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Andrew Lynch: Irish WWII heroes were demonised, now they deserve our full pardon

TOMORROW, a small group of frail and elderly Irishmen will launch a petition outside the Dail. Although they were once part of the army that saved the world from Hitler, these former soldiers are not looking for medals.

All they want is an official pardon for the way this country treated them when they returned home -- a shameful episode in Irish history that has been swept under the carpet for over 65 years.

As every Leaving Cert student knows, Ireland was officially neutral in WWII. In fact, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was so determined not to get involved that he ordered it to be called 'The Emergency' instead.


It may seem hard to believe now, but Dev's rigid sense of protocol meant he even insisted on visiting the German Embassy to express his condolences on the death of Hitler.

So if you were a member of the Irish defence forces when WWII broke out, you were faced with an important choice. You could stay at home and cut turf on the bogs, a boring life but also a pretty safe one. Or you could go AWOL and join the British army, which offered plenty of excitement but also meant there was a high chance you would die with blood in your mouth.

Almost 5,000 Irish soldiers decided to take their chances and swap an Irish uniform for a British one. Some of them did it because they needed extra money to feed their families. Others were genuinely horrified at what the Nazis were doing in Europe and knew that Hitler would treat Ireland exactly the same way if he ever got the chance.

Whatever you think of these men's decision, nobody could call them cowards. Many of them were killed in battle, spilling their guts out on the beaches of Normandy or starving to death in Japanese prison camps. Dubliner Phil Farrington helped to liberate the infamous Nazi concentration camp of Belsen, saw the mass graves of murdered Jews and realised that this truly had been a war of good versus evil.


At the end of the conflict in 1945, British and American soldiers returned home as national heroes. For the Irish, it was a very different story. In the eyes of de Valera's government, they were traitors who had deserted their posts -- and they needed to be taught a lesson.

The consequences were brutal. Every single one of the ex-army men, dead or alive, was court martialed and found guilty without even being offered a chance to defend themselves.

Their names were then placed on a blacklist, which meant they got no pension and could not apply for any State jobs for another seven years.

In 1940s Ireland, that was effectively condemning them to a life of poverty -- and since they were already traumatised by the experience of war, it was hardly surprising that some began using alcohol to numb the pain.

If the soldiers themselves were treated harshly, however, what happened to their children was even worse.

The notorious 1941 Children Act that banished so many unfortunate boys and girls to the horrors of industrial schools was used with particular vindictiveness against the families of ex-Irish army men.

As we now know, those schools were dominated by the kind of slave labour, savage beatings and sexual abuse that the Nazis would have understood all too well.

The sad story of Ireland's forgotten war veterans is told in the recently published book Spitting On A Soldier's Grave, written by British army man Robert Widders.


The public campaign to have these men pardoned is being launched tomorrow by Peter Mulvany, who previously worked to clear the names of soldiers shot as deserters in WWI.

For the small number of Irish WWII heroes who are still alive, a State pardon would be coming very late in the day -- but as our history has surely taught us by now, it's never too late to do the right thing.