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Irish Nationalism and the American Presence in Northern Ireland

‘As far as we are concerned’, declared Patrick Maxwell, Nationalist MP at Stormont for Foyle, ‘the Americans are as welcome in Northern Ireland as the Germans are in Norway’.


Maxwell’s attitude reflected the frustrations of nationalists on both sides of the border at the Americans’ arrival in January 1942. Nationalism had seen America as a traditional ally and believed, at least publicly, that the United States informally recognised Ireland as a single thirty-two county unit governed from Dublin and that Washington would respect the integrity of this and not legitimise partition by sending troops to Northern Ireland.


There was a similar expectation of Germany, but the reality of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was tragically exposed when the Luftwaffe devastated Belfast in the Blitz of April and May 1941. Regardless, therefore, of whether nationalists saw Ireland as a single entity the belligerents simply did not.


The arrival should not have come as a complete surprise as rumours abounded in the wake of Pearl Harbor that American forces would go to Northern Ireland; indeed, in Maxwell’s home town of Derry American technicians had built installations during 1941, under the guise of Lend-Lease, with suspicions that they would eventually be for American use.

There were many good strategic reasons for sending US forces to Northern Ireland, especially in the context of the Battle of the Atlantic, but there was also an important political side-effect as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt knew that it would irk Éire’s leader Éamon de Valera and draw attention to his country’s neutrality. The Allies were under no obligation to inform de Valera, however, and decided not to until either the Germans were aware of the deployment or that the convoy was safe from attack, and that he was to be told in person by the UK’s representative in Dublin. This triggered a public protest from the Taoiseach, complaining that his government ‘had not been consulted’ and calling partition ‘as indefensible as aggressions against small nations elsewhere’, which the Allies were trying to liberate. He also accused the Americans of supporting ‘a Quisling government’ at Stormont. De Valera was careful not to describe this statement as an official protest (or even as a protest), which could have escalated tensions with the US, however, the prickly American minister in Dublin, David Gray – he and de Valera despised each other – took it as such, viewing it as a cynical effort to distract from his political impotence and the diplomatic fact of partition. De Valera’s was not attitude likely to play well in the States. The New York Herald Tribune berated his ‘gratuitous piece of impertinence’, noting that ‘the devastating raids on Belfast appear to have gone unrebuked in Éire, but when the United States troops landed in what is certainly de facto belligerent territory, the protests came in battalions’.

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery NPG x2208)
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery NPG x2208)

Maxwell ‘wholeheartedly’ supported de Valera’s protest, stressing ‘we shall ignore the American forces as far as possible, but there is no discourtesy intended. There is nothing physically we can do to throw them out or we would do so’. He added that ‘the landings of the Americans is an aggression against the Irish nation. The closest analogy would be if the Japanese landed in Occupied France to help the Germans’. Joseph F. Stewart, another nationalist Stormont MP, was more measured in his criticism, backing de Valera, but insisting that ‘the people of Ireland should have been consulted before the army of another country, however friendly, should have been brought into Irish soil’.

These attitudes greatly dismayed W.S. Moody of Strabane who, in a perceptive letter to the Derry Journal, critiqued

‘the spectacle of leaders of Irish Nationalism helping to defeat the immediate or near future prospects of an all-Ireland Republic, by alienating and antagonizing American opinion’. In their desire to highlight partition, nationalist spokesmen were ‘gratuitously throw[ing] away further potential support and sympathy for the sake of a national hyper-dignity to be recognized by the world to some far distant and remote Utopian era… [which] compels admiration for the heart but certainly not the head’. De Valera could have blindsided unionism and the British, and indeed the Americans, by offering some assistance, ‘but no, the leaders of Irish Nationalism in their recently acquired dignity and status of neutrality can be relied on to scorn all such base compromise… thus helping to assure and perpetuate Partition’.

This, he concluded, ‘patently allow[ed] their means to defeat their end’. Moody’s astute analysis did not require abandoning neutrality or accepting partition, merely embracing a degree of pragmatism for the duration of the war.

