March 9, 2015

1941. Bill Downs on Irish Neutrality During World War II

The Emergency
"Homes on the North strand wrecked by German bombs in Dublin, May 30, 1941" (source)
Bill Downs wrote these letters home from the United Kingdom while working as a foreign correspondent for the United Press in London. The ellipses between paragraphs indicate omissions of mailing addresses and general well wishes.
April 23, 1941

Dear Folks,

As you can see by the postmark, I'm taking an Irish holiday and enjoying it too. Eire is more like the United States than any of the countries on this side of the Atlantic that I have visited. The town itself reminds you of KCK in the Central Avenue district where we used to live.

I'm eating like a horse—had three steaks yesterday, and getting fat too. I figure it's a good thing to eat steak while I can, because they are virtually unobtainable in London and it won't be long before there will be a shortage of them here. It really was a thrill to see streetlights again, although I was a little disappointed because after not having seen lighted streets for so long I had conjured up visions of day-like thoroughfares and had forgotten that a streetlamp lights up only some fifty feet radius.

The Irish are about the hardest drinking, hardest praying, hardest marrying, and hardest dying people I ever saw. Their whiskey is very like our rye, except it has a kick that sort of hits you behind the ear before you know what's happening. And the colleens are all the songs say they are—that is the beautiful ones. However, there is more than enough poverty over here even though people do seem to be well fed. The best evidence is the number of people who have failed to grow above five and a half feet tall. Like some parts of England, and in Portugal as well and other parts of the islands, this is the best evidence of hard times and malnutrition which the poor people have suffered.

I have been playing some golf and am as stiff as a board. They have very nice courses over here and generally play much better than I do, but it is good to get some exercise. I've been getting to bed early and am catching up on my novel reading as well as my theater. There are a half dozen legitimate theaters all running—some playing Shakespeare and others playing stuff as old as "The Admirable Crichton," which they put on at Wyandotte when I was in school. They are also having a week of opera, and I went the other night. It wasn't too bad, although the Irish tenor is hardly a strong enough voice to shake rafters.

. . .

I hope that America realizes after the British reverses in the Balkans just how serious the situation is and stops arguing about whether it would be playing ball to convoy ships. The chips are down now and it's no longer a table stakes game. Now it is either win or lose, and god knows that we can't possible lose.

However, Eire is having trouble preserving her neutrality. The Irish hate the English with a vehemence bred over 700 years. You'll have to read your Irish history to get an idea of how complicated Anglo-Irish relations are. Coupled with the fact that Irish defenses and the equipment and strength of its army and navy just don't compare with the modern blitzkrieg army, there is an argument for them when they say that for Eire to enter the war on the side of Britain would be committing suicide. Right now there is just no defense against bombers, and damn inadequate ones against any invading army.

The bombing of Belfast last week brought home, however, just what this war means. And I think the people are coming to realize more and more that this nation probably will have to come into it sooner or later. Their great fear is that the United States will come and will demand naval bases for operations against the Germans, which the Irish absolutely refuse to give the British.

I suppose you have read this discussion in the newspapers—the English papers have discussed the problem time and again with an Irish envoy in Washington trying to get arms, ships, and supplies from the United States. The American press must be doing the same thing.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how it all comes out. I would hate to think of Dublin taking a bombing because the town is so old, and the buildings so unstable when you think of the force of a big bomb, that I'm afraid it wouldn't stand much. But experience has proved that, when Hitler thinks it is time to pull off his invasion and wants bases in Ireland, he's not going to wait for the Irish to make up their minds—he's just going to take what he wants. So it looks like the war situation has this nation in the middle. That's why the town is so gay. I think that subconsciously the people realize this and they're more or less living on borrowed time.

I have a luncheon engagement now and have to go. I'll write you again when I leave here. Meantime will expect to have a stack of letters waiting for me in London.



P.S. Incidentally, I met John McCormack the other day. His son was married and held his wedding reception in the Hibernian Hotel where I am staying. John, I'm afraid, is getting a little old and a little fat. However, he still sings fairly well, although between age, whiskey, and an attack of adenoids, he doesn't sound like he used to.
May 7, 1941

Dear Bonnie Lee,

I've pinned a souvenir of Ireland on this note which I thought you might like to have. It's handmade by some Irish artisan and is made of Connemara marble. You'll have to look up Connemara in your encyclopedia, because the name means little to me, although I'm sure it has some historical or legendary implications in this land of banshees and fairies and arguments.

Speaking of arguments, the Irish have been fighting either among themselves or with the British for the past 700 years, and I don't believe they are going to let a little thing like a world war interfere with their private fight. If you're interested, there have been plenty of books written on the Irish question, and it takes at least three volumes to tell the...

(portion of page missing)

...Americans, however, would be the best bet because of the close feeling between the two nations, and I wouldn't be surprised if the US Navy wasn't operating off the south of Eire before this war is over. I believe they were stationed in that area during the last war.

Eire has about three industries—1) marriage 2) maternity 3) whiskey and beer. I have never seen so many marriages in my life, and you can't walk down the street without stumbling over all manner of kids. The heaviest traffic on the streets is prams. And you must remember that the Catholic Church is probably the strongest single organization in the country. Margaret Sanger would go crazy in this country.

I took a quick trip up to Belfast the other day—that's the capital of Northern Ireland—and had a look at their bombings. Compared to London, Belfast hasn't had much, but they people there are very jittery. It is, however, a normal reaction because they are now undergoing their first series of attacks, the same sort of thing that England has become inured to.

(remainder of letter missing)