Unrecognized Honor: Irish Involvement in World War II

Hello All,

Southern Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! What a beautiful day to celebrate our Irish heritage and ancestry, or even if you are not of Irish decent, a lovely day to pretend you’re Irish because, let’s face it, everyone wants to be Irish!
As you may already know, Ireland and Britain have had a substantially rocky past for the better part of the shared history. The circumstances were no different during World War II. Northern Ireland felt a strong connection with England, while Southern Ireland wished to be freed from its tyranny. When the time came for Great Britain to take up arms against the Axis Powers, Southern Ireland chose neutrality instead. Since a large portion of Ireland was decidedly neutral, we forget those who did volunteer for Great Britain to protect their homes. Not only did Northern Ireland fight, but many Southern Irish men and women risked their lives to volunteer for the cause.
Women stand in line outside Slough Training Center, UK, 1941
For many Irish men and women, the choice to stay neutral was a wise decision for the country overall; however, for a host of reasons, including nationalism and patriotism, many made the decision to volunteer, fully expecting their country would remain neutral. Both men and women volunteered with pride for their country but were never properly recognized for their efforts. Until recently, their story has gone untold for too many decades.
Just before 1940, it was extremely difficult for an individual under the age of twenty-two to leave the state, unless the circumstances were just cause for passage. With that law in place, an astounding 200,000 citizens applied for passports to emigrate to England, out of a population of 2,968,000. That means at least eight percent of the population felt called to serve in some way during World War II. If one takes out those not eligible to leave the state, including the elder and the very young, that percentage rises to at least fifteen percent of the eligible population. This clearly shows that despite tensions between Ireland and Britain, the people were no less concerned for the safety of their government and homes against the Nazi regime than any other country in Europe or abroad.
With the large influx of Irish workers into England, skepticism would be understandable by government leaders, particularly Prime Minister Churchill. However, even Churchill understood the importance of labor during hard times and a British Liaison Office was established to maintain agreements made by the two countries. Despite initial tensions, the Irish were glad to be working in England. They were able to earn higher wages, ease the pangs of unemployment in the home country, and feel accomplished knowing their work was for a just cause. Not only that, by allowing an easy flow of labor between the two states, England received the labor intensive help they desired and Ireland was able to experience an increase in revenue for the country.
Royal Air Force soldiers in Belfast, Northern Ireland
The Irish not only desired to work, they also desired to fight. Whether they were following a family tradition of service, or looking for adventure, many Irish men enlisted into the British Armed Forces. An estimated 200 men were enlisting weekly by 1944. However, official government records state that only 771 travel permits were issued between 1943 and 1945. This suggests the difficulties men had in enlisting without receiving flak from the IRA, or other groups adamantly opposed to Irish support of British Forces. In some cases, men were harassed or threatened if they expressed interest in enlisting, but that fact did not deter them in the least.
Soldiers from the Irish Defense Force join the British Legion
The government also wanted to keep the number of enlistees quiet so not to agitate desertion rates for both sides. Despite restrictions, little could be done to prevent men from joining the fight in Europe. By the end of the war, approximately 55,000 Irishmen, from the North and South, were part of the English Army. Of that total, about 7,000 of those volunteers were women. As more information on the topic comes to light, researchers have concluded there may in fact be an additional 20,000 members added to the final total due to the lack of proper documentation. However, these numbers do not include those who served for the Navy or Merchant Marines, with those numbers included, the total would amount to 150,000 strong. Regardless of the numbers, the sheer quantity of men and women who made the conscious decision to put aside their differences between states for the greater good of the world is astounding and admirable.

Group of young Irish soldiers, WWII

Regardless of their sacrifice, the government ignored their service, prohibiting a Remembrance Day and subsequently ignoring any appeal for a just outcome by the public. It would take another fifty years before full recognition of Irish involvement in World War II would be honored. Of the 150,000 who served, an estimated 10,000 lost their lives for the greater good and their sacrifice needed to be honored.
I hope you all enjoy the holiday.
Take Care,
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