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Neutral Shores

ISBN: 9781856359344
€19.99 €17.99
From September 1939 until the last days of the war in 1945 Ireland was host to a constant flow of casualties from the Battle of the Atlantic. Irelands unique location situated near the vital shipping lanes of the Western Approaches placed the country in the immediate conflict zone once the war at sea began with the sinking of the British merchant liner Athenia on 3 September 1939, when 449 survivors landed in Galway city.

Neutral Shores follows the story of many merchant navy ships that were attacked and sunk during the war, their surviving crews left adrift on the hostile Atlantic Ocean in a desperate struggle for survival. For the fortunate ones sanctuary was found along Irelands rugged Atlantic shores, where the local people took these men from the sea into their homes and cared for them without any consideration of their nationality or allegiances to any of the belligerent nations.


At the beginning of September 1939 there was an unexpected influx in the numbers of passengers disembarking at Dublin and Dun Laoghaire. Over the course of that first turbulent weekend in September, when mainland Europe was on the precipice of another war, an estimated 10,000 people, desperate to return home, landed at the busy east-coast ports. The numbers heading for Dublin on the crowded Irish Sea ferries were so great that many passengers were forced to stand outside in heavy rain for the duration of the crossing.

At Rosslare the numbers of arrivals were such that trains were delayed as the masses of women and children boarded with heavy loads of baggage. When the trains finally departed there was little room left for passengers intending to board at Waterford station. The recently arrived refugees were apparently all travelling towards Limerick and Cork. Although the vast majority were Irish, the fear of the impending war and sudden gas attacks on British cities compelled some worried British parents to send their children over to stay with relations in neutral Ireland.

Although this initial surge in passenger traffic was significant, over the coming weeks the numbers remained inflated as a steady stream of returning Irish citizens sought refuge from a war that had yet to claim any casualties on mainland Britain.

As the influx of refugees continued on the east coast there were similar scenes at Ireland's two transatlantic liner ports. At Cobh, Co. Cork, and Galway, the arrival of two Cunard White Star liners en route to America was shrouded in rumour. Disembarking passengers described how destroyers had accompanied the large passenger liner Mauretania during the night before it passed Roches Point and entered Cork Harbour on 1 September. Mauretania arrived in total darkness and only turned on its external lights once inside the harbour entrance, to allow the tender to come alongside for the 163 passengers disembarking at Cobh. There were similar reports when the liner Samaria called at Galway before continuing across the Atlantic to New York. Many American citizens were following the advice of the American consulate offices and returning home at the earliest opportunity. Cunard liner calls were cancelled after 3 September.

With the departure of the Cunard liners, it was left to neutral American passenger ships to continue the transatlantic trade, which consisted primarily of the evacuation of US citizens from Britain. Throughout September and October they called regularly to Cobh. The last American liner to call at Cobh was on 17 November 1939, while in Galway there were two specially arranged visits by ships in May and July 1940.

As with other smaller European nations, Ireland exercised its sovereign right to remain neutral in the impending conflict and set itself outside the sphere of influence of the belligerent nations. The fledgling Irish state was on the periphery of European politics where the great Continental powers dominated affairs. From the perspective of the Irish government, neutrality was the only realistic option. Ireland was powerless to influence the will of the warring factions and therefore took the decision to remain outside the conflict. However, this small island nation, with its conspicuous geographical location jutting out into the eastern Atlantic, formed a large salient around which the busiest shipping lanes in the world flowed. This unique position meant that Ireland would not be immune from the impending war, and this was highlighted by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera when he addressed the Dáil in September 1939. Stressing the seriousness of the situation, de Valera noted, 'Although we are not immediately in the operation of the land conflict, we are in the centre of the sea conflict.'


ISBN 9781856359344


  • Neutral Shores