Bryce Evans. Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato's Cave. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. 260 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78499-249-1.
Reviewed by Augustine Meaher (Air University)
Published on H-War (April, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Even a Neutral Nation is Changed Forever by the War
The current decade of remembrance in Ireland is largely focused on the struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. However, it has also led to a rise in interest in Irish history more broadly, and Ireland in the Second World War, or the Emergency (1939-45), is currently undergoing a much-needed historical reexamination. While most recent publications on Ireland in World War II are popular histories that tend to further F. S. L. Lyons argument that Ireland until at least the 1950s was cut off from the world, academics are busily challenging Lyons’s view and offering revisionist interpretations that are long overdue.
The Emergency was unquestionably the most profound economic and social challenge faced by the Irish Free State. Bryce Evans’s Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave shines a much-needed and bright historical light into the cave to examine the social and economic history of the period. Ireland during the Second World War is the first detailed analysis of the Irish home front. As a historian of food and food ways, Evans is at his best and his strongest when he is discussing the effect of the war on food and food supplies. The failure of the Irish state to amass any appreciable stockpiles of essentials prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and subsequent strict rationing of virtually everything saw Ireland revert to a horse-and-buggy society, albeit one policed by over a thousand inspectors who sought to eliminate the black market. The thriving black market created an inverted moral economy—directed from the top down. Evans implies that the top-down nature of the home front moral economy led to more black marketeering than would otherwise have existed, and the evidence would tend to support this original interpretation. The idea of an inverted moral economy will be a useful tool for historians not just of wartime Ireland but of any society under great stress.
The Irish government used the stress placed on Irish society to fundamentally rearrange the functions of the state. These changes would greatly affect postwar Irish society; far from being an event that kept Ireland isolated in Plato’s Cave, as traditionally argued, the Emergency created the basis for the postwar Irish state. Indeed, the minister most responsible for the rearrangement was Sean Lemass, whose tenure as Taoiseach in the 1950s is widely seen as the beginning of modern Ireland. Evans conclusively argues that the changes in Irish society during the Emergency laid the essential foundation for the modern Irish state.
The use of the Emergency to further Fianna Fail’s political agenda was clearly seen in the most unpopular aspect of state control, compulsory tillage. Compulsory tillage required all farmers owning more than ten acres to till at least one-eighth of their land, thereby transferring significant land from grazing to the raising of crops. Production of oats and wheat increased markedly. This was a policy driven by Fianna Fail’s political ideology, which favored small farmers.
Ireland during the Second World War makes an important historical argument and provides a detailed and impressive account of the Irish home front. However, this is not a book for the general reader. It is an academic work aimed at upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. Evans assumes a solid knowledge of the Emergency, Irish society and politics, and of the historiography. Each chapter is almost a microhistory in itself, which makes Ireland during the Second World War ideal for professional historians and for teachers assigning chapters to an Irish or comparative history class. For the general reader the lack of more detailed conclusion bringing together the chapters is problematic. One cannot help but wondering if the chapter on the church, which is surprisingly short considering its role in Ireland, was needed. It would have been more rewarding if the role of the church had been included in other chapters. This would have made those chapters more detailed and allowed a more holistic understanding of Irish society during the Emergency.
Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave is a rewarding if at times demanding read. It provides a valuable insight into Irish society and demonstrates that Ireland was not just the postcolonial backwater of popular memory until the boom of the 1950s. We can hope that Evans’s revisionist interpretation of the Irish home front during the Emergency will lead to revisionist interpretations of other elements of Irish history during the Emergency and beyond.
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Augustine Meaher. Review of Evans, Bryce, Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato's Cave.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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