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. Yet unlike these other countries, Ireland enjoyed the luxury of geography afforded them as an island nation and the indirect protection of British arms. Such protection could not shield them completely from the war, however. Bodies of sailors from sunken ships washed up along the southern coast, the result of fighting in the Atlantic which curtailed Ireland’s trade with the outside world and forced the rationing of numerous commodities. Propaganda filled the airwaves, as both sides sought to nudge Ireland to their side, counteracting the government’s strenuous effort for “balance” that belied any moral judgment of the conflict.
Throughout this account, Wills uses the lives and stories of writers to shine a light on how individuals reacted to the conflict. What emerges is a country in the conflict but not of it, a haven for many people (including soldiers who would head south from wartime Northern Ireland for relaxation without the fear of the nightly blitz) and a land encased in a cocoon of denial to others. She also looks at the motivations of the thousands of Irishmen and Irishwomen who crossed over to join the conflict, and the concerns of the thousands who were caught up in it against their will. While somewhat repetitive in the later chapters, Wills describes all of this with great insight into the effects of the Emergency upon both the Irish people and their efforts to define themselves as a new nation in the world, making it a book well worth reading.