Emergency Writing: Irish Literature, Neutrality, and the Second World War

Emergency Writing: Irish Literature, Neutrality, and the Second World War

by Anna Teekell


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Taking seriously Ireland’s euphemism for World War II, “the Emergency,” Anna Teekell’s Emergency Writing asks both what happens to literature written during a state of emergency and what it means for writing to be a response to an emergency.
Anchored in close textual analysis of works by Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O’Brien, Louis MacNeice, Denis Devlin, and Patrick Kavanagh, and supported by archival material and historical research, Emergency Writing shows how Irish late modernism was a response to the sociopolitical conditions of a newly independent Irish Free State and to a fully emerged modernism in literature and art. What emerges in Irish writing in the wake of Independence, of the Gaelic Revival, of Yeats and of Joyce, is a body of work that invokes modernism as a set of discursive practices with which to counter the Free State’s political pieties.
Emergency Writing provides a new approach to literary modernism and to the literature of conflict, considering the ethical dilemma of performing neutrality—emotionally, politically, and rhetorically—in a world at war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810137257
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/15/2018
Series: Cultural Expressions Series
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

ANNA TEEKELL is an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

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The Rhetoric of Irish Neutrality

Eamon de Valera began setting up the basis of Irish military neutrality in 1936 as a campaign of conspicuous nonalignment in the Spanish Civil War. In a speech to the League of Nations on July 2, 1936, de Valera exhorted small nations "to determine that they will not become the tools of any great power and that they will resist with whatever strength they may possess every attempt to force them into a war against their will." Over time, this argument, based on the embattled sovereignty of small nations, would become the moral doctrine on which Irish neutrality is seen to rest. Neutrality, de Valera encouraged his countrymen to believe, was an ethical stance against the making of war, particularly war with imperial ambitions. In a 1937 article in Ireland Today, Michael Tierney summarized what would become the prominent rationale for the policy: "We must be implicated, as far as in us lies, in no more wars to end wars or wars for democracy or for any of the other high-sounding ideals in which war-propaganda is so fruitful. Our course, above all in war-time, must be one of 'sacred egoism.'" The phrase "sacred egoism" had, since 1918, been associated with the republican concept of sinn féin, or "ourselves alone." Written pseudonymously by Ernest Boyd, a pioneering critic of the Irish literary renaissance, the 1918 pamphlet The Sacred Egoism of Sinn Féin shows the concept of "sacred egoism" to be rooted in the Great War's Irish anticonscription movement. Boyd argues that if the war was an "Allied crusade for the liberation of small nationalities ... one had been forgotten," and that by asserting their unwillingness to participate for Britain in this gallant act of hypocrisy, Irishmen could assert their independent nationality. Sacred egoism and sinn féin come to define, for Boyd, the "tenacious selfishness, without which [small nationalities] must abandon the struggle for life." The echoes of the doctrine of sacred egoism in de Valera's approach to the Second World War are clear: Ireland's unwillingness to participate should be read not as a sign of isolationism but as self-assertion on an international scale. For de Valera's Fianna Fáil government, sinn féin made an organic transition from republican motto to rallying cry for self-sufficient neutrality.

After V-E Day, de Valera felt justified enough to defy Churchill's claim that Britain "stood alone" against tyranny, in a radio address that proclaimed Ireland as "a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression ... a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul." The sacred egoism of neutrality, then, also implied sustained purity of soul — or at least of de Valera's fondly imagined Irish, Catholic soul. Not everyone was swayed by the taoiseach's argument. In 1943, Sean O'Faolain noted in The Bell that the meaning of sinn féin seemed to have undergone a different sort of change: "Self-reliance has taken on the astonishing implication of estrangement from the world." The morality of Ireland's sacred egoism was compromised by the uniquely ethical grounds in which the Allied fight against fascism was couched. Like O'Faolain, many Irish writers and intellectuals worried that the lofty self-sufficiency of neutrality might not be enough to insulate the country from an indictment of moral negligence.

Behind his rhetoric of idealism, de Valera had shrewdly realistic reasons for charting a course of neutrality. For economic and defense purposes, and for the purpose of galvanizing a young country only just healing from the civil war of 1922–23, neutrality was the most practicable option. But its great success as a policy, its continued valuation as a marker of Irish difference, and de Valera's reputation as a statesman rest on the way in which Irish neutrality was couched as a moral choice. Throughout the Emergency, de Valera's public pronouncements relied on diction of morality and justice and a rhetoric that couched neutrality only in positive terms. That Irish neutrality is still generally perceived as an ethical obligation rather than a self-serving policy attests to the power of de Valera's rhetoric. Neutrality was enforced by a deliberate manipulation of language and guarded by a state censorship that shielded the government from any scrutiny that might have revealed just how unneutrally it behaved.

