Over several weeks during January and February of this year a spirited correspondence took place in the Irish Times concerning the Minister for Justice’s proposed pardon for soldiers who deserted from Oglaigh na hEireann during the emergency period 1939 to 1945. My interest in the subject arose several years ago when I purchased at a book auction a bound volume stamped ‘Confidential’ and bearing the title ‘List of Personnel of the Defence Forces dismissed for desertion in time of National Emergency pursuant to the terms of the Emergency Powers (No. 362) Order 1945.’
The 133 page book listed the Army no., name, last recorded address, date of birth, declared occupation prior to enlistment in the Defence Forces and the date of dismissal from Defence Forces of every one of the 4,983 men who were absent without leave from the Defence Forces for more than 180 days.
I went through the book at that time and extracted the names of 19 men from Athy and the surrounding countryside who were included in what has sometimes been referred to as ‘Irish List of Shame’. For my part I never regarded the book in that light and especially so after I had the privilege of interviewing one of the men who was so listed. His story was a simple one. Without work and with no prospect of getting work he enlisted in the Irish Army only to find conditions and food so bad as to be intolerable. He, in company with so many of his army colleagues travelled by train to Belfast to enlist in the British armed forces. His was not an ordinary act of desertion, rather a simple man’s response to what he felt was an uncaring Irish Army regime which treated its recruits with callous disregard for their well being. He fought alongside Irish men, English men, Scotsmen and Welshmen throughout the Second World War and never once did anyone question his right to do so.
Irish men who enlisted in the British Army during the Second World War did so despite their country’s neutral stand which Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice, has recently described as ‘a principle of moral bankruptcy’. There are a few things I see eye to eye with Mr. Shatter, but his view on Irish neutrality is one I share.
Interestingly the Sinn Fein party supports the call for a pardon for the World War II deserters who enlisted to fight Hitler and fascism. Historically that party would have had little sympathy for those men during the war years as the Sinn Fein publication ‘An Poblacht’ reported in 1940 that ‘if German forces land in Ireland they will land ..... as friends and liberators of the Irish people.’ No doubt the very few men still alive who might benefit from a pardon will welcome the Sinn Fein support for the campaign which was started by the ‘Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign Committee’.
The possibility of a pardon was referred to the Attorney General last Christmas and her opinion as to the legality of extending a pardon to the men involved is expected later in the year. If the decision of the Government is to reject the De Valera government stand on the issue it will come sadly far too late for many of the men affected by the penalties imposed in the post war period. Apart from losing whatever pension entitlements they might have earned during their Army service, the men who deserted were barred by De Valera’s government from State jobs for 7 years. For many men so affected the emigrant boat was the only alternative.
Peter Mulvany, Co-ordinator of the Irish Soldiers Pardon Campaign in a letter to the Irish Times wrote of ‘the traumatic experience of these Defence forces personnel and their families post war’. My interviewee of some years ago has now passed away but I can still recall with chilling clarity his bitter disappointment at the way he and his colleagues were treated following their return to Ireland. He felt the stigma of dishonour at a time when his record of participation in the war against fascism deserved to be respected. History tells us that deserters leave the field of battle not embrace it as did the 4,983 men who left the relative safety of neutral Ireland to take to foreign battlefields.
As I look at the 19 Athy names I compiled I recognise familiar family names and realise that my generation and those that followed are indebted to these men and to their colleagues. They deserve to have removed from them the dishonour which attaches to desertion. I hope that a pardon granted even on compassionate grounds can be offered. They deserve no less.