With Joe Joyce’s wonderful Echoland the current choice for ‘One City, One Book’, there is great focus on the period of the so-called ‘Emergency’ and Dublin during World War Two.
It’s sometimes joked that the Second World War passed us by totally. The poet Louis MacNeice would remember being in Dublin on the day Hitler invaded Poland, and that in the pubs “the Dublin literati…hardly mentioned the war but debated the correct versions of Dublin street songs. Dublin was hardly worried by the war…her old preoccupations were still preoccupations.” Yet despite this seeming indifference to the outbreak of the conflict from some, the war would make itself felt here in different ways. Nazi bombs fell on the city, Nazi spies parachuted into the countryside, thousands of Irishmen joined the British armed forces and rationing and censorship became parts of life here too, though to a much lesser extent than on the neighbouring island.
There are, of course, countless fascinating individual stories around Ireland and World War Two. Some, like IRA Chief of Staff Seán Russell or Hermann Gortz (the Nazi spy who parachuted into Ireland in full Luftwaffe uniform) are relatively well-known. Then there are the tales of those who sought political asylum here, including Breton collaborators and others who managed to assimilate themselves into Irish life, in some cases avoiding prosecution for their activities during the war.
One rather strange story of Ireland and the conflict concerns John Francis O’Reilly, a figure who parachuted from a Luftwaffe plane into West Clare in 1943. He and his associate, John Kenny, have been described as “the last of the motley band of fanatics, adventurers and misfits in the pay of Nazi Germany who landed in neutral Ireland as spies.” Having escaped from captivity in Arbour Hill detention centre after being captured within hours of his arrival in Ireland, a sizeable reward was offered for information leading to the detention of O’Reilly, which his father availed of by reporting him to local Gardaí when his son had arrived back in Clare. Later, his father presented him with this reward money following the end of the war, which O’Reilly used towards the purchase of a pub and hotel on Dublin’s Parkgate Street.
From Clare to Berlin and back again:
How did a Clareman come to be parachuted into Ireland by the Luftwaffe in the first place?
David Murphy’s entry on O’Reilly for the Dictionary of Irish Biography gives good insight into a life that was somewhat nomadic before World War Two. Born in Kilrush in 1916, O’Reilly was a son of the RIC sergeant who arrested Sir Roger Casement upon his arrival at Banna Strand immediately before the Easter Rising. Murphy writes:
He worked as a clerk in the Customs and Excise Department (May 1936–September 1938) but left this job after failing an Irish exam and went to the Benedictine abbey at Buckfast, England, to become a monk. This plan was soon abandoned and he went to London and worked as a reception clerk in an hotel. He was in London when war broke out but, in May 1940, went to Jersey and was still there when the Germans occupied the Channel Islands in July 1940. Managing to ingratiate himself with the German administration, he initially worked as an interpreter and helped the German commander, Prince Von Baldeck, to recruit a party of Irish workers in exchange for papers to go to Germany. He later stated that he had hoped to go to Germany, contact the Irish legation in Berlin, and then organise his return to Ireland.