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Irish Men and Women
in the Second World War
Richard Doherty


Local Ireland.ie
'Richard Doherty's account of the Irish men and women who contributed to the war effort, by and large as part of the British Armed Forces, is long overdue. It draws heavily on primary material, diaries, letters, memoirs, and interviews, allowing many of the voices of those who served to come to the fore. In his introduction Doherty informs his readers of the difficulties in marking 'a country's part in a war in which that country had on official part'.

Doherty opens this book with an account of the political situation prior to the outbreak of war. And although this is an account told in other places, Doherty's recounting of it is timely: the 1938 handover of the Irish ports by the British government and the agreement to end the economic war with Britain, and Ireland's neutrality which we now know interred downed German airmen for the duration of the war while quietly returning the British airmen across the border.

This biased neutrality sets the scene for the stories of the men and women from the Republic who chose to serve in the British army. How many served? Like the figures for the First World War, it is a matter of informed speculation depending of the version of events the interpreter of the numbers wishes to tell. In August 1944 General Sir Hubert Gough indicated that there were 165,000 next-of-kin addresses in Ireland for British servicemen and women. In early 1945 the War Office and Air ministry indicated that 42,665 men and women from Eire were serving in the British forces. Contemporary accounts in newspapers gave figures ranging from 300,000 (The Manchester Guardian), to 250,000 (the New Yorker), to 150,000 (The Daily Telegraph).

Although we may never know exactly how many men and women enlisted from the Republic, we do have a legacy of their participation. Some of the stories Doherty recounts are fascinating, such as those who deserted the Irish Army to join the British Army. William Shorten from Dundrum was one such deserter. He had joined the Irish Army for two years intending aferwards to join the British Army as a career soldier. The outbreak of war meant that he would be retained indefinitely in the British Army, so he just left: took a train to Belfast and enlisted. There is anecdotal evidence that up to 7,000 Irish men deserted to join the British Army, but just as we may never know the true numbers of those who served, this figure is open to speculation.

Another group whose participation is rarely commented upon is women. And although Doherty devotes an entire chapter to 'Experiences of Irishwomen at home and abroad', it is his last chapter, coming after chapters on 'Irish chaplains at war', Irish doctors at war', and 'Minelaying, convoys and midget submarines'. Many women from Eire joined the war effort for the same reasons as many of its men: adventure. As Brenda Graham recounted: 'I wanted to get away. There was a sense of adventure and of being able to do something positive, which you couldn't do in Ireland.' Adding, 'We all wanted to join the Wrens [the Royal Navy's women's branch]. Their uniform was so attractive, unlike the other two.'
There are many, many personal accounts of service in this book, which is both its strength and its weakness. It is its strength in that it provides a wealth of information about individual experiences of war in which many stories combine, not to create a unified expression, but to create a diversity which must not be lost due to the way the political winds blow. On the other hand, Doherty's anecdotal approach leaves one wishing for a bit more analysis of the primary materials, a bit more reflection on the wealth of experience recounted in this book' Susan Schreibman, Local Ireland.ie.


'To many people in Britain Ireland is synonymous with the trouble that have plagued that country for too many years.  That is a political viewpoint.  To those of use who served in the Forces during the Second World War many Irishmen and women were comrades in arms.In the event we should forget the thousands upon thousands of Irish people who volunteered to fight on England’s side, Richard Doherty has written a superlative book: Irish Men and Women in the Second World War. In the introduction he shows the extent of Ireland’s selfless commitment to the principle of liberty throughout the Second World War.  The names of so many Irish heroes and heroines who fought for that concept are still familiar to those of us who have reached a certain age: Paddy Finuncane, Fogerty-Fegan and Magennis, to name but three.  But included among those familiar names are others who are less well known to the general public and whose deeds have been hitherto unrecognised.  Richard Doherty has included many of these in his work.

Ireland in the sense of this book is undivided.  The men and women came from both sides of the border but served loyally and devotedly.  There is no doubt that of all the famous fighting Divisions of the British Army, the record of 78th Infantry Division is unsurpassed.  On the War Establishment of the 78th was the Irish Brigade whose leaders and men were the stuff of legend.  That men from the Republic and from Ulster could live harmoniously together, I know from my own experience.  I spent some time in a tented convalescent Depot to the north of Rome and many evenings were spent listening to republican songs being sung and then responded to by Orangemen singing the songs of Ulster.  There was never any fighting among the men in the tent : they were all soldiers fighting for a Cause.  The spirit which animated them is illustrated in many of the accounts in Richard Doherty’s book.

It is a marvellous read, beautifully written and covers all the Services as well as civilians I hope that Irish Men and Women will be only the first of a series of works on Ireland’s contribution to England’s wars.  Certainly such a series is badly needed.

The photographs are well chosen and well captioned and the typeface very legible.  All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to the next.  Inevitably, in such a work there are some chapters that are more enjoyable than others. I liked the Infantry section – I served in two infantry battalions – but enjoyed even more the Experiences of Irishwomen at home and abroad and particularly the account by Elizabeth Beresford-Jones which ends with the comment that “… all through the war you were meeting Irish people in uniform, in train corridors, streets, everywhere you went, there were Irish people there.’’ Her comment was absolutely true and I, for one, am grateful to the Irish that they were there' James Lucas, Blackthorn.


‘As one who spent many hours visiting commonwealth cemeteries on the continent of Europe, paying special attention to the graves of young Irishmen, I found this volume very interesting. The author set our to chronicle the often neglected and misunderstood story of those Irish people who participated in the Second World War. He has done so in a meticulous fashion – so much so that his labour of love will demand a second volume to complete the task.

He first of all seeks to establish how many Irish fought in that war and investigates their motives. He comments on the sensitivities of Northern Unionists when faced with the massive participation and fighting quality of their Southern volunteer neighbours. He devotes two chapters to Irish infantrymen who fought from Narvik to Tobruk, and Abyssinia to Cassino. The narrative is highly personalised, with detailed extracts from individual soldiers, bringing us into the action …’ Books Ireland.


'… his book remains a very fine addition to our knowledge of the war, as moving as any account will always be when it lets unassuming survivors speak to us' Ian S. Wood, January 2001.
 

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