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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
Irish who fought on the beaches

By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland Correspondent

Sixty years on from the anxious summer months of 1944 it is a time for remembering in all the nations that were shaped and scarred by World War II.

There is one European country though where the full picture of what happened during the war is being discovered for the first time.

Neutral Ireland saw no reason to fight against Hitler's Germany alongside Britain in 1939; it was after all only 18 years since the country had bloodily secured a partial independence from London after centuries of British rule.

D-Day landings
Irish volunteers fought in the Second World War

At the time it seemed a reasonable decision, and at the political level neutrality was scrupulously observed.

When the first, still barely believable reports of what had happened in the Nazi concentration camps emerged they were strictly censored.

And the Irish leader Eamon de Valera even paid his respects to the German representative in Dublin when news of Hitler's death emerged.

Irishmen who had volunteered for Britain's armies were given a tough time when they were home on leave, and were cold-shouldered after the fighting by a de Valera-led government that didn't see why they should qualify for state welfare payments when they came home from fighting for a foreign power.

Irish volunteers

The volunteers went into a kind of a historical black hole - largely because Ireland's official history as taught in school curriculums was always more comfortable with men who had fought against the crown, rather than men who had fought for it.

All that though is changing. The Northern Ireland peace process, designed to improve the country's future, is also illuminating its past.

First came the rehabilitation of the huge and long-ignored contingent of Irish volunteers from World War I who had been away fighting for Britain while republicans staged the Easter Rising against it in 1916.

It suggests that while the government of Ireland may have been neutral, many of its people were not

When Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein was Lord Mayor of Belfast he even laid a wreath at the city cenotaph - an extraordinary gesture when you consider his party traces its roots directly back to the Easter Rising.

Now, it is the turn of the Irish volunteers who fought in World War II.

Yvonne McEwen, a historian with a special interest in Irish affairs, has now come up with a detailed estimate of the numbers of Irishmen from both sides of the border who fought for Britain.

Based on the War Office calculation that 22 men served for every one who died, she estimates that 99,997 Irishmen volunteered, with the number divided almost evenly between the North and the South.

Fascinating stuff which still has a certain political resonance. After all it suggests that while the government of Ireland may have been neutral, many of its people were not.

Historical storytelling

And it also demonstrates that the supposedly non-combatant Irish Free State contributed as many soldiers as Northern Ireland, a region of the UK whose unionist population prides itself on its loyalty.

Eamon de Valera
Eamon de Valera: Irish leader during war years

In Dublin, the national museum's splendid buildings at Collins Barracks, built for the British Army during the days of imperial rule, are to house an exhibition on the history of Irish soldiering which will take into account this changing view of the second world war.

It will include the familiar tale of Irish resistance to British rule, but the museum's curator Lar Joy is actively appealing for uniforms, medals and other memorabilia from Irish volunteers in Britain's armies so that their story can take its place in the official narrative of Ireland's place in World War II.

Mr Joy sees the job of running a museum as a form of historical storytelling - I wish people like him had been running museums when I was a child - and getting the volunteer's contribution into the public domain, is part of getting the overall story right.

For a country whose political establishment rather ludicrously used to insist on speaking not of "World War II" but of "the emergency" as though language alone could keep them out of the conflict, it's a huge step forward.

And given that that war turned out to be a global moral crusade against fascism rather than just another of Britain's foreign campaigns, as it may have originally seemed to many in Ireland, it probably suits Irish politicians well enough to discover that their country did after all play a significant role.

Anyone who may have medals or military memorabilia which might be worth a place in the Irish National Museum's forthcoming exhibition is invited to contact the curators. Yvonne McEwen is also interested in further contact with Irish Volunteers. Email kevin.connolly@bbc.co.uk and I'll pass your details on.


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