Nationalist leaders were largely true to their commitment to ignore the Americans and made little further comment until the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Joseph MacRory, complained in October 1942 that ‘my own corner’ of Ireland was ‘overrun’ by Americans. This drew condemnation on both sides of the Atlantic, notably from Time magazine, which declared ‘by “my own corner”, the Cardinal meant 66% Protestant Ulster, where he was born, lives’. It also accused MacRory of ‘lean[ing] so far backward in his effort to be neutral that his head sometimes seems to be in the Third Reich’. The Richmond Times-Dispatch condemned ‘A Cardinal’s Carping’, calling MacRory’s statement ‘ill-timed if not incomprehensible’. It argued that the Allies protected Éire while Northern Ireland would be a ‘paradise by comparison with the fate of Irish Catholicism under Nazidom’. ‘Cardinal MacRory’, it concluded, ‘would have rendered a service to the cause of freedom by keeping silent’. Unlike de Valera’s protest, nationalism did not rally to support the Cardinal.

Cardinal MacRory
Glass plate negative of Cardinal MacRory. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland. NLI Ref.: IND_H_1411 IND H 1411

It should be stressed that the protests were against the American government rather than American soldiers. The authorities in Washington, London and Belfast were concerned that Americans would be attacked by nationalists (the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland launched in the spring of 1942 was directly linked to the Americans) or that those with American heritage would be seduced by the ideology of Irish republicanism. The US consul in Belfast Parker Buhrman, for example, complained about attacks on Americans in the blackout, purportedly by the IRA, and also Irish-American troops lending a ‘ready ear’ to Irish republicans. Stormont and the unionist press highlighted IRA hostility to the Americans to emphasise that the group’s attitude was a threat to the war effort, when in reality its actions were extremely limited (if highly publicised).

A Mass Observation report by Tom Harrisson from June 1942 allayed fears about conflict between Americans and the nationalist community. Nationalists were ‘largely antagonistic though it is only a minority who are strongly so’. This was despite the American presence being ‘something of an insult’ and fears that they were to maintain partition or ‘possibly even invade the south’. He emphasised: ‘it should not be thought from the above that even in the dominantly Catholic areas the Americans are hated’, because they were ‘difficult people to hate, even if you are a violent Nationalist of the narrowest kind’. Paradoxically, antipathy was highest ‘where there are no Americans in the immediate vicinity’.

The demographics of Northern Ireland meant than many Americans were stationed in majority Catholic areas west of the Bann, but Harrisson believed that this actually reduced resentment. Moreover, the Catholic Church readily ministered to the spiritual needs of the Americans, with Cardinal MacRory celebrating Mass for 300 GIs at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, in December 1943, while 20,000 attended Novena devotions delivered by an American chaplain at Clonnard Monastery in Belfast in May 1944. In addition, everything from a Nissen hut to an Orange Hall (causing a rare wartime sectarian outburst from a Stormont minister) was put to use to celebrate Mass. More generally, irritation that the Americans were ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’ transcended sectarian boundaries as women from each community married Americans, to the annoyance of local menfolk.

Nationalists’ protests about the Americans had no chance of changing anything but drew attention to partition. Continued complaints were politically unwise as they would alienate American public opinion, seen as key to ending partition after the war, and also risked denigrating the values which Americans fought and died for. Amid a broader nationalist ambivalence about the war, silence proved the best option. The war, however, ultimately strengthened the union and in its aftermath there was little international interest in or patience for the grievances of Irish nationalists. These grievances - from a cause and a country which had chosen neutrality -were viewed by many, not least in America, as petty parochialism as the world came to terms with the loss and devastation of the conflict and the horrors of the Holocaust.

About the author:

Dr Simon Topping is the author of Northern Ireland, the United States and the Second World War available from Bloomsbury Academic (2022)

The Daily Mail, Evening Standard and Punch all featured drawings on the issue of Éire's neutrality and Taoiseach Éamon de Valera by political cartoonists such as David Low, Ronald Niebour and Leslie Gilbert Illingworth.

Pictured is a cartoon captioned 'Gosh, we were close to a terrible crisis the other day! An American soldier nearly put one foot over the border into the Free State by mistake.'

This is by Bruce Bairnsfather who rose to fame during the First World War with his 'Old Bill' cartoon. He was employed by the Americans during the Second World War and produced a book of his work called Jeeps & Jests from where this image is taken. (NIWM:2019.2553)

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