As Ireland's vulnerability in the war decreased, Emergency censorship increased. In a sense, there was less to be frightened of, but more to cover up. De Valera's government was anything but neutral when it came to promoting its image of what Ireland ought to be, and censorship became a primary weapon in making the "morality" of neutrality an essential part of a conservative, Catholic, and insular Ireland. De Valera's famous 1943 "dream" of an Ireland of "happy maidens" and "athletic youths," of "frugal comforts" in "cozy homesteads," "serene" wisdom and "right living" owes something of its imagery to popular interpretations of Gaelic revival ideology. If the literature of the revival aimed to disrupt the aesthetic autonomy of the tired, English, Arnoldian notion of the Celt, de Valera's camp revivalism created a similarly autonomous vision of a conservative Gaeilgeoir's Catholic Ireland. Much of the literature of the Emergency is a response to the government's attempt to legislate aesthetic autonomy, as well as an acknowledgment that if modernist forms are no longer capable of making things new, they are still capable of disrupting dominant cultural narratives.

This chapter examines the political rhetoric of Ireland's wartime neutrality in order to reveal the ways in which Irish late modernism emerged to disrupt it. First, I explore the manipulation of legal language that allowed the Irish government to create a state of emergency in Ireland that it could propagandize as both nationally empowering and morally upright. Next, I show how de Valera's conservative government adapted — or one might say perverted — the nationalism of the Gaelic revival into a rhetoric that could conflate sovereignty with sanctity, and then used the political power of wartime censorship to censor materials for the public's moral "safety" as well as the safety of the body politic in wartime. But as the Fianna Fáil government misread and ossified the revival, Irish late modernists returned in spirit to the revival's disruptive aesthetics while simultaneously eschewing them as the bourgeois clothing of official republicanism. In the final section of the chapter, I read material and manifestos from two dissident periodicals, the Irish Times and The Bell, in order to show how print culture responded to the cultural, financial, and even verbal constrictions of Emergency censorship to create a late modern stylistics of disruption. While the realism of Sean O'Faolain and Patrick Kavanagh may seem, at first, a far cry from the verbal play of Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett, this chapter introduces the conditions that governed what these second-generation modernists have in common: an intention to disrupt the status quo and break through to what is really an adaptation of the high modernist notion of the Real. I add to Mark Quigley's analysis of late modernism in Ireland as a rejection of "the mimetic impulses driving both official nationalism's Revivalist inheritance and a disillusioned postcolonial naturalism that would seek to repudiate it" by pinpointing the Emergency as the period when Irish writers' search for new forms became a genuine aesthetic crisis.

"She Has Invested Her Self-Respect in It": The Rhetoric of Neutrality

Ian Wood articulates what is now the mainstream view of de Valera's diplomatic policy when he suggests that Ireland's position on World War II was "a stance of non-belligerency rather than one of neutrality" because of Ireland's "friendly neutrality" toward the Allies. The Irish government and its intelligence agency, G2, secretly aided the Allies throughout the war, communicating intelligence on German spies, reporting Irish weather forecasts to Britain, "overlooking" the seven-mile "Donegal Corridor" through which Allied seaplanes reached Lough Erne, and repatriating downed Allied soldiers through Northern Ireland while detaining Axis personnel whose planes or ships went down in Irish territory. The extent of this collaboration was not known, however, outside official corridors, and in fact Ireland was broadly lambasted in the British press for being disloyal, fascistic, and ignoble. This characterization suited both governments, since it was cheaper for the United Kingdom to maintain relations with a neutral Ireland than it would have been to protect a largely defenseless ally. The narrow Irish Sea was a far friendlier border than the North Atlantic. But many Irish citizens bristled as the British press accused them of egotism and even fratricide; the majority saw their neutrality in a vastly different light. As an Anglo-Irishwoman working in London, Elizabeth Bowen recognized her value as a cultural go-between and volunteered as an intelligence reporter to the British Ministry of Information, in exchange for the right to travel freely between her homes in London and County Cork. In her November 1940 report to the Dominions Office, Bowen wrote, "It may be felt in England that Éire is making a fetish of her neutrality. But this assertion of her neutrality is Éire's first free self-assertion: As such alone it would mean a great deal to her. Éire (and I think rightly) sees her neutrality as positive, not merely negative. She has invested her self-respect in it. It is typical of her intense and narrow view of herself that she cannot see that her attitude must appear to England an affair of blindness, egotism, escapism or sheer funk ... I could wish that the English kept history in mind more, that the Irish kept it in mind less." Bowen's characterization of neutrality as Ireland's "first free self-assertion" is accurate; only seventeen years in existence, Ireland used neutrality to make its mark as an independent country. Asserting Ireland's difference from Britain by remaining neutral in the war was the fulfillment of de Valera's rallying cry for small states in the League of Nations. By declaring neutrality, Ireland joined other small, independent European nations, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, and Switzerland, as an equal in diplomatic policy. That the policy was so overwhelmingly approved of by the Irish populace indicated the success of what Bowen called its "positive" characterization. As Clair Wills writes, it was only the history of Ireland's long connection with Britain (including the Northern Irish border) — and its economic dependence on its larger neighbor — "which made its neutrality conspicuous" (47).

