IT'S THE IRISH OF IT
Said the Irishman to Mr. Baxter: "I believe in neutrality . . . We are neutral . . . and I wish the Germans would attack us and end the damned thing"
MY LAST letter left Sir Ernest Cooper and myself saying good-by to the Canadian destroyers and starting a long motor ride to the RAF Coastal Command in Northern Ireland. It had stopped raining and the countryside was beautifully fresh. To be in a car and to watch the green fields disport themselves before the sombre hills was a delightful novelty in itself—but to be driven
by a chauffeur, even if he was a policeman! This was to remind us with a vengeance of the dear dead days before Hitler enslaved us all in trying to enslave the world.
I must not say where the RAF station is, but obviously a Coastal Command station is not far from the sea. Equally there must be inland waters since flying boats do not like to come down on the sea unless it is in a particularly tranquil mood. So we came to a lovely spot with a solitary hotel that looked as if it had been taken from the Austrian Tyrol and set down in Muskoka. Here we found a half dozen marooned RAF officers’ wives, knitting, talking, waiting. Twice a week a bus leaves for nowhere. That is their contact with the outside world.
Some distance away is the RAF station, an immense affair. We went there to dinner and were received by the recently appointed C.O., young Group Captain Costello, a Canadian. There were many Canadians there, who welcomed us as warmly as the sailors had done on the destroyers.
We sat down to dinner. Would you like to know what we had?
Spam, powdered milk custard, cheese, beer, and English coffee.
It was hardly a banquet. I could not help thinking of the meals we had had at the American naval base and wondering quite frankly if the RAF menu is too severe. At any rate one did not rise from the table with any sense of repletion.
After dinner I spoke for an horn* to an audience of airmen that must have numbered 500. Tomorrow any of them might do a sweep to Newfoundland or Gibraltar or the Azores and face the gamble of weather and enemy action. They are the police of the air and their beat is the endless sea. Yet their interest in politics and the future of the world could not have been keener if they had all been parliamentary candidates for Westminster.
The next morning we were taken in a launch to visit various flying boats and, like all people who go in a launch, we were thoroughly soaked and emerged like drowned rats. Home to dry and then a last motor drive. When we reached Enniskillen we had to say good-by to our car and our driver for we were to cross into neutral Eire and that is something a Northern Government car just does not do. The policeman refused a present from us and told me he had greatly enjoyed our conversation. He was an honest man and a courtier—probably the only one in existence.
THE train from Enniskillen travelled sedately toward the border. We had a first-class compartment to ourselves but at a small station a farmer’s boy entered it and sat down. He had rough clothes, with leggings, and was a husky 16-year-old.
The conductor came in and glared at him. “And f’what would you be after doing, riding in a first-class carriage?” He asked in sheer music hall Irish.
“And what’s the difference?” asked the boy.
The conductor looked at the lad’s third-class ticket: “Eleven shillings,” he said, “and let it be a lesson to ye.”
The boy paid the money with an air of complete indifference. With a puzzled shake of his head the conductor disappeared.
“What do you do?” asked Sir Ernest.
“I’m a smuggler,” said the boy politely.
Sir Ernest and I both sat up with a gasp.
“What do you smuggle?” we asked.
“Cattle,” he replied. “I’m in business with my father.”
“What does he do?” I asked hopefully.
“He’s a smuggler,” said the boy.
I looked at Sir Ernest. “This would make a good scene in a play,” I muttered.
“Does he write plays?” said the boy, speaking to Cooper but looking at me. “What plays has he written?”
He spoke as if he would be familiar with the name of any play ever performed but for reasons of my own I did not persist along that line of thought.
“Which way do you smuggle?” asked Sir Ernest.
“Mostly from the South to the North,” he replied in a completely matter-of-fact toue. “But I was up all night last night smuggling some half-dead cows to a canning factory in the South. We drive them across the border on to farms and leave them there. If the farmer is asked any questions by the police he says they are his.”
