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That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War
Belknap Press, 2007
512 pp., $35.00
Ronald A. Wells
World War II was the last "good" war, or so many people believe. Looking back now, through the lenses of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, that war was the last time "the free world" could go forward unambiguously to confront an evil foe. Can there really be a doubt that a German-led Axis victory would have been a severe, if not fatal, blow to liberal democracy? While the Anglo-American-led Allies were not perfect democrats (ask Mr. Gandhi about that), their effort to stop international fascism was the right thing to do.
How could a Western European nation remain "neutral" when so much was at stake? One can accept little Belgium opting out, in view of geography and of its terrible experience in World War I. But Ireland? How could Ireland stand by, not taking sides, saying this wasn't its fight, when so much was on the line? For people in Britain and America, whose histories are intertwined with Ireland, these are a confounding set of questions. Clair Wills intends to probe these questions and analyze North Atlantic society while focusing this outstanding book on Ireland.
Wills is a professor of literature at one of the colleges of the University of London. Her previous work on literary theory and on the social meaning of Northern Irish poetry suggests the range and depth of her scholarship, and her preparation for this book. She also has a personal stake in this exploration: her mother grew up during the war on a farm in rural Ireland; her father grew up at the same time in the London area. That sensibility serves the author well. At several critical moments in the story, the reader benefits from Wills' intuitive grasp of thought and feeling on both sides of the Irish Sea.
A note on method is necessary. We need to ask how it is that a literary scholar writes a history of Ireland's neutrality in wartime. Wills' scholarship ranges broadly, from Irish and British parliamentary debates to dispatches from diplomats to reports from intelligence services. But her main sources for ...