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World War II

Irish Free State Army

The IRA on Film and Television reviews how movies depict the IRA’s wartime association, however tentative and ineffectual, with Nazi Germany. Ireland itself remained neutral, referring to the Second World War as "the Emergency."

On January 16, 1939, Sean Russell, Chief of Staff of the IRA, declared war on Britain, signing an Army Council statement that called on the English to withdraw from Northern Ireland “in the name of the unconquered dead and the faithful living.” The bombing campaign began. In the following months over a hundred and twenty bombs exploded across Britain. Fifty-seven explosions occurred in London alone.

The IRA bombing campaign amounted to more of a “nuisance campaign” than a “reign of terror.” Many of the bombs failed to detonate because budget-minded IRA agents used cheap alarm clocks as timing devices. The worst attack took place on August 25th when a bomb in Coventry killed five people and wounded dozens. Two IRA men were sentenced to death for their involvement. After their hanging, Irish-Americans placed a wreath outside Ireland’s pavilion at the New York World’s Fair to “honor the martyrs.”

With the outbreak of war, Germany’s Abwehr took an interest in the IRA. Sean Russell arrived in Berlin in May 1940 and agreed to return to Ireland by U-boat to organize IRA actions in Northern Ireland in preparation for a proposed invasion of England. En route home, Russell died of a perforated ulcer and was buried at sea. The venture, called Operation Dove, was aborted.

A few German agents were inserted into Ireland, most of whom were quickly detected and interned. The Nazis supplied a few radios and weapons, but wartime IRA operations were limited to a scattered robberies and isolated shootings. The IRA in WWII never became what Nazi intelligence hoped for or the English feared – an organized resistance movement waging war against the British on their own soil. 

 Filmmakers, however, saw potential in the fleeting IRA-Nazi alliance.

Hitler’s Irish Movies

Max Kimmich, Goebbels’ brother-in-law, directed two wartime films set in Ireland. The Fox of Glenarvon (Tobis, 1940), a romantic adventure set during an Irish revolt, is a curious piece of Nazi propaganda. In contrast to Hollywood’s charming images of the Emerald Isle, Kimmich’s Ireland, with its dark mists, treacherous bogs, and grim torch-bearing peasants, resembles the Transylvania of a Thirties Dracula movie. More puzzling to modern viewers familiar with Riverdance is Kimmich’s stilted, mechanical version of Irish folk dance in which men tramp solemnly in glum lockstep like convicts on a chain gang. In addition, there are perplexing anachronisms in plot, costuming, and set design. Interiors feature 1940s furnishings, electric table lamps, and telephones, yet inexplicably no motor vehicles appear in exterior scenes. British troops patrol on horseback and transport condemned men in a horse-drawn prison van. Perhaps the most ironic scene – for a film produced in Nazi Germany – is the climax in which the hero and heroine join a march of rebels singing about freedom.

Kimmich followed The Fox of Glenarvon with a more pointed attack on the British. In Mein Leben fűr Irland (My Life for Ireland) Irish students rebel against their English schoolmasters in 1921 and join the IRA fighting the British in the streets of Dublin. The climatic ending, which shows English soldiers overwhelmed by insurgents within the United Kingdom, was no doubt designed to hearten wartime German audiences. The film is notable for its inclusion of Irish Americans and informers (one of whom is interrogated in an eerie water torture sequence). The realism of the street battles came at a high price. The technician hired to plan the battle scene was recalled to the front and left before completing a diagram showing where he had placed charges. When the director called action, scores of extras ran onto the set and began activating the explosives. Unaware of the disaster unfolding before him, the director kept the cameras rolling as several extras were killed and others seriously wounded in the blasts.

British Views

Two British postwar films depict naïve and misguided Irish patriots conspiring with Nazi spies or taking part in the IRA bombing campaign.

