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From the archives

Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

The Strange War in Ireland

Two Canadians in the cage—sort of

Donald M. Schurman

Grounded in Eire: The Story of Two RAF Fliers Interned in Ireland during World War II

Ralph Keefer

McGill-Queen’s Press

263 pages, hardcover

A Canadian lawyer from Vancouver has transformed an unfinished manuscript begun by his veteran father, whose shaky navigation had caused him to crash in Ireland and then enter what appears to be the almost comic-opera internment system in the Irish Republic during World War II.

At first sight, the book seems light fare about two young Canadians—Keefer senior and his friend and navigator Jack Calder—in and out of cages, and living a stone’s throw away from German prisoners. But they were not an inconsequential pair and their story is certainly worth telling.

From the moment of capture in October 1941 until their escape in the autumn of 1943, these two Canadians were forced by circumstances to play a game of cat and mouse with the Irish authorities, who restricted the movements of all prisoners, both British and German. To ease tensions and prevent casualties, as well as to reduce cost and publicity, the prisoners were encouraged to sign and use daily paroles. These afforded easy access to golf, hunting, dancing, pubbing and womanizing. Since escape attempts were discouraged by their governments during parole hours, the detainees were hard put to object. To classify this life as an unreal existence does no disservice to the actual situation.

A good part of the book is given over to the rivalries, hatreds and conversation of the detainees among themselves, and with their guards as well as with Irish government officials. There was also the action: the escape attempts with barbed wire, cracked heads, mayhem, and the language of desperation and effort, all duly summed up in the officialese of the reports by the internment camp’s commanding officer to the Irish Army authorities. Something is made of the incarceration and similar treatment of the Germans in the adjacent compound. But the Canadians’ interaction with these enemy prisoners was only a part-time activity whose importance was diminished by the youthful energy they applied instead to drink, girls, golf and horses.

Keefer junior found many written records about his father and there were more that he uncovered himself. In these circumstances, he seems to have attempted to don his father’s spectacles, which made it necessary to supplement the elder Keefer’s reminiscences in order to round out his story. These authorial insertions are especially noticeable in the descriptions of the Canadians’ attempted escapes, which culminated in the brilliant gate-crash that ultimately set Keefer and Calder free. (One wonders what the result of the unsuccessful escape attempts would have been in a German stalag.)

After they escaped, Jack Calder was badly wounded once he went back on operations. He recovered and was subsequently killed on another trip.

Keefer senior flew until the end of the war.

Keefer junior knows his material and one can see the serious background he is aiming to illuminate with his examination of the place of Ireland in relation to Commonwealth countries such as Canada. He wants to show the reality of Ireland in 1941–43 and how Canadians acted and reacted to this

indeterminate situation. Were the Canadians colonials, imperial subjects or hopeful nationalists? Make no mistake: these intra-imperial allegiances are complicated and Keefer knows it. Given its independence from Great Britain, Ireland was what Canada might become 50 years later, but Keefer senior and Calder were only dimly aware of that fact.

Keefer junior has some sympathy for the Irish. He refers to Calder beginning his internment by having great imperial loyalty, then in the space of a few hours condemning his English comrades and, like a good journalist, showing some understanding of Irish attitudes. He also makes clear that Keefer senior found something alien in the Pale Establishment English-Irish and their overabundant riches. More important, however, these two Canadians were cast among a people who were aware of the enormity of Hitler’s crimes, but who refused the constitutional labels of connection with England.

Like most of the internees, Keefer senior found Ireland’s stance toward the war deeply puzzling, his puzzlement increased by the divisions within Ireland over the war. Indeed, their prison was situated in a part of Ireland where a very non-Republican crowd cared for stranded warriors such as Keefer but nonetheless played by nationalist Irish political rules. English, Scots, Welsh, Canadian and Australian internees found contact with the English-speaking Irish an uncomfortable encounter. The resulting crosscultural patterns make for an entertaining read.

It was the common view of the inmates in the camp that when the Americans came into the war, after Pearl Harbour, it would be only a matter of days and hours before the great Boston influence would be brought to bear and the doors of the camp would be flung wide open. Keefer plays up the waiting period with some skill. But then it never happened. The doors stayed shut, and Keefer was able to show that, once again, the expected was never likely to rule political events in Ireland.

This book is a complex effort, yet not a very professional one. Conversations, events and historical backgrounds slide over and around each other in giddy succession. It begins as a tribute to a father, a record of his life in wartime. It becomes an author’s heroic attempt to explain Irish history so that his father would be illuminated by it. No doubt the complexities increased as the work went ahead. It is true that he did something about it. He not only reverted to the official records and newspaper reports of these times, but he also printed them, as part of the general text, in some profusion. Certainly, the method conforms to the modern notion that every picture is worth a chapter of text. It is a technique. But the book has been published without an index, that blessed page-to-page identifier. The word “Dev,” which everyone in Ireland uses to refer to De Valera, is rendered “De V,” Leicester Square comes out as “Lester Square,” Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital becomes “Saint Patrick Dun’s Hospital,” and so on. These relatively minor errors should have been spotted. We all need editors. But this book is nonetheless close to becoming something much more than the touching tribute to a brave father that it is. It is still an impressive effort—in particular because it sets out to illustrate graphically the intricate intractability of Irish activity.

Donald M. Schurman taught at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of numerous books on military history, most recently Imperial Defence, 1868–1887, published in 2000 by Frank Cass.