When the world descended into war in 1939, few European countries remained neutral; but of those that did, none provoked more controversy than Ireland.
Despite Winston Churchill’s best efforts to the contrary, the Irish premier Eamon de Valera stuck determinedly to Ireland’s right to remain outside a conflict in which it had no enemies. Accusations of betrayal and hypocrisy poisoned the media; legends of Nazi spies roaming the country depicted Ireland as a haven for Hitler’s friends. Where previous histories of Ireland in the war years have focused on high politics, That Neutral Island mines deeper layers of experience. Sean O’Faolain, Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O’Brien and Louis MacNeice are a handful of writers whose stories, letters, and diaries illuminate this small country as it suffered rationing, censorship, the threat of invasion, and a strange detachment from the war.
That Neutral Island won the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2007, and the Michael A Durkan Prize for books on literature and culture , 2008. Book of the Week in The Guardian, March 2007; Book of the Year 2007 in the Irish Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sunday Tribune and the Australian Books Review. Chosen by Patrick Bishop for the ‘Twentieth Century History’ Book Pack for the Times Book Club, along with Richard Holmes, Tommy and Margaret Macmillan, Peacemakers – all examples of ‘how history should be written’.
Daily Telegraph: This is a big book: in size, in ambition and in its willingness to remain even-handed when dealing with a period that usually attracts lopsided accounts. By and large Wills lets the facts speak for themselves, covering the 150,000 who volunteered for the British armed forces but also the scavengers who stripped the corpses of drowned seamen, and the scam-mongers who then wrote to the relatives asking for money...This is an authoritative and readable account. It is also a fine introduction to the nation that emerged from this crisis into a sometimes unforgiving world.
The Guardian: Clair Wills's history of wartime Ireland brings a sane, subtle, reconciling spirit where once there was only intransigence... It's hard to imagine a fairer-minded guide...Her book not only fills a gap...it is a model of exhaustive research and illuminating example, taking in a wide range of topics--dancing, films, smuggling, farming, informing, amateur theatre and Step Together fairs--without losing direction or focus. A particular bonus is the attention to Irish writers (Kate O'Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O'Faolain, Brendan Behan and many more), whose ideas and experiences from 1939-45 make a fascinating study in themselves.
The Spectator: [An] intensely researched and crisply written book...That Neutral Island is a psychodrama of guilt and defiance, clarity, resentment and confusion. Instead of a bibliography it has a 'bibliographical essay' no less than 30 pages long, which will be mined for generations to come.
--P. J. Kavanaugh
Sunday Herald: The sometimes tragic, often brave, confusion that was wartime Ireland is brilliantly unpacked here. This is ground that historians have covered before but none with such a remarkable array of sources--from German military plans, to contemporary poetry, to the sermons of Roman Catholic clergy. By skillful use of her materials, Wills puts together a vivid picture of a little country that tried to stay out of the war, never quite succeeded, and suffered ignominy in the process.
Sunday Telegraph: Clair Wills, Professor of Irish Literature at the University of London, set herself the task of looking beyond the narrow world of politics to provide a deeper, more complex study of a nation anxiously clinging to peace in a time of global conflict. She has succeeded triumphantly in this goal. Sweeping in its scope, packed with telling details, written in an easy, fluid style, this is a highly original book about a fascinating period...The book is brilliant on capturing the strange twilight atmosphere that hung over the country, reinforced by ruthless censorship and severe economic shortages...The breadth of Professor Wills's research is formidable, covering everything from the theatre to the mobilisation of the army, from sexual mores to the influence of fascism. The bibliography alone runs to no fewer than 33 pages. And, behind the glittering text, there hangs the fundamental paradox, of which the Irish themselves were only too conscious: that the nation's much-vaunted neutrality, driven by separation from Britain, was wholly dependent on Britain's ultimate victory.
Scotland on Sunday : There are moving stories of the gathering of bodies from the coast, of border smuggling and high anxiety over the leaking of intelligence. An accruing picture of a people and a nation marching slowly into adversity and penury emerges, the most comprehensive of its kind on the subject to date, done with a scrupulousness that make it essential reading.
Irish Independent : What a pleasure to read...Simply the best ever social and cultural history of Ireland during the second world war...This is a quite outstanding book, not just for its stunningly nuanced insights into the Irish psyche in time of war, but--often alarmingly--into the Irish psyche overall.
Irish Times : [A] fascinating, brilliant cultural history of Ireland during the second World War...The result is a picture of social conditions and developments in neutral Ireland more detailed and revelatory than anything we have had before...All of which makes for a very good book indeed; but what raises it to the exceptional is its complex meta-narrative, which involves the author in presenting social and cultural analysis based on research while also addressing such difficult issues as how neutrality affected Ireland at various stages of the war, how neutrality was viewed abroad--especially in the United Kingdom and in the United States--and how these often intemperate international perspectives bore on Ireland's sense of itself. In all of this Wills manages to be judicious and insightful... Indeed I came away from this book with renewed respect for the way de Valera kept his nerve, when the fate of the country was an uncertain one and when he had great powers lined up against him.
Sunday Times: That Neutral Island, sums up for many Ireland's dubious image during the war years: indulging in legalistic niceties and self-righteous pieties while ignoring the struggle elsewhere. But Wills paints a more complex picture. Neutrality was a struggle for those involved, and the policy succeeded despite deep political divisions, economic deprivation and artistic isolation.
TLS: The book's emphasis on the quotidian is introduced with a nicely-judged autobiographical portrait of Wills's own family, which describes the rather different experiences of her Irish mother and English father through the 1940s (they married near the end of the decade.) Irish neutrality was a radioactive topic in the Churchill-de Valera years and is still hotly debated now. This account seems to me the most open- yet clear-minded yet available—it shows just how fluctuating were the responses of many people, whether they supported the Allies, the Axis, or neutrality. Frank Aiken's declared fear that if Ireland were to take sides, there would first have to be fought another civil war deciding which side to support rings true, given that for every person who was likely to support the British, there would be another thinking that 'England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity.'
--Declan Kiberd, author of Inventing Ireland