The Irish Deserters

Almost 5,000 Irish soldiers fought for the British Army during the Second World War and helped defeat Hitler in Europe and the Japanese in the Far East. But they returned to Ireland with their British medals to be court martialled, persecuted and shamed. For no matter what their brave deeds and honourable motives, these men were deemed to have deserted the Irish Army and as deserters they were treated.

Take, for example, Private Joseph Mullally, a 28-year-old Irishman from the town of Moate, County Westmeath in central Ireland, who fought for the Green Howards, a Yorkshire regiment of the British Army. He was killed in action on D-Day, the 6 June 1944, the day that Allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches of northern France and began the slow and deadly mission to push the German army right back to Berlin. The bravery of those men can never be overestimated. Many fell on that first day and Mullally was one of them. But incredibly, a year later, in August 1945, Mullally was posthumously court-martialled

The Campaign for Pardon

A campaign, launched to clear the names of these men, looks close to achieving its objective. Today, 7 May 2013, Irish Defence Minister Alan Shatter is, according to BBC News, ‘due to announce details of a pardon during a debate in Ireland’s parliament, the Dail. The legislation is expected to be passed and signed into law by the Irish president within days. The bill also grants an amnesty and immunity from prosecution to the almost 5,000 Irish soldiers who fought alongside the allies.’

On 4 January 2012, BBC Radio 4’s investigative programme, Face the Facts, reported on the campaign. John Waite, the documentary’s reporter, interviewed a few of the last remaining survivors and children of the ‘deserters’. One survivor being 92-year-old Phil Farrington. Like Mullally, Farrington fought with the British at Normandy, and was also part of the force of men who, in April 1945, liberated the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Farrington survived and was awarded his medals. But once back home in Ireland he was never able to wear them in public, tarnished with the deserter label and fearful of ending up in prison. Even now, 65 years later, the fear still remains: ‘They (the Irish authorities) would come and get me, yes they would,’ he tells Waite.

We hear of others who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge or had been captured by the Japanese and held in the most intolerable conditions for over three years.

The plight of these men, hidden for so many years, was initially unearthed by ex-soldier turned author, Robert Widders, who’s book, Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, was published in 2011.

Ireland and World War Two

Ireland remained neutral for the duration of the Second World War and pursued a policy of strict non-alignment, not wanting to be seen to favour either the Allies or the Axis. Initially, the Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) were concerned about the possibility of invasion – British or German. Once the threat of invasion had all but disappeared, 4,983 soldiers of the Irish Army left, or deserted, and headed north to Belfast where they were able to enlist in the British Army. There could have been little or no financial gain to be made – their motives were purely ideologically – to fight the tide of fascism crashing its way through Europe. They were not alone – 70,000 Irish civilians also volunteered their services to the British, be it in the armed services, merchant navy or industry.

When, at war’s end, the Irish soldiers returned to Ireland, they found themselves labelled as ‘pariah dogs, as outcasts [and] untouchables,’ to use the words of Dr Thomas O’Higgins, the post-war leader of the Irish opposition party, the Fine Gael.

Starvation Orders

Commissioned by the Irish government, the names of the deserters were alphabetically listed in a confidential 1945 report entitled, ‘List of personnel of the Defence Forces dismissed for desertion in time of National Emergency’, along with their date of birth and last known address. These men, whether dead or alive, were formally discharged from the Irish Army and stripped of all pay and pension rights.

This 130-page document was circulated to all government departments and sources of employment, be it transport services, civil service, local government, etc. The instruction from on high was that these men were to be barred from employment and government assistance for seven years. (The book, recently republished by the Naval and Military Press, is readily available at £8.50 or $17.00). The instruction was callously nicknamed the ‘Starvation Orders’, because the authorities knew full well that without work or benefits, these men and their families would be forced to live in dire poverty and on the brink of starvation.

Most cruelly, many of the men were considered to have abandoned their offspring, thus their children were sent to orphanages (decorously called industrial schools) where they were targets for physical and often sexual abuse.

As Widders points out in his book, these men, court martialled and discriminated against, had no right of appeal and no course to reply. Unable to sustain themselves, or their families, many migrated to Britain, effectively exiled from their own country.

One Irish ex-civil servant remembers the starvation book still being in circulation and in use up to 1990. Then, finally, it fell into disuse but only because all the men listed, if still alive, had reached the age of retirement.

The honour of Ireland

A deserter, it could be argued, is a deserter; the Irish government was, in anything, extremely lenient with these men. Many other a nation would have had them shot for desertion. The British shot 306 during the First World War, mostly for desertion or cowardice.

But Dr O’Higgins, describing the Starvation Order as ‘most brutal, unchristian and inhuman’, moved a motion to have it annulled. Ordinary deserters, he pointed out, were ‘kept for only a few days in the guard-room and then discharged from the Army’. The motion failed.

There were other army deserters too – men who took to a life of crime and some that even fought on the side of the Germans. None of them were treated so harshly.

Gerald Nash, a current Member of the Irish Parliament, concedes ‘What happened to them (the Irish deserters) was vindictive and not only a stain on their honour but on the honour of Ireland’.

Rupert Colley
Read about the war in World War Two: History In An Hour

Rupert Colley’s second novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during the First World War, is now available.

3 thoughts on “The Irish Deserters

  1. As the grandson of one of the deserters, I take great exception to the idea that Ireland was lenient. This was known as the starvation act – it condemned the working class in an already poor country yet funnily enough didn’t condemn the officer class. The UK forgave and forgot within a couple of years whilst Ireland still, as far as official records go, does not.

    I’d like to think that many of those on the deserters list went through a desire to fight fascism. I suspect it was more to do with a desire to feed their families. And what about the women left behind in Ireland who had to deal with the stigma and uncertainty and threat of even worse poverty?

    It’s time to forgive those men. It’s time to recognise the effort the women of Ireland put into the war effort. Neutral or not, it took a terrible toll.

    • I agree totally. That one paragraph was my attempt at playing ‘Devil’s Advocate’, hence the use of the phrase ‘it could be argued…’ It is indeed time, high time, to forgive these men.

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