Mythology is so much more enduring than fact. Ireland’s “official” neutrality in 1939-45 has created ridiculous myths of Nazi U-Boats being refuelled in lonely Irish coves and Nazi agents spying on the UK from safe havens in Ireland with Irish Government support.
Nothing was further from the truth. Irish neutrality, with its pro-Allied bias, has now been shown to be more crucial to the Allied war effort than if the country had become an official belligerent.
Churchill certainly knew the truth of Ireland’s role but he chose not to share it with the British public. One truth was that when the Irish intelligence service G2 cracked the German secret codes, MI5 chiefs were regularly invited to Dublin for briefings and took the information to Bletchley Park. The German Legation in Dublin was used as a listening post for Allies to pick up information and also for the Allies to feed false information to the Nazis.
No Irish government restrictions were placed on Irishmen and women joining the British or other Allied armed services. Churchill was so impressed in 1940 by the number of Irish Battle of Britain pilots that he wanted to create a “Shamrock Wing” of the RAF. In 1942 three battalions of volunteers from the Irish Free State were formed as the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade. They were just some of the 183,000 Irish volunteers serving the British army in 1942 alone.
A recent book has taken this story further. This is one of the most important histories of the fight against Nazism to emerge in recent years.
Sean Lester was an Irish nationalist, an Ulster Protestant from Carrickfergus, who was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood during Ireland’s War of Independence. After independence, he became one of Ireland’s first truly international diplomats, becoming the Irish government’s permanent representative to the League of Nations in 1929.
Appointed as the League’s High Commissioner of the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk) in 1934, Lester spent his energies trying to maintain the League’s mandate there and keep the city independent of Nazi control. Hitler issued personal orders that Lester should be “removed” one way or another.
The Irish diplomat was a thorn in the side of the Nazis, showing physical courage in protesting against the growing Nazi persecution of the Jews.
Had Britain and others taken the Nazi threats as seriously as Lester did in Danzig, Hitler might have been thwarted in 1936 instead of allowing appeasement to gain momentum.
When Lester was promoted as Deputy General Secretary of the League of Nations in September, 1936, the Nazi Party openly celebrated his “removal”’ from Danzig for several weeks.
In 1940 Lester defeated the attempts of the pro-Vichy French Secretary General of the League, Joseph Avenol, to hand it over to the control of the Axis Powers. As the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, Sean Lester was able, in 1946, to hand over its structures, records, finances and buildings to the new United Nations, thus ensuring continuity between the League and today’s United Nations.
Ireland applied to join the UN in August, 1946. But because of the propaganda about its war role, the use of the veto by victorious belligerent powers, ensured the Irish state was not allowed to join until December 14, 1955.
Paul McNamara is to be thoroughly commended for bringing to public knowledge a neglected Irish diplomat hero; indeed, revealing a forgotten conflict, using primary source documents from Polish archives never before seen in the English-speaking world.
• Peter Berresford Ellis is a historian, novelist and literary biographer
• Sean Lester, Poland and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig. By Paul McNamara, Foreword Michael Kennedy, Irish Academic Press £19.95 paperback