The return of the Treaty Ports at Cobh, Berehaven, and Lough Swilly from British to Irish control in 1938 cemented Ireland's physical sovereignty over its twenty-six counties and made martial neutrality a legitimate possibility. It was also the cause of tremendous tension between Ireland and Britain when, at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, Churchill considered taking the Treaty Ports by military force; this included a variety of offers to de Valera that would end partition in exchange for the use of the ports. In May 1941, Louis MacNeice found himself acting as another Anglo-Irish gobetween, asking the readership of Common Sense to

remember that the feeling in Éire is now predominantly pro-British (though still opposed to participation in the War), that the pro-German minority is extremely small and de Valera's position is agonisingly difficult. Those who propose the application of a strong hand to Éire are forgetting their history, but the other kind of extremist can be equally silly; an example is a recent little book ... called Churchill Can Unite Ireland, [the thesis of which is:] end Partition in Ireland by a fiat and the whole country will automatically throw all its energies into the crusade against Hitler. Whereas what would really happen would be civil war.

Perhaps the real payoff of neutrality was that it united the pro- and antitreaty factions of the Irish population. Though banned by the Irish government since 1936, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still an active force creating unrest. The IRA declared war on Britain in January 1939, implementing a deadly sabotage campaign against England in 1939–40 and courting Nazi support throughout World War II. Neutrality was de Valera's surest way to prevent strong pro- and anti-British sympathies from igniting a second civil war, but to enforce it the government resorted to interning IRA members without trial for the Emergency's duration. Neutrality did not mean impartiality or peace; this was a neutrality maintained by force.

If the partition of Ireland and Northern Ireland incited the danger of paramilitarism that threatened neutrality, it was also a major justification for neutrality as a moral stance. In his 1941 Saint Patrick's Day radio broadcast to the (still neutral) United States, de Valera confidently reported, "A small country like ours that had for centuries resisted imperial absorption, and that still wished to preserve its separate national identity, was bound to choose the course of neutrality in this war. No other course could secure the necessary unity of purpose and effort amongst its people, and at a time like this we heed the warning that the house divided against itself shall not stand. The continued existence of partition ... added in our case a further decisive reason" (454). Partition was, unquestionably, a primary factor in de Valera's moral justification for neutrality. The implication was that if Britain expected Ireland to fight a war for democracy while Britain still occupied Northern Ireland, this was a case of imperial hypocrisy. To fight against Britain would be to fight against Northern Ireland and therefore Ireland's own people, and to fight with Britain was to fight for the imperial occupier. J. J. Lee points out, however, that while partition "was a prime Irish justification, if not reason, for neutrality," it was also "a prerequisite for successful neutrality," because the availability of Northern Irish ports and airstrips for Allied use was the primary thing that prevented a British reoccupation of the Treaty Ports. Without partition, much of the moral superiority of neutrality would have fallen flat, yet partition was the very thing that enabled de Valera to maintain the policy's practicability.

In order to practice neutrality, de Valera's government consistently rallied Irish citizens to self-defense. On April 13, 1941, in a speech commemorating the Easter Rising, de Valera issued a typical rallying cry for neutrality: "Today, in a warring world, the freedom of nations is everywhere in peril. I have many times warned you of the dangers which threaten us here although we wish well to all peoples and have no desire to quarrel with any ... Still, every day whilst this war continues our dangers will increase. Even to maintain our neutrality will mean for us much hardship and privation. Should we be called upon to defend it, it will mean suffering and death for many ... If we have to take up arms, we shall know that we are fighting for all that is dear to us, and we shall know that our cause is just" (457). This speech illustrates the difficulty de Valera faced in concocting proneutrality propaganda, which seems almost a contradiction in terms. Ireland's citizens had to face the dangers of invasion and the privations of rationing without the certainties of war or of a common enemy to rally against. De Valera's speeches emphasized the values of danger and suffering, resolution and justice, without a concrete object against which to pitch them. All this was encapsulated in the quip that dominated Irish conversations about the policy: "But who are we neutral against?" In popular memory, the answer might be Britain, in that de Valera's notion of the "just cause" was essentially inextricable from the entrenched rhetoric of Irish nationalism. Practically, Ireland was neutral against Germany, being, as Lee claims of all successful neutrals, "neutral for the power that potentially threatened them most" (244). Rhetorically, in spite of his debts to the language of the independence movement, de Valera emphasized his terms of "suffering and privation" to suggest that Ireland was neutral against everyone (even, perhaps, itself). One of the taoiseach's favored talking points was his dream of a completely self-sufficient Ireland. From 1939 to 1945, he was able to taste that dream — though plenty of people felt it was less a dream than a nightmare.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Rhetoric of Irish Neutrality 19

Chapter 2 Pilgrimage as Poetic Form: Kavanagh and Devlin at Lough Derg 53

Chapter 3 The Enemy Within: Louis MacNeice's War Poetry 89

Chapter 4 Careful Talk: Elizabeth Bowen and Language at War 127

Chapter 5 Unreadable Books, Unspeakable Worlds: Beckett and O'Brien in Purgatory 159

Epilogue The Emergency's Improbable Frequency 205

Notes 219

Index 253

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