there was possibly a feeling of demographic plenitude and perhaps even of overcrowding. Certainly, there would have been no sense of demographic crisis. Something in the region of 500,000 English soldiers died in the war out of a population of around 36 million. But, notwithstanding population growth, things did not work out as easily as they did for the Ui Neill. In 1918 the British electorate expanded threefold. The combination of mass democracy and mass mobilisation meant society’s trauma could not be ignored by the traditional elite. In response to this mass trauma, the slaughter was appropriated by the state and the cultural establishment, which, in an impressive act of creativity, represented it successfully to the public, through the means of an elaborate annual ritual, as noble sacrifice. One would have to say the November poppy event is quite stylish in comparison, for example, to the the messy US post-Vietnam experience.
During WWII, Joseph Stalin and Marshall Zhukov chose to sacrifice disposable soldiers in order to save valuable machinery. The Russians lost nearly nine million soldiers during the conflict. Soviet decision makers, of course, were not burdened by mass democracy, yet even in such a command polity public opinion could not be ignored. Calling the resistance to the Nazis “The Great Patriotic War”, which was actually substantially accurate, no doubt helped society come to terms with the massive military and even greater civilian losses.
The Irish famously remained neutral during that war. Indeed, the state came in for some criticism at the time and, on occasion, since for adhering to this policy. Instead of having to deal with a legacy of death, it has to deal with the legacy of non-involvement.
In the January 1944 issue of The Bell, the editor, Sean O’Faolain, addressed the question of the war and Ireland’s neutrality. He was annoyed by suggestions in the American and British press that the Irish were ignorant about the war and particularly annoyed by the suggestion of indifference.
For ignorance is at worst a fault, whereas indifference in the face of such widespread and terrible suffering would be the basest crime.
O’Faolain quotes press commentary informing his readers that in a 1942 issue of War Illustrated Mr Royston Pike declared “The Irish populace is shockingly ignorant of the war and the issues at stake.” He also tells his readers that a Professor Henry Steele Commanger wrote in the New York Times magazine that on the moral issues involved “… Mr de Valera has been blind: the Irish government has been blind: the Irish people have been blind.” An irritated O’Faolain responded saying that the Irish were neither ignorant nor blind nor indifferent, noting that the writers quoted would insist that “we must be one or the other since we do nothing about it”. Such criticism rankled. For the editor of The Bell,
The dishonesty … becomes apparent when we realise that these charges are not made against other neutral countries, whose decision to stand apart from the conflict is never twisted into the conclusion that they must be immorally callous to it. As long as the neutrality of Switzerland, Sweden or Spain is not attributed to ignorance or indifference one must be at a loss to know why Ireland should be held up among so many as the one country which is neutral for immoral reasons.
He also maintained that the Irish did not want for information:
But what with British and American radio, news services, newspapers periodicals books and lecturers [there is] no lack of information from that side; and any comparative shortage of information from Japan or China or Germany is not, presumably, in question.
He explains the exigencies of neutrality:
The difficulty of hearing larger opinions from public men here, eg our views on fascism, Communism or Nazism, is the simple one that this country has had to sacrifice speech to peace.
The editor of The Bell clearly believed the country was ideologically on the side of the allies. He referred to the “democratic society which we are building up in Ireland” and to Mr de Valera’s reference to Ireland’s “friendly neutrality”.
O’Faolain saw the state’s neutrality as “our first practical claim to independence”. For him, this pointed to the core issue underlying criticism of the state. He argued that Irish neutrality was not accepted because Irish independence was not accepted. The objection to Irish neutrality and the difference in attitude to other neutral countries had been explained to him by a London Cockney in a Holborn pub who said “Well, you see you’re different. It’s like father and son. We always look on you as one of us.”
O’Faolain revealed that some years previously he had tried to interest London newspaper editors in the idea of a “Twenty Year Alliance between Britain and an independent Ireland”. Initially, he says there was some enthusiasm for the idea but, on reflection, it could not be supported because it would have involved recognising “our sovereign independence”.
Interestingly and a little irritatingly, in The Bell article O’Faolain never gets around to explaining exactly why the state remained neutral and why he, as an ideological democrat, supported the policy. We are left to speculate.
A number of reasons are commonly offered for Irish neutrality. It is said that entry into the war might have reignited the Civil War. Another reason mentioned it that our neutrality was, as O’Faolain put it “our first practical claim to independence”. The memory of the Great War is also frequently mentioned as is the newness and economic fragility of the state. And, of course, there is the matter of principle associated with the continuation of partition. All these reasons have their validity but remain less than convincing as an explanation for the virtually unanimous support for the policy in the country.
As recent scholarship ‑ supported by oral evidence ‑ has revealed, even that segment of society which continued to feel a strong personal British identity and whose members did not hesitate to cross the border and join up, overwhelmingly, felt the state’s policy of neutrality was the correct one for the state. What caused this rare unanimity? Was it some combination of the usual reasons or could another factor have also been involved?
Could it be that there was a deep and visceral knowledge that Irish society did not have a surplus of young men to put at risk in a large-scale war? After all, by the outbreak of WWII Ireland had completed a century of demographic decline. Had the population risen in line with British or even European norms, it would, arguably, have been between 14 to 20 million in 1939. As it was, the population of the state was around three million and declining. The pattern clearly posed an existential threat to the state and to society.
In such circumstances an unspoken fear of group extinction must have pervaded Irish life like a palpable but invisible miasma. Is it not likely that in 1939, with an eviscerated population, the many cultural and political strands in society were united in not wanting large numbers of young men to march off to war in the interests of national self preservation?