Review of Richard Doherty’s Irish Men and Women in the Second World War by Amy Heath-Carpentier

As Éamon de Valera’s government drafted the Constitution of Ireland in the mid-1930s, Hitler was consolidating power in Germany. The rise of the Third Reich and the outbreak of World War II challenged the fledgling Irish governments, north and south, in their relationship with one another, with Britain, and with other European powers. Irish men and women from both sides of the border volunteered to serve, despite the professed neutrality and censorship of de Valera’s government. Richard Doherty has been at the forefront of celebrating Irish involvement in World War II through his extensive library of well-crafted, military histories. This year, Doherty released a revised edition of his 1999 Irish Men and Women in the Second World War, which details Irish participation in the British military. The book details the military careers of exemplary Irish men who served in the British Army infantry, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force. Each branch of the military is covered in two chapters, while chaplains, doctors, and Irish women receive a chapter each. Throughout, Doherty interlaces biographies and first person accounts with the intricacies of war campaigns and battles. The chapter on Irish women is the most relevant for WHAI members and will form the basis of this review.

Doherty opens Irish Men and Women in the Second World War with a helpful introduction that addresses key issues and debates surrounding Irish involvement in World War II. These include the British relinquishment of the ports of Cobh (Queenstown), Berehaven, and Lough Swilly in 1938 and de Valera’s decision to remain neutral, which the author situates within discussions by historians Joseph Lee and Myles Dungan. Recent scholarship on Irish neutrality was not included in the revision, notably Clair Wills (2007) That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland during the Second World War. In the next three chapters, Doherty details the number of Irish men and women who served in Britain’s forces, the reasons why they served, and their relationships with their counterparts. Doherty revises his number of Irish in the British forces to 133,600, an increase of almost 14,000 from the 1999 edition (p. 30). Notably, he does not divide his final total by sex. 

Irish men and women were motivated to volunteer for similar reasons: family legacies of military service, a desire to stand against Hitler and the Nazis, peer pressure from comrades, a desire for adventure, and a yearning for professional growth and training. Irish women served in the Northern Irish branch of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS/Wrens), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and the Red Cross. Doherty focuses on several women: Co. Dublin’s Romie Lambkin, Brenda Graham, and Elizabeth Chamberlain; Co. Westmeath woman Veronica Tottenham and two of her daughters; Derry women Maeve Boyle, Florence O’Sullivan, and Molly Mason; and Portadown’s Margaret Little. Nearly 300 Wrens served in Derry, including many local Catholics, such as Maeve Boyle who reported that 200 fellow Catholic women joined (p. 50). While women from Northern Ireland were free to join the British forces, women from Éire subverted neutrality by traveling to Northern Ireland or England to join. Doherty’s aunt, Barbara Coyle, was prevented from enlisting by her mother Mary Ann, a staunch nationalist who ‘In spite of the war…regarded the British as the enemy’ (p. 51). Irish woman Romie Lambkin traveled to Belfast to join and wrote in her diary:

Even if Éire is staying neutral, I am not. I don’t want to be left out of world-shaking events – the Battle of Britain decided me on that – and I do want to be in uniform and driving all sorts of exciting people instead of being cooped up in a ghastly boring office behind the Four Courts (p. 49). 

Fathers who served in World War I, or sisters already in the military, inspired several of the women profiled. Both Irish men and women exhibited pride in their Irish identities. For example, Brenda Graham displayed a harp pin on her uniform (p. 272), while pilot Brendan Finucane displayed a shamrock on his spitfire airplane (p. 190). 

In the chapter on Irish women, Doherty draws on interviews he conducted with Elizabeth Chamberlain, Brenda Graham, and Maeve Boyle. In 1941 Chamberlain relocated from Dublin to Surrey with Graham and two other friends because the Wrens in Northern Ireland would not accept recruits from Éire. They worked as nurses’ aides for a year at Botley Park War Hospital before joining the war effort (p. 267). While Chamberlain joined the Wrens, Brenda Graham chose the Red Cross where she could contribute to defeating Hitler without compromising her pacifism (p. 267). Chamberlain recounts her training as a bomb-range marker, and she was posted to Machrihanish, Scotland, as well as various posts across England. She married a Fleet Air Arm trainee during her time at the Royal Naval Air Station Stretton (HMS Blackcap), only to be widowed when he died in a training exercise (p. 269). After receiving a promotion and training as a cipher officer, she traveled to her final post in Naples, Italy. In her pre-deployment training she received lectures about ‘not getting involved with foreign men, not getting pregnant, and so on’ (p. 271). In addition to official duties in Naples, Chamberlain recounts that she was expected to entertain officers (p. 271). Doherty includes several other clear reports of gendered war experiences from his interviewees but he does not consider their implications within his analysis. 

Overall, less than ten percent of the book addresses women’s involvement in the war effort and thus Irish Men and Women in the Second World War is an entry point for further exploration. Readers may wish to supplement with Mary Muldowney’s The Second World War and Irish Women: An Oral History (2007) and the chapters by Gillian McIntosh, Clare O’Kane, and Leanne McCormick in McIntosh and Diane Urquhart’s Irish Women at War (2010). These provide a more robust picture of Irish women’s war experiences, especially since gender conventions severely restricted women’s roles in the British war effort. In the Epilogue, Doherty describes an unnamed companion volume, which I believe is his Irish Volunteers in the Second World War (2002). He describes this companion as detailing Irish participation in civilian support and other militaries, including those who joined the Nazis. Overall, Doherty’s Irish Men and Women in the Second World War offers vibrant accounts of Ireland’s remarkable World War II veterans while challenging assumptions about the Irish who joined the British war effort.

Dr. Amy Heath-Carpentier is a lecturer in Global Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research explores the relationship between Irish nationalist women’s political and religious lives during the revolutionary period.