Irish WW2 Veterans still being treated as criminals 70 years later

I know I am supposed to be Northern Irish… unfortunately I don’t know much about the history of my island. I think this is largely to do with the fact that I didn’t even take GCSE History at High School… and the fact that all we studied was the potato famine (presumably out of fear of teaching anything to do with sectarianism, in case teachers were accused of bias). However, I heard this on the news a couple of days ago and was absolutely appalled.

If you have access to the BBC, there is some video footage here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16343906

I am also going to paste in an interview below, which I found here: http://www.theworld.org/2011/12/irelands-debt-to-its-world-war-ii-soldiers/

I simply cannot believe that in this day and age politicians are even having to consider whether to officially apologise to the last remaining victims of this appalling criminalisation. Essentially, Irish soldiers who decided during WWII that they would rather fight the Nazis than sit on their arses in a neutral country were criminalised on their return… denied jobs and pensions, and many had their children taken into care… all because of petty rules about desertion, and the fact that they were serving in the army of the ‘old enemy’, the UK.

Perhaps this was a bit more understandable at the time: after all, the Republic of Ireland had only recently won its freedom from the UK. But to have STILL not acknowledged that this was (and still is) a horrible miscarriage of justice amounts (yes, I am about to say this) to showing support for Hitler. I am well aware of the perils of entering this area of hyperbolism, but in a situation where a government not only remained neutral in the conflict (fair enough, that was their decision), but criminalised people who acted on their conscience and fought Nazism, I don’t think there is any other conclusion I can make.

I haven’t been able to find an online petition – it seems that there was a physical petition in Dublin. But it seems that the campaign is being organised by a group called the Irish Soldiers Pardons Campaign: www.forthesakeofexample.com. I hope that you will show them your support.

Here is an article about the campaign in the London Times. And the interview I promised…

There is also an audio recording of the interview available on the source website, http://www.theworld.org/2011/12/irelands-debt-to-its-world-war-ii-soldiers/

During World War II, thousands of Irish soldiers joined the British army to fight on the beaches of Normandy, in the Battle of the Bulge and in the jungles of Burma.

But when they came home to Ireland, they were treated as deserters and put on a blacklist.

Now, there is growing pressure on the Irish government to pardon those men.

Anchor Lisa Mullins talks to the BBC’s John Waite, who has made a radio documentary on these soldiers.

Read the Transcript
The text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to theworld@pri.org. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.

Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is “The World”. During the Second World War, five thousand soldiers defected from the Irish army and signed up with the British. They fought with the Allies on the beaches of Normandy in the Battle of the Bulge and in the jungles of Burma. They helped to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They came home to Ireland not to a hero’s welcome, but to find that the Irish government had put them on a blacklist. Now, pressure is growing on Dublin to pardon the Irish vets. Irish Senator, Mary Ann O’Brien is advocating on behalf of the men.

Mary Ann O’Brien: I would like to see their situation brought to justice and I would like to see a full pardon granted both to them and to their families and I just think it would be such a wonderful gift to those people, and it’s such a small gift to make sure that they’re properly pardoned and recognized for what they did for their continent and their country.

Mullins: Irish Senator, Mary Ann O’Brien. The BBC’s John Waite has made a documentary about the soldiers from Ireland. He says the Irish government gave them the cold shoulder because of the country’s relations with Britain at the time.

John Waite: In 1939, these relations were probably at rock bottom. If you think the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish Rebellion that had been put down “viciously”, as the Irish would say, you think about the civil war, you think about the Black and Tans. That’s, again, a vicious paramilitary group that was unleashed upon the Irish. They really didn’t didn’t like the British. So when ten percent of their own army, that’s around five thousand people as you say, deserted, that’s the word they use, the Irish army, which was neutral during the war, to join up with the Allies because they wanted to join the fight against fascism, because anti-British sentiment was so high, when they came back, they were villains, not heroes.

Mullins: So they joined up not because they were looking for a job, they already had a job, but for ideological reasons?

Waite: Most of them did I think, Lisa. Some joined up because conditions were better, but I mean the Irish army did nothing during the war. I mean it was neutral so it had nothing to do. It [xx], and for many of these men, you know, you remember in Ireland they didn’t even admit it was a war. They called it an emergency. These men could see that Europe and then the world was engulfed in this war and they were part of Europe and they wanted to take part in fighting fascism and that’s why most of them did it, and so they didn’t desert in the sense as desert as run away, they ran towards gunfire.

Mullins: What happened when they returned from the war? What happened to them and their families?

