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  No Way Out

The Irish in Wartime France, 1939-1945


Isadore Ryan


Cork:The Mercier Press, 2017

Paperback. 351 p. ISBN 978-1781174876. €17.99


Reviewed by Gearóid Barry

National University of Ireland, Galway





An Irish newspaper reviewer of this book stated that the title and cover illustration of Isadore Ryan’s book, No Way Out, suggested a historical thriller: in fact, while it has elements of the thriller, with some compelling personal stories, Ryan has given us something more, a work of popular history executed with considerable scholarly rigour. I agree with the Times (Ireland edition) reviewer that the thicket of detail is off-putting in places (including some overly long quotations) but Ryan still tells a good story well. Most of all, we are plunged into the pinched and oppressive atmosphere of the Occupation years of 1940-44 when Paris (and France as a whole) underwent ‘the Dark Years.’ The author is a financial journalist by profession and in this new book he has combined his journalistic skill for following leads with Trojan work in a large variety of archives. Paris (inevitably) dominates the book but the Irish elsewhere do get a look in. In sum, enthusiasm is matched with sound research using a raft of sources, even if Ryan’s analysis of his findings could have been more penetrating.

All the same, from his introduction, Ryan is conscious of the need to give us the correct scale of his subject without which such a book might be little more than a collection of (attractive) pen pictures and anecdotes. He begins by citing Irish diplomats’ educated guesses about the numbers of Irish in France in 1940-41, estimates which varied considerably ranging from about 300 and up to 2,000, an unspecified (but considerable) proportion of whom were religious [7]. The Irish population in Vichy France is intrinsically worthy of study but Ryan might have put its size in context more. Irish people were a tiny and dispersed group in France as a whole. France’s Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration’s website cites the French census finding that Italians made up some 7% of the French population in 1931. Unlike the Italians, the Irish in France rarely included manual labourers, bar perhaps some unlucky sailors, Irish emigrants heading overwhelmingly for Britain, the U.S. and the Anglophone world instead.  (The Irish of Argentina are perhaps a better comparator, but even they were larger that the Gallic Irish: Buenos Aires boasted a hurling club in the 1920s. In contrast, Paris Gaels GAA club for Gaelic football and hurling dates from 1995.) The Irish in France in turn had precious few nodal points the most notable being in Paris, magnet for most foreign enclaves, at the Anglophone Catholic parish of St Joseph’s on avenue Hoche run by Irish Passionist priests, not far from the hostel for Anglophone Catholic young women run by sisters at rue Morillo. The historic Irish College seminary in the Latin Quarter was emptied of young Irishmen during World War II. Save for the storage of air-raid protection equipment, it was vacant. Fr Vincent Travers, its Irish Vincentian rector, kept a lonely vigil for Irish interests in the College, probably saving it for the future, a solitary posting punctuated by interesting encounters. (Wehrmacht officer Franz Born, for instance, felt affinity with its chapel in Paris having once been an organist in Carlow : he visited three times, privately telling Travers, who noted the German’s growing gauntness, about life on the German-Soviet front where he was serving between stints in France [61-62].) Very practically, Travers sowed vegetables in the College yard to supplement meagre wartime rations [178]. Irish-born Protestants feature occasionally in Ryan’s narrative, but not at all as a distinct group (though there must have been a cohort of French-domiciled Trinity College graduates during the War).  Irish writer Samuel Beckett, a cradle Protestant and a Trinity grad, features here for his brave Resistance activity, of course, but also, equally humanely, when he courteously asks Seán Murphy and Con Cremin, dutiful Irish diplomats based at Vichy, to help him get reassuring messages about his well-being back to family members in Dublin. Beckett, like those same Irish diplomats, also tried his best to help James and Nora Joyce whose departure from Paris and impending family tragedy, involving their ill daughter Lucia, plays out as a painful subplot of Ryan’s narrative.

The ‘community’ that existed seems to have been mainly but not exclusively female, precise figures not being readily available. Ryan describes an eclectic mix of English-speaking religious (male and female), language teachers, governesses and writers amongst the Irish. Alongside the occasional adventurer, we also find more sober types who had come to France to work in niche sectors like horseracing or finance. Rarer still were Irish individuals in small business such as Denis Corr who kept a shop in Biarritz (and who got into trouble locally afterwards for his wartime stance) and the cheerful Irish mechanic Daniel McAllister, resident in Paris since 1915, who patched up the Irish embassy’s Packard motor car during the chaos of the exodus from Paris in June 1940 [12, 32]. There was also a small knot of cosmopolitan (or pretentious) Franco-Irish minor aristocrats of whom Count Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh, Irish emissary extraordinary, was one.(1) A sometime wine merchant and semi-official Irish representative in Paris (once Ireland’s professional diplomats were obliged by protocol and the Armistice terms to work from Vichy), the quixotic O’Kelly emerges as something of the roguish anti-hero of this book, dispensing Irish passports to grateful applicants observing what he deemed to be the spirit, if not the letter, of Irish citizenship law.

Ryan also introduces us to a number of number of real heroes, often quiet ones, including recognised members of the French Resistance such as Kerrywoman and teacher Janie McCarthy, two Irish female Ravensbruck deportees and survivors, nurse Agnes Flanagan and religious Sr Marie Laurence (née Kate McCarthy), and, briefly, to Cork-born Quaker humanitarian Mary Elmes, who was recognised as one of Yad Vashem’s Just Among the Nations in 2013 [14, 218-228]. Indeed, independently of Ryan’s book, two new biographies and a major documentary film It Tolls for Thee dedicated to Elmes appeared in 2017.(2) Meanwhile, Sligoman Fr Kenneth Monaghan, who, before entering the priesthood, had fought on the Western Front and been a POW in the First World War, helped shelter Allied airmen in occupied Paris while other Irish clergy brought what extra food they could to impoverished Irish spinster governesses in cold garret apartments [53-55].