“They’re in your pay,” suggested Sir Ernest.
“They are,” he said.
Further questioning revealed that if he was caught he would be fined £200. I asked if he was detected a second time whether he would be sent to jail.
“No,” he answered. “Fined £200.”
It was our first contact with one of the worst features
of Irish life today. Smuggling has reached unmanage-
able proportions since the South has no war restric-
tions except on such commodities as coal and petrol,
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and the North is as heavily rationed
I was informed in Dublin that smugglers’ gangs now operate so profitably that hijack gangs have sprung up. These raid the others. From thus to shooting is only a step that must soon begin.
Police are being corrupted as well as the farmers. Yet when I met the Lord Chief Justice on our return to Belfast he told me that smuggling was treated as a civil and not a criminal offense.
The boy left us at a station not far from Dublin and a youngish priest came into our compartment. We fell to discussing the political situation and inevitably came to Eire’s neutrality.
“Eire has every right to he neutral,” he said calmly. “With the exception of France and Britain not one country now fighting against the Axis came into
the war until it was attacked. Eire has not been attacked.”
“Which side do you want to see win?” asked Sir Ernest.
“England, of course,” said the priest. “It would be bad for us if England did not win.”
“But you will not help her,” we said.
“We are helping her by being neutral,” he answered.
That is Eire’s case. We were to hear it over and over again in the next 48 hours. America, Russia, Greece, Poland, Holland, Belgium—they only came in when attacked. Even Britain and France went to war only when they knew that their very existence demanded it. So say the Southern Irish.
Dublin. One taxi and one car at the station but innumerable horse-drawn conveyances with old animals in the traces who hung their heads and bent their legs with weariness. Nor was the station or the city glittering with light as we had supposed. The English are generous to Eire in the matter of
luxuries which cannot be purchased by the public in Britain but the imports of coal and petrol are limited to the absolute minimum.
Fortunately the one car was for us and we drove through the dimly lit capital to the Hibernian Hotel, where attendants and porters without number took our luggage and we were shown to rooms that breathed comfort and prosperity. From the banquet hall we heard a hundred voices singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
They Never Agree
I asked what the banquet was about. “Sure and it’s Burns night,” answered a waiter. Burns night had been solemnly observed two nights before in Belfast, a fact which I pointed out to the waiter.
“Ah, the North and South never agree on anything,” said the waiter. Incidentally, I learned later that the banquet was being held by the Scots in Dublin.
A friend of Cooper’s called to take us to Jammet’s Restaurant for dinner. A dozen oysters, a luscious steak, ice cream, a perfect cognac and Havana cigars. I thought of the RAF mess with its Spam and powdered milk custard and wondered which of the lads we had seen were in the skies at that moment over the dark sea.
Foreign diplomats were at tables near us, for every country has its legations in Dublin. The war might have been on another planet. Tired out we walked home toward our hotel. A young fellow, about 20, sold me an evening paper on the street with a plea for generosity. “I’m starving hungry,” he said. Perhaps . . . Perhaps not . . .
In my room I looked at the small four-page newspaper—newsprint is also rationed. The paper was running an appeal for the children of Dublin who had no shoes. On another page there was almost a full column of advertisements for public dances next afternoon, Sunday. Not dances for soldiers or war workers but for the young people of neutral Dublin.
Spiritually as well as physically tired I went to sleep.
The church bells start ringing at an early hour in Dublin but we had agreed not to get up until late in the morning. Apologetically I reached the dining room at 11.30. “Is it too late for breakfast?” I asked.
“It’s only beginning,” answered the waiter. Everything is a joke in Dublin. That is part of its charm and part of its tragedy.
It was a beautiful morning and we strolled out in the streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. One hundred years ago, when the accursed English were there, the first town planning committee on record devised the Dublin of today with its wide streets, its gracious squares and its beautiful Georgian houses.
