‘Don’t discuss politics and be careful of the whiskey’… how GIs coped with life in Northern Ireland
“Don’t discuss religion; Don’t discuss politics” was the eminently sensible – albeit belated – advice of the American Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland.
It was wise advice, certainly provided six months after the arrival of the first GIs.
American commanders, and ordinary soldiers alike, understood the delicacy of their new assignment, landing in a divided society bordering a neutral state.
In some ways, Northern Ireland was a strange destination for the first Americans in Europe since the Great War, but it made military and diplomatic sense.
There was much speculation that they would cross the border to resist any German invasion of Ireland, and Washington and London (and, indeed, Dublin) felt that American troops would be more welcome than British.
The Americans also allowed the British garrison into North Africa, while these American brute forces completed their training.
The American arrival also implied an early invasion of Europe (this, of course, took two more years) forcing Hitler to weaken his forces on the Eastern Front.
The GIs landed at Belfast’s Dufferin Quay (Minnesota’s Milburn Henke was officially the first) only seven weeks after Pearl Harbor, but preparations were a year old.
In the summer of 1941 American technicians, apparently British employees, were building a naval base at Lisahally, outside Londonderry, to protect Atlantic convoys and other installations, while in the fall , Churchill suggested that Roosevelt send troops to Northern Ireland.
Roosevelt, having already stretched the credibility of American neutrality, opposed it.
Americans lifted the grim mood of war, arriving less than a year after the devastating Belfast Blitz. Now, for the first time, the war seemed winnable.
The reception, however, was not universal. Nationalist politicians complained that Dublin, despite having no jurisdiction, had not been consulted and compared the Americans to the Germans occupying Norway or France, but, more problematically, America had approved and legitimized the partition .
The protests, unpopular in the United States, quickly died down in favor of simple ignorance by Americans.
They were briefly revived in October when Cardinal Joseph MacRory, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, complained of being “overwhelmed”, drawing condemnation in America and little support in Ireland.
Nevertheless, despite these protests, the American consulate in Belfast believed that Americans “were welcomed as warmly by nationalist groups” as by trade unionists, a point of view echoed by the Ministry of Information.
The IRA, after failed campaigns south of the border and in England, linked a new campaign in Northern