Negotiating Identities in Britain During the Second World War
‘Excellent Irishmen’: Irish volunteers and identities during the Second World War
In one of the first examinations of Irish volunteer identity during the Second World War, Geoffrey Roberts argued that the estimated 70,000 men and women who left neutral Eire to join the British forces during the conflict1 represented a shared Irish-British identity, which existed in the middle ground between the two competing ideologies on the island: unionism in Northern Ireland and nationalism in Eire. Northern Ireland, still within the UK, participated in the war while Eire, under the leadership of Eamon de Valera, remained neutral. The unionist leadership in Belfast used the conflict as a demonstration of their loyalty to the Crown, while de Valera’s policy of neutrality was partially driven by his wish to demonstrate Eire’s independence from Britain. Throughout the war, the Fianna Fáil government took the opportunity to promote its own vision of Irish history and identity, one that emphasised Eire’s distinctiveness from Britain. The contrasting experiences of the war drove the two Irelands further apart and partition of the island became entrenched. However, Irish service in the British forces during the conflict generated a specific sense of Irishness, one that contradicted de Valera’s nationalist narrative of the war. By incorporating uncontroversial and easily recognisable signifiers of Irish identity, such as harps, shamrocks and wolfhounds, into Irish units, going to great lengths to accommodate the religious differences of Irish recruits and the use of Irish nicknames, the British forces created a space for Eire volunteers to express their nationalism, but also fashioned a...
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