The streets that morning were crowded, and the shop windows full of things which we had forgotten existed. Hardly a motor car was to be seen, which made walking an even greater pleasure. We went into the quadrangle of the famous Trinity College, paradoxically a Protestant institution, and gazed at the place where so many famous scholars and wits had spent their adolescence. Nearby was a statue of Queen Victoria, gazing comfortably on the crowds in civvies, and in the centre of wide O’Connell Street was a mighty statue of Nelson. No wonder a famous foreign diplomat said: “A great people passed this way once.” England may have treated the Irish badly but they built a beautiful city in remembrance.
Desmond Fitzgerald came to see us
at noon. I had met him in London in 1921, when, as one of the hunted Sinn Fein leaders, he came to London to ask for peace terms. On that occasion he said to me: “Look on us as
dead men. If we do not come to terms with England her secret service has us now and will find us wherever we try to hide. If we do make peace, our own people will murder us.”
Almost alone he survived. Griffiths was poisoned; Michael Collins assassinated; Erskine Childers executed. Twenty-three years had passed and now Fitzgerald looked on Eire with the eyes of a man who had once dreamed and would never dream again.
A reporter from the Irish Times called me on the telephone. Would I tell him what I thought of Eire in comparison with Ulster and England? Remembering certain incidents in Canada and Washington on my transatlantic visit in 1941, I answered: “The weather in Eire is infinitely superior to the weather either in Ulster or England.” Why does one learn discretion so late?
A friendly call on John McCormack at cocktail time. The great singer has been ill with bronchitis but his nimble mind rises above the troubles of his chest. His fine-looking son, a captain in the Free State Army, was there. So was Irving Berlin, whose American Army show was at Belfast.
McCormack put on a gramophone record of himself singing Berlin’s “God Bless America.” I liked Berlin’s story of the American negro soldier in Belfast who was asked if he was a Catholic: “Ain’t it bad enough being
a nigger in Belfast without being a Catholic?”
In the evening we went to dine with Sir John and Lady Maffey at their fine house. Sir John is the British Minister to Dublin. If Aubrey Smith ever dies in Hollywood Sir John should go to take his place as the perfect “British Englishman.”
In his time he has been governor of this and that and even Permanent Head of the Colonial Office. He is a massive six-foot two figure, with a voice that would fill a barracks. For three hours we talked of the Irish problem, and because he is our Minister to Dublin we shall content ourselves with that.
Meeting With De Valera
Next morning at 11 o’clock I went to see Mr. De Valera at his headquarters in Merion Square. This is a famous square in Dublin. At the corner just opposite the Prime Minister’s headquarters is the house where Oscar Wilde lived. A little farther on is the home of the great Duke of Wellington. Just near Wilde’s house a policeman was murdered several months ago in broad daylight by members of the IRA.
Soldiers with pistols in their holsters stand guard at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s offices. Eire is the land of eternal paradox. De Valera is the most loved man in Eire’s public life and the most heavily guarded.
I had not seen him for 10 years and it was interesting to note that he had grown somewhat plumper and much less austere. He smiled easily and seemed to be under less strain. This was not an interview but a friendly talk with a visiting member of the British Parliament, but I can state that it was a remarkably frank conversation.
This much I feel at liberty to say. Shrewd politician though he undoubtedly is, De Valera still sees the Irish question in complete and even grotesque disproportion with world events. The partition of Ireland has cut so deep into his soul that I almost believe he bleeds internally.
His mind still goes back to the middle of last century, when preventable famine and emigration reduced the population of Ireland by 50%. “Even Hitler has not done that with any country in Europe,” he said. He sincerely feels that nothing but a complete break with Britain can close that chapter. Once out of the Empire, technically as well as spiritually, then as the head of an independent and reunited nation he would probably he ready to recognize that Ireland and England are hound together economically and strategically and enter into an understanding on that basis.