I See a DarkStranger (Individual, 1946) starred Deborah Kerr as Bridie Quilty, a small town girl raised on her father’s barroom bravado and “hatred of everything British.” On her 21 birthday in 1944, she heads to Dublin to join the IRA. Rebuffed by a true hero of the Rising who reminds her of the Treaty, Bridie agrees to help a Nazi spy. Bridie obtains information about the impending D-Day invasion, but has a change of heart when she realizes Irish lives will be lost on the beaches. She cooperates with and eventually marries a British officer (Trevor Howard) but refuses to spend her wedding night in a hotel called The Cromwell Arms. Though on one level a story of wartime intrigue, the film is laden with an patronizingly dismissive attitude toward Irish nationalists. The Republican movement is depicted as quaint parochialism based on barroom heroism, dreamy romanticism, and petulant grievances. Above all, the film’s message is one of reassurance for a British audience, that the Irish will put aside their provincialism and petty differences with the English and see themselves unified against the common threat of Nazism. 

The Gentle Gunman (Ealing Studios, 1952), a little seen film starring John Mills and Dirk Bogarde, presents a darker, more malevolent vision of wartime Irish nationalism. The characters are motivated not by dreamy romanticism or barroom bravado but a mean, poisonous ideology that embraces violence and celebrates martyrdom. The film’s most notable scene depicting the IRA planting a bomb on an Underground platform as Londoners seek shelter during the Blitz was clearly designed to incense postwar British audiences, demonstrating both the organization’s cowardice and cruelty. For recent viewers, the scene eerily presages the 7/11 terrorist bombings in London subways that claimed over fifty lives in 2005. As in I See a Dark Stranger, the protagonists come to reject Irish

nationalism as cultish anachronism out of step with the modern world.

Hollywood Takes

Set in the Catholic village of Duncrana in Northern Ireland in 1941, The Night Fighters (1960) stars Robert Mitchum as Dermot O’Neill, a hard-drinking thirty-five year old bachelor still living at home with his parents and postponing marriage to his impatient girlfriend Neeve (Anne Heywood). While his father listens to German radio broadcasts and delights at the news of British sinkings (“lovely, lovely, lovely”), Neeve urges Dermot to travel to Britain and get work so they can marry. Claiming to be a descendent from a long line of Irish rebels, Dermot joins an IRA unit ordered by the Germans to attack a British installation. Armed with machine guns dropped by the Luftwaffee, the IRA stage a commando style attack analogous to the French resistance or the Polish underground, fighting a pitched gun battle with British troops with an intensity and a casualty count far greater than any actual IRA raid staged during the entire war. Disillusioned by the failure of a Nazi invasion of Britain and disturbed by the IRA’s willingness to endanger civilians, Dermot flees Ireland with Neeve, heading for a new life abroad.

The leading American film to deal with the IRA-Nazi alliance is The Eagle Has Landed (Associated General Films, 1976) directed by John Sturges. An action and suspense feature based on the novel by Jack Higgins, The Eagle Has Landed blends historical figures – Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle) and Heinrich Himmler (Donald Plesance) – with fictional characters to add credibility to an implausible plot. In 1943 with the fortunes of war turning against him, Hitler (in Higgins’ story) approves a plan to kidnap Winston Churchill and fly him to Berlin. A key figure in the plot Liam Devlin, an Irish Catholic university lecturer in Berlin.

Devlin (Donald Sutherland) is a charming hard-drinking, womanizing, poetry quoting red-haired Irishman. Asked if he is still a “supporter of the Irish Republican Army,” Devlin repeats the oft repeated catchphrase, “Soldier of . . . Once in, never out.” Questioned why he is not with his compatriots in England, Devlin answers with a reference to Sean Russell’s bombing campaign, “I don’t want to spend my days in Bayswater mixing up explosives in my landlady’s saucepan to blow the arms and legs off a couple of passers-by. My fight is with the bloody British Empire.” His goal, he asserts, is a “united Ireland.” Offered the opportunity to participate in the operation to kidnap Churchill, Devlin eagerly agrees – for twenty thousand pounds.

The IRA on Film and Television

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