Such a list could go on. All human life, from the luminous to some very shady miscreants and fascists of Irish heritage, is represented amongst Ryan’s Irish subjects. Readers will best appreciate these interesting stories for themselves. In the context of an academic review I wish to conclude, however, by asking what wider questions this book illuminates, even partially, in the history of France, Ireland or of the Second World War more generally. The question of minorities and foreigners as ‘aliens’ in wartime is now a well-researched issue, for the First World War especially. For the Second World War, attention has focussed, understandably, on Jewish minorities in occupied countries, or on other persecuted groups (such as gypsies, everywhere, and Spanish republicans, in the case of France) or on foreigners whom occupiers like the Germans thought they might co-opt such as the anti-Soviet (and sometimes anti-Semitic) White Russian communities in the south of France in particular. French historians should pay attention to the Irish experience by comparing it, perhaps, to that of nationals from another wartime neutral, Portugal, of whom there were some 26,000 in France before the War.

Historians of Irish foreign policy will find in Ryan’s account a sympathetic portrayal of Irish diplomats Murphy and Cremin, who manned the Irish Legation at Vichy and had a ringside seat at the collaborationist administration there. Not all Irish citizens thought they did enough but, on meagre resources, they did their best by Irish people in distress. In his political reports, Murphy injected a consistent note of scepticism about Marshal Pétain’s French State, and especially about the policies of Pierre Laval, though some in Ireland admired Vichy. Though there is a heartrending chapter on help (or indeed lack of help) to Jews by Irish officials, Ryan is judicious and avoids a hackneyed attack on official Ireland as callous and anti-Semitic. Murphy and Cremin were well disposed but implemented Dublin’s policy of (excessive) caution which meant missing opportunities to do the right thing [273]. Separately, when Paris police arrested some 2,000 British women in December 1940 and despatched them by train to a bleak barracks-cum-camp for enemy aliens at Besançon, Irishwomen classified by the French authorities as British subjects were amongst them. Irish officials cited Irish neutrality to secure the prompt release of Irish internees, including the three freed on New Year’s Eve, two Mercy order sisters and Margaret ‘Bluebell’ Kelly, the pregnant Irish cabaret choreographer, for whom her Hungarian Jewish husband’s security was an additional worry [88].

Though independent and doggedly neutral, Ireland was not a diplomatic entity like any other, such as neutral Portugal, however. True, thanks to Taoiseach Éamonn de Valera’s new Constitution approved by the Irish people at the ballot box in 1937, the King of England no longer had any role in Ireland’s domestic affairs. However, until a different Irish government enacted the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949 Ireland’s diplomats were technically appointed by King George VI.  More practically still, the overhang of the British connection meant that not all Irish people travelling or living abroad had an Irish passport. The categories of British subject and citizen of the Irish Free State/Éire/Ireland – there was endless wordplay over the young state’s name overlapped legally and culturally and a common travel area was in force between Britain and Ireland, and persists even today. People who considered themselves in every respect Irish, like Fr Monaghan of St Joseph’s, had British passports, sometimes preferring them even after 1940 for practical reasons such as accessing Allied financial aid for those they needed to help. For most Irish in Paris, an Irish passport became much more attractive once the Germans came to stay (though famously not for James Joyce). The vexed question of getting Irish papers thus recurs again and again in Ryan’s book.

This prompts some interesting collateral questions of identity. Many of the Irish in France, such as religious and governesses were there for decades by the 1940s and their leaving Ireland predated independence in 1922. Not seeking a green Irish passport until 1940 was probably not a political statement of distaste for the Free State but was rather due to inertia and the fact that, up until 1939, life went on and the question hardly arose. However, just as there were Irish citizens on the continent who surely treasured a green passport for its own sake, as an expression of hard-won sovereignty and freedom, there were probably some in the Irish community in France, Catholic and Protestant, who in some ways valued also being a British subject. Incongruous as it may seem, parts of the lace-curtain Irish middle class at home, and some working-class people with a family history of service in the British Army, had quietly celebrated the coronation of George VI in 1937. Either way, the overlap of Irish and British citizenship, sundered for the twenty-six-county Republic of Ireland in 1949, would endure in other ways. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 makes the choice to be Irish or British, or both, the birth right of all the citizens of Northern Ireland. In this age of Brexit, it is now the turn of British citizens / subjects to burnish Irish connections and swamp the Irish Passport Office with applications for Irish (and by extension EU) citizenship! Either way, the question of Irish passports in wartime France reminds us once again of the jagged edges of history and of the time lags in practice and sentiment when one political dispensation supersedes another. Though these are points on which the author could have dwelt more, we are still in Isadore Ryan’s debt for his stimulating book on the Irish who had ‘no way out’ of wartime France and who wrestled with these questions of identity and the more basic task of survival in the bleakest of times.


(1) Ryan’s account of O’Kelly featured in Frank McNally’s ‘Irishman’s Diary’ column, Irish Times, 26 Aug. 2017. 

(2) Clodagh Finn, A Time To Risk All : The Incredible Untold Story of Mary Elmes, the Irish Woman who saved Children from Nazi Concentration Camps (Dublin: Gill, 2017); Paddy Butler, The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes : The Irish Oskar Schindler (Dublin: Veritas, 2017); It Tolls For Thee (Documentary, 2017, directed by Andrew Gallimore). See also trailer.


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