Christmas 1941 was a time of anxiety for many Irish people. World War II was in its height and Adolf Hitler’s armies were sweeping across Europe. While Ireland remained neutral, there were many Irishmen caught up in the conflict. There were fears that Ireland might be forced into the war by the seizure of the Irish Ports.
These fears were answered on Christmas night by the then Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera. People throughout Ireland gathered around the ‘wireless’ in their homes or in neighbour’s homes to hear what the Taoiseach had to say. The broadcast that night was made to the United States. It was also an appeal for arms and supplies, should the need arise. ‘The Galway Observer’ published the broadcast a few days later.
It went:“Should any attempt be made to put such a suggestion into execution, we shall defend ourselves to the utmost of our power. I know that this year when there is so much suffering in so many nations the usual Christmas greetings sound out of place. Nevertheless, I wish you all the happiness that is possible. We, who are here close to the battle zone, surrounded by it I might say, have daily evidence of its grim realities. The presence amongst us of thousands of women and children from the bombed areas in Britain is itself a grim reminder of what is being endured.
We feel it to be almost selfish to indulge any feelings of happiness, but it is impossible not to feel a sense of deep gratitude to God that this terrible conflict has so far not directly involved us. Indirectly, of course, we, like other nations, feel the effects of the war, and, being nearer to it than most, feel them most severely, but at the same time know more intimately what we have been spared.
“A picture of us has been given you by certain publicists. It is suggested that we in Ireland are living our normal peace-time lives, going about unconcernedly just as if there were no war. That is a false picture.
Many Irishmen and women reside in Britain, and the deaths there of relatives have brought grief to many an Irish home. Many sailors have lost their lives. We have sustained many material losses. A large percentage of our shipping tonnage has been sunk. Shortage of raw materials for our industries has increased unemployment and deprived many Irish workers of their livelihood. The constant threat to our territory implied in the war situation has necessitated an unprecedented increase in the cost of our defences. The cost has already been increased fourfold. In the first year of the war, the cost was double what it was in peacetime; in the second year that double cost has been doubled again.
That means of course greatly increased taxation and a consequent reduction in the standard of living. The calling to the colours of many thousands of young men has caused a considerable disruption of our ordinary life. Christmas night, for example, usually brings the traditional reunion of Irish families. To-night many a seat at the table and the hearthside is empty. The young men in the army are away from home, on guard at their defence posts throughout the country. What this calling up of our young manhood has meant to our economic life will be better appreciated by you if you remember that one hundred thousand men with us in Ireland is relatively equivalent to four million with you in the United States.
“We realise, of course, that the combined hardships which the war has brought to us are small compared with those of the peoples actually in the war, but what I have said will show how untrue is the suggestion that we are unconcerned and unaffected by the conflict. Moreover, as the war goes on, its consequences to us will become more and more serious. I know it will be hard for you to realise that there is at this moment probably no country in Europe so effectively blockaded as we are.
If this has not been more directly felt by our people up to now, it is because in anticipation of the present situation we accumulated considerable stocks of the raw materials and the foodstuffs, which we must necessarily import. But these are now being steadily exhausted. It is true that the economic policy of producing ourselves more and more of the things we need has left us far better prepared than in 1914. Of sugar, for example, we made none.
Today, from the sixty thousand acres of beet grown by our farmers our four sugar factories manufacture all we require. At the beginning of the last war, our wheat fields supplied us with only a couple of weeks’ bread. Now, over three hundred thousand acres of wheat go far towards insuring us half of a year’s supply. But there is the other half that must be imported, and for three million people this requires considerable shipping space.
As the blockade tightens, we may be compelled to forego maize imports altogether, and reserve any available shipping space for wheat, lest before the next harvest comes in we be compelled to resort to the rationing of bread. Cessation of maize imports is a serious matter for our farmers, but it is only one of the hardships with which we are now faced. Lack of shipping“The increasing scarcity of neutral ships available for charter makes us feel particularly our own lack of shipping.
Before the war, as you know, the greater part of our external trade consisted in supplying the people of Britain with agricultural produce, and receiving through Britain in return the commodities we required from outside. This trade was, of course, in the things desired by both peoples and of mutual advantage, but it was in certain respects much more advantageous to Britain than to us. It was, for example, carried for the most part in British ships giving the ship owners considerable profits in peace, and in war providing a reserve of shipping space with the British could use for themselves and deny to us if they chose, leaving us in a dependent position.
The overshadowing anxiety at the moment is, however, the day-to-day expectations, of the possibility of a crisis, which would force our people once more to battle desperately for their liberties. When this war began, our State declared its neutrality. This policy was accepted and supported by all parties as the only one possible in our circumstances. That neutrality would bring special problems and difficulties of its own was well recognised. That good-will on our part and our desire to avoid conflict would not save us from attack was clearly understood. It was understood also that it imposed upon us the duty of building up our defence forces, so as effectively to guard our territory and prevent its use by one belligerent against another.
“To carry out this duty, we have, as I have told you, greatly strengthened our army and other lines of defence. But we want for these forces the best equipment we can procure. There are weapons of which we are in great need. What I would like to say to our American friends to-night, who have so often before stood by us in our hour of trial, is this: Help us in the first instance to secure these weapons. We are, of course, ready to pay for what we get. In the second place, help us, should the blockade grow tighter, to secure the supply of foodstuffs, such as wheat, which are essential if the most acute hardships for our people are to be avoided.
“There is one other matter on which I think I should say a word. Recently there has been in the United States a publicity campaign suggesting the seizure of our ports. We are a small nation and we have no illusions about our strength. But, should any attempt be made to put such a suggestion into execution, we shall defend ourselves to the utmost of our power. We have no wish for such or any other conflict. We know well what war means for our people. But, should we be attacked, we shall have no alternative but defend our liberty, with the same determination and endurance with which it was regained.
As I have referred to, this Press campaign, which we must regard as unjust and as dangerous to our liberty, I think it right, that I should add this, so as to avoid misunderstanding: at no time since this war begun has there been any friction between us and any of the belligerent governments, there has been no attempt at any time either to threaten or to bully. Our poison as a neutral country has been frankly recognised and in the main respected. We desire that this position should continue. We can, therefore, only pray that God will find a way to a just peace, and that from the sufferings that have been endured there will be born a greater charity and a better understanding by one nation of another.”
Events of note:
The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society lecture ‘The Medieval Irish immram and the West of Ireland’, by An tOllamh Máirín Ní Dhonnchadh will take place at Harbour Hotel, Dock Road on Monday 10 December at 8pm.
The Old Galway Society lecture, ‘Galway Cinemas’ by James Caserly will take place at Victoria Hotel, Victoria Place on Thursday 13 December at 7.30pm.
The St. Bridget’s Terrace Residents Association is organising a Christmas party for Friday 14 December at 8pm in the Western Hotel, Prospect Hill. (Sit-down meal €15) It is part of the 100 year anniversary celebrations. Tickets are available from Brian Kennedy on 091-562495.