This is divulging no secret for his attitude is well known. He himself declares openly, and, 1 believe, sincerely that he is ready to liquidate the long feud with England on these terms. Yet this is the same man who led the Easter Rebellion against England in 1916 and who denied England the I rish ports in this war.
He would probably answer to the charge that he has imprisoned 500 members of the IRA for wanting to do now what he did in 1916. These extremists still shout as he did then: “England’s plight is Ireland’s opportunity.”
Let it be clearly understood that Eire’s neutrality, tragic and degrading as I think it is, is rigidly' observed. Because the members of the German Legation might do harm to England they are practically prisoners in their Legation or watched like hawks if they go out. In the whole of the war there has been only one act of sabotage which could be traced to the South. Frankly I would not be surprised if the staff at the German Legation are hungry. They are certainly short of funds.
Neutral -Against Hitler
Eire is neutral—against Germany. A minister in De Valera’s Government informed me that more than 200,000 Southern Irishmen are fighting in the British forces and that six of them have won the V.C. I told him that many British merchant sailors had gone to their death because we could not use Eire’s ports, and that invaluable ships had been destroyed by the weather because they had to take the Northern passage.
“There would have been civil war if we had given you the ports,” he I answered.
The Canadian High Commissioner,
I Mr. Kearney, Montreal, gave an j improvised luncheon for us at his club j and invited Mr. O’Keily, the deputy Prime Minister. Mr. MacEntee, the minister for Public Health, was there as well, and Major McColl, Toronto, Canada’s trade commissioner.
Again the conversation was frank and we urged the politicians to say what Eire had gained from her neutrality.
“Our cities were not bombed and we had no defenses,” was one of the j answers.
“London was undefended when we I entered the war,” said Sir Ernest, j After lunch another politician said to us I all in one sentence: “We have the j
i right to be neutral: we are neutral; 1 beI live in neutrality and I wish to God ( the Germans would attack us and end the damned thing.”
There, I believe, Is the hidden voice I of Eire. Neutrality in the beginning I was a white and shining robe that ¡ added lustre to the wearer. Now it is a 1 wretched shabby thing that most Irishmen would gladly throw into the nearest pond.
That, I repeat, is the hidden voice. It is not the official voice nor do I know whether it is the church view, but it is I there just the same, even if it has to >
speak in a whisper. Certainly it cannot l>e discussed in the press for the censorship in Eire is unbelievably and, in my opinion, inexcusably rigorous. Dublin is badly informed.
We had only three hours left but Major McColl put his car at our disposal and with him at the wheel we drove out to the country home of Mr. Oosgrave, whose resignation of the leadership of his Party had been announced a week before.
He was vivacious, charming, kindly, hospitable. During “the trouble” he had been on the run with a price on his head. He did not believe that the creation of a Free State in the South with a political Ulster in the North was enough for England to grant but, having been accepted, he argues that successive Irish Governments should have honored it.
At last I felt that I was getting somewhere. “Then you think that De Valera is wrong about the war?”
“Listen, me boy,” said the famous little man, “Dev and I don’t waste any time dropping calling cards on each other and I think he is wrong about a divil of a lot of things, but 1 would have done the same as him.”
I felt my head begin to spin. Logically I had lost my bearings. With one last effort I threw the old question at him. “What benefits has Eire secured from neutrality?”
He beamed. “Sure and hasn’t it proved what a wonderful thing the British Empire is if you can belong to it and still be neutral when the rest of the Empire’s at war?”
1 gave up and we shook hands. “Remember me to Lloyd George when you get back,” he said.
At the train we bought an evening newspaper. Eire’s Minister of Defense had been decorating soldiers of Eire’s Army for faithful duty as anti-aircraft gunners.
“Nothing but your courage and your strong sense of duty,” he said, “has made it possible for Eire to survive during these difficult four years. You will go into the future the guardians of Eire’s security as you have been in the past.”