Waite: They were, I think the word has to be “vindictively”, punished. They were put on this blacklist that you mentioned. It was, in fact, a book with all their names and addresses. It was handed around to all town halls, all those public buildings, where if they went for jobs, the people could look up their names and if they were on the list, they weren’t to be given a job, so they could get no work. They could get no pensions, they could get unemployment payment, they could get no widows benefits if their loved one had been killed in the war, their children were often taken into care into institutions which were quite wicked in themselves, state-run and church-run institutions where sexual and physical abuse was wright. They were punished beyond all measure for what, as you say in America and as we would think here in Britain, they ought to have been held as heroes. They were, in fact, treated in, I think everyone agrees now, a most despicable way.

Mullins: One of the men with whom you spoke, one of the veterans, is John Stout. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He’s eighty eight years old now. Let’s hear what he told you about the way he and his fellow vets were treated when they got back.

John Stout: We were put down as renegades, traitors, and I know in my heart that we’d done the right thing. We fought for our nations and we liberated the camps. There were people being slaughtered. I would never regret it. I would do it again all over again.

Mullins: So he says that he would do it all over again. He left Ireland; others stayed and lived in extreme poverty as their children did. Why is the Irish government, right now, taking up this issue again?

Waite: I think this issue was buried for a very long time. I think when people, if they knew about it at all, they were embarrassed about it, ashamed about it, hoped it would go away, and of course every year that’s gone by, there were fewer and fewer people like John Stout there to remind people of the suffering, but it’s become a live issue right now. There’s a new government as you know, a relatively new government in Dublin. Fine Gael is now in coalition with the Labor Party. Now Fine Gael was in opposition in 1945 when these measures, “starvation orders” they were called, were issued and they voted against it then. Now they’re in power and if ever there was a time when this appalling piece of legislation can be revoked and possibly pardons given to these men, these few men that still survive, now is the time and all we hope is by highlighting this, and it is a story so few people know about, that it will help the Dublin government do the decent thing, and everyone I’ve spoken to in Ireland, when they heard about this story, everyone to a man says, “These people should be pardoned and recognized as the heroes they were.”

Mullins: How many of these men are left?

Waite: It’s very difficult to say because nobody wants to admit to being on the blacklist, Lisa. In fact, I’ve had the greatest difficulty talking or even finding or getting men to speak to it. They want to forget about it because they were outcasts, and one man who’s ninety two, he appears on my documentary, Phil Farrington, he still has nightmares that he will be arrested for being a deserter. He was put into prison when he came back on leave and when he was released from prison, he joined up again with the Allied Forces and he still feels that he may be arrested in the last years of his life. He’s frail now and I really don’t think has too far to go. These are the things that keep him awake at night. He’s frightened of that period in his life. So it’s very difficult to talk to these men, very difficult to get them to talk about it and therefore very difficult to say how many there are, but there can’t be more than a few hundreds. Possibly less.

Mullins: The BBC’s John Waite. We have a video clip about his radio documentary on Ireland’s punishment of it’s soldiers who fought in World War II. You can find the link at theworld.org. Thank you, John.

Waite: Thank you, Lisa.

Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at theworld@pri.org.

Perhaps this is not as simple as these accounts make out… I am more than interested in hearing more information.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

6 responses to “Irish WW2 Veterans still being treated as criminals 70 years later”

  1. unknown says :

    They are traitors to eire and should have been treated a lot worse “britains difficulty is irelands opportunity” long live eire a united ireland will be acheived

  2. Daz says :

    They are not traitors. While the British have done truly terrible things to the Irish, this had nothing to do with that. This was to stop an even more evil empire than the old British one from ever making it to Ireland. Do you think Hitler would have left us alone? Go on away back to dreamland. They did it for principles and what was right, both for humanity and to keep Ireland safe. I want a united Ireland as much as anyone, but if the war was lost by the allies you can be sure we’d more likely be under a ‘united’ Reich now.

    • Ancestry Hanson says :

      While I agree that the Irish government should now do something to change the status of the deserters, the Brits should have compensated the 5,000 returning deserted Irish soldiers and thousands more who who fought in the British Forces. Today, the lines are blurred, but the memories of the British reaction to the referendum in 1937 was still fresh in the minds of many Irish citizens. How would Ireland protect itself from a British invasion as was planned by Churchill? I can only surmise that many of the deserters had close relations to Brits. It is unfortunate that the desertions occurred and the returnees were treated badly. I am descended from the Irish, Scottish, and English so I have no bias in any direction and am trying to view the circumstances objectively. It may be right thing to pardon the deserters today, but it also may have been right to punish the deserters back then.

      • Chris says :

        Thanks for that informative response. It is undeniable that these issues are incredibly complicated, and reading back over this post I can’t quite believe the level of naivety in my writing just three years ago… but that’s the benefit of hindsight.

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