Cover: That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War, from Harvard University PressCover: That Neutral Island in HARDCOVER

That Neutral Island

A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War

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Product Details


$36.00 • £28.95 • €32.50

ISBN 9780674026827

Publication Date: 09/30/2007


512 pages

6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches

32 halftones, 1 map

Belknap Press

Not for sale in UK, British Commonwealth & Europe (except Canada)

Ireland’s determined neutrality in the Second World War was such a sore point for Britain that Churchill couldn’t restrain himself—even in 1945, in the hour of triumphant victory—from lashing out at that nation for the lives it had cost. Perhaps Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera’s recent condolence visit to the German diplomatic representative in Dublin on Hitler’s death had enraged him anew. But as Wills shows in her penetrating account of why and how Ireland stayed neutral while the global conflict literally washed up on its shores, more than passionate nationalist and anti-British feelings were at work in that policy. This far-ranging book not only explores the strategic and political reasoning behind Irish neutrality, which had almost unanimous domestic support, but draws on such resident chroniclers as Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, and John Betjeman to paint a detailed picture of how life was lived on this island of light surrounded by a blacked-out world.The Atlantic

A many-layered, dissecting account not only of the reasons for Ireland’s initial decision to remain neutral, but of the evolving character of that neutrality; the use and effect of propaganda and censorship on the Irish people; the effects on the economy and political system; and the consequences of neutrality for the national self-image… The nation led, as she puts it, ‘an uneasy, suspended form of existence’ during the war. Wills examines the nature of that existence coolly from countless perspectives and in the lives and works of writers and politicians. In the end, what we have here is a three-dimensional, untendentious, often unpalatable—we are dealing with human beings, after all—view of a period that has been obscured in murk.—Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe

Clair Wills’s history of wartime Ireland brings a sane, subtle, reconciling spirit where once there was only intransigence… It’s hard to imagine a fairer-minded guide… Her book not only fills a gap…it is a model of exhaustive research and illuminating example, taking in a wide range of topics—dancing, films, smuggling, farming, informing, amateur theatre and Step Together fairs—without losing direction or focus. A particular bonus is the attention to Irish writers (Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O’Faolain, Brendan Behan and many more), whose ideas and experiences from 1939–45 make a fascinating study in themselves.—Blake Morrison, The Guardian

The sometimes tragic, often brave, confusion that was wartime Ireland is brilliantly unpacked here. This is ground that historians have covered before but none with such a remarkable array of sources—from German military plans, to contemporary poetry, to the sermons of Roman Catholic clergy. By skillful use of her materials, Wills puts together a vivid picture of a little country that tried to stay out of the war, never quite succeeded, and suffered ignominy in the process.—George Rosie, The Sunday Herald

What a pleasure to read… Simply the best ever social and cultural history of Ireland during the second world war… This is a quite outstanding book, not just for its stunningly nuanced insights into the Irish psyche in time of war, but—often alarmingly—into the Irish psyche overall.The Irish Independent

When the world descended into war in 1939 a few European countries remained neutral. Of those, none was more controversial than Ireland. In That Neutral Island Clair Wills sheds new light on what it was actually like in Ireland during that time. She examines the impact of neutrality on everyday life and how the censorship of Irish newspapers contributed to the feeling of isolation in Ireland. She also looks at Ireland’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic and whether Ireland really did completely abandon Britain during the conflict. And she unearths the motivations of the thousands who left the country to fight in the British forces, and assesses the reaction of writers like MacNeice and Beckett to Irish neutrality.The Belfast Telegraph

This is a big book: in size, in ambition and in its willingness to remain even-handed when dealing with a period that usually attracts lopsided accounts. By and large Wills lets the facts speak for themselves, covering the 150,000 who volunteered for the British armed forces but also the scavengers who stripped the corpses of drowned seamen, and the scam-mongers who then wrote to the relatives asking for money… This is an authoritative and readable account. It is also a fine introduction to the nation that emerged from this crisis into a sometimes unforgiving world.—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Daily Telegraph

Clair Wills, Professor of Irish Literature at the University of London, set herself the task of looking beyond the narrow world of politics to provide a deeper, more complex study of a nation anxiously clinging to peace in a time of global conflict. She has succeeded triumphantly in this goal. Sweeping in its scope, packed with telling details, written in an easy, fluid style, this is a highly original book about a fascinating period… The book is brilliant on capturing the strange twilight atmosphere that hung over the country, reinforced by ruthless censorship and severe economic shortages… The breadth of Professor Wills’s research is formidable, covering everything from the theatre to the mobilisation of the army, from sexual mores to the influence of fascism. The bibliography alone runs to no fewer than 33 pages. And, behind the glittering text, there hangs the fundamental paradox, of which the Irish themselves were only too conscious: that the nation’s much-vaunted neutrality, driven by separation from Britain, was wholly dependent on Britain’s ultimate victory.—Leo McKinstry, The Sunday Telegraph

There are moving stories of the gathering of bodies from the coast, of border smuggling and high anxiety over the leaking of intelligence. An accruing picture of a people and a nation marching slowly into adversity and penury emerges, the most comprehensive of its kind on the subject to date, done with a scrupulousness that make it essential reading.—Tom Adair, Scotland on Sunday

[An] intensely researched and crisply written book… That Neutral Island is a psychodrama of guilt and defiance, clarity, resentment and confusion. Instead of a bibliography it has a ‘bibliographical essay’ no less than 30 pages long, which will be mined for generations to come.—P. J. Kavanaugh, The Spectator

This is historical writing at its very best. Wills…interweaves cultural, social and political history in a beautifully written and subtly argued account of life during wartime in Ireland. There are superb analyses of the work of the major Irish writers working in both English and Irish at this time…as well as interesting analyses of less well-known writers.—Fergus Campbell, The Tablet

[A] fascinating, brilliant cultural history of Ireland during the second World War… The result is a picture of social conditions and developments in neutral Ireland more detailed and revelatory than anything we have had before… All of which makes for a very good book indeed; but what raises it to the exceptional is its complex meta-narrative, which involves the author in presenting social and cultural analysis based on research while also addressing such difficult issues as how neutrality affected Ireland at various stages of the war, how neutrality was viewed abroad—especially in the United Kingdom and in the United States—and how these often intemperate international perspectives bore on Ireland’s sense of itself. In all of this Wills manages to be judicious and insightful… Indeed I came away from this book with renewed respect for the way de Valera kept his nerve, when the fate of the country was an uncertain one and when he had great powers lined up against him.—Terence Brown, The Irish Times

That Neutral Island sums up for many Ireland’s dubious image during the war years: indulging in legalistic niceties and self-righteous pieties while ignoring the struggle elsewhere. But Wills paints a more complex picture. Neutrality was a struggle for those involved, and the policy succeeded despite deep political divisions, economic deprivation and artistic isolation.—Mick Heaney, The Sunday Times

Wills does a good job of describing Irish neutrality and its effects, and her portrait of Irish life during World War II is a full one, bolstered by apt quotes from local and visiting writers.—Martin Rubin, The Washington Times

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

Awards & Accolades

  • 2007 Michael J. Durkan Prize for Books on Language and Culture, American Conference for Irish Studies
  • 2007 Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, English PEN
  • A Times Literary Supplement Best Book of the Year
  • An Irish Times Best Book of the Year
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