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That Neutral Island

That Neutral Island

A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War

Clair Wills

ISBN 9780674026827

Publication date: 09/30/2007

When the world descended into war in 1939, few European countries remained neutral; but of those that did, none provoked more controversy than Ireland.

Despite Winston Churchill's best efforts to the contrary, the Irish premier Eamon de Valera stuck determinedly to Ireland's right to remain outside a conflict in which it had no enemies. Accusations of betrayal and hypocrisy poisoned the media; legends of Nazi spies roaming the country depicted Ireland as a haven for Hitler's friends. Where previous histories of Ireland in the war years have focused on high politics, That Neutral Island mines deeper layers of experience. Sean O'Faolain, Kate O'Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O'Brien and Louis MacNeice are a handful of writers whose stories, letters, and diaries illuminate this small country as it suffered rationing, censorship, the threat of invasion, and a strange detachment from the war.

Clair Wills brings to life the atmosphere of a country forced largely to do without modern technology. She describes the work of those who recovered the bodies of British sailors and airmen from the sea. She unearths the motivations of thousands who left to join the British forces. And she shows how ordinary people struggled to make sense of the Nazi threat through the lens of antagonism to Britain, the former colonial power. She acutely targets the sleight-of-hand that hovers around the Irish definition of "neutrality."


  • The book's emphasis on the quotidian is introduced with a nicely-judged autobiographical portrait of Wills's own family, which describes the rather different experiences of her Irish mother and English father through the 1940s (they married near the end of the decade.) Irish neutrality was a radioactive topic in the Churchill-de Valera years and is still hotly debated now. This account seems to me the most open- yet clear-minded yet available—it shows just how fluctuating were the responses of many people, whether they supported the Allies, the Axis, or neutrality. Frank Aiken's declared fear that if Ireland were to take sides, there would first have to be fought another civil war deciding which side to support rings true, given that for every person who was likely to support the British, there would be another thinking that 'England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity.'

    —Declan Kiberd, author of Inventing Ireland


  • Clair Wills is Leonard L. Milberg Professor of Irish Letters in the Department of English, Princeton University.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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