Eirexit: Ireland, Empire and British film in the 1940s

Eirexit: Ireland, Empire and British film in the 1940s

Last week I was listening to Wien student presentations on British films about Ireland, WWII and neutrality. We looked at films from Dangerous Moonlight (1942, d. Brian Hurst) to Daughter of Darkness (1948, d. Lance Comfort) amongst others produced by the Ealing Studios such as The Half Way House (1944).

These are extraordinary films, connecting cinematically with different states of mental trauma, “war damage” if you will, in Britain and Ireland during the “suspended experience” of the 1940s and Ireland’s neutrality. Students had read and responded to Clair Wills’ work and that of Charles Barr, and issues of censorship and a febrile atmosphere of suspicion, doubt and uncertainty produced by “total war”.

We briefly considered the inter-penetrating lives and yet contrasting paths of William Joyce and Brendan Bracken as Irish men working for the propaganda Germans and the British sides in the war, so brilliantly captured in Thomas Kilroy’s Double Cross that was produced first in the months following the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. We got to talking of borders, redrawing them, of new identities tested by them, of political and personal allegiances formed in the aftermath of crisis. Whilst specifically considering relations between Britain and Ireland, specifically the 1945 Labour government’s appeasement of Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland and the “Eirexit” from Empire formalized in 1949 to the consternation of the British.

Most of my students in Wien are not Viennese, coming from other parts of the country or further afield in Europe. Surprisingly few were fully aware that Vienna was part of a carved up territory occupied from 1945-55, policed in separate zones by the combined Allied and Soviet powers that had vanquished Hitler’s Germany. All of this took place as the United Nations formally came into existence in October 1945. In this context, I said, reading Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949) alongside Green’s The Third Man (film 1949, novel 1950) made perfect sense. As I queued for my flight home that Friday evening after class I fell into conversation with a young Cypriot legal intern working with the UN office on nuclear power that is based in Vienna. More echoes of history....