We climbed into a compartment. “Don’t let’s talk for awhile,” said Sir Ernest. “I have a slight headache.”
We arrived back in blacked-out Belfast at 10 o’clock at night. At least it was only drizzling. The hotel had reserved our rooms but there was no porter so we carried our suitcases up three flights of stairs.
And now for the last few hours before taking the train to the coast and boarding the packet once more. The next morning broke fine—that is, there was no rain and one could sense the sun somewhere behind the clouds. At 10 o’clock we went to the law courts where the Lord Chief Justice, James Andrews, received us with his handsome presence and a Scottish accent as rich as Lord McGowan’s or Sir Harry Lauder’s. A fine building and wellplanned courts. You go to prison in style if you are sentenced in Belfast.
Then on to see Mr. Lowry, the Home Secretary. We had left a building which dealt with crime as a finished product. Now we were to see the man who has to deal with it in its crude state.
Men Without Mercy
Mr. Lowry showed us photographs of the arsenals which the Belfast police have captured from the IRA. Tommy guns, machine guns, revolvers, cartridges, bombs. You could almost start a moderate-sized war with such armaments. Under the guise of reputable citizens, protected by each others’ lies, with whole districts where they can hide, these desperate men watch their
chance. Many of them are the sons ¡ of men who fell in the Sinn Fein I rebellion of 1920-21. They are without ! mercy. Not long ago eight of them ' killed a policeman in cold blood. Only | one was hanged.
Funds which may have come in the past from American sympathizers and from Germany have dried up. But there have been several raids on banks to make up the loss. Ulster is at war with Germany, but it has to watch the assassin in its midst.
Next we left to attend the reopening : of Parliament. For some reason, | difficult to explain, the splendid Houses ; of Parliament were built a half hour's bus ride from the city. It. has a magnificent view and a great sweep but the debates must be slimly attended by the public.
Not on that morning, however. A band was playing in the great hall and the galleries were crowded with spectators. So we entered the chamber where the Governor arrived and read the King’s speechthe longest King’s speech I have heard. When he was finished there was a roll of drums from the distant hall and then, slowly and ¡ with dignity, we heard the first notes of 1 “God Save the King.”
There we stood: the King’s representative, the Ministers of State, the elected members and the visitors in the i Parliament of a part of Ireland that is j forever England. A stormy channel divides her from the mother country —a wider channel than that which separates England from German-occupied France—but these people are one with us.
Blame them for their obstinacy if you like, call them unaccommodating, say they are rigid, inflexible, but their ports, like their hearts, were open to us when war came. Had it not been so we might have lost the war in the Atlantic. Ulster guarded the approach to the Mersey and the Clyde, and from Ulster our flying boats sweep out to sea to bring our convoys home.
God Save the King! It was good; it was moving to hear it that morning, and there were proud tears in many eyes.
An adjournment for lunch with the Prime Minister followed and we re; newed acquaintance with many people we had met before. One of the guests was Colonel Reitz, High Commissioner for South Africa. He fought against us in the Boer War with Smuts’ Commandos. So bitterly did he hate the British then that when the war was lost he refused to live in South Africa and went abroad. In the last war he commanded a British regiment in France and now represents the Union in London.
The miracle of Empire lives on.
Euston . . . home again. Back in mistj' sprawling old London, splendidly shabby in the fifth year of war, carrying her scars like medals, neither complaining nor boasting, facing the future with the strength of her mighty past.
And the Irish question?
I came away proud of the North and sorry for the South. The spirit of the North has been strengthened by war; the spirit of the South weakened bv neutrality. When the Irish soldiers come back to Eire and are joined by the workers who have gone from the South to the factories of England and Ulster there will be economic distress and violence.
The price of neutrality is going to be a heavy one. The Island of green fields and misty hills, of haunting voices and laughter that is like ironicmusic, of wit and deviltry and charm and cynicism . . . the shadows are j
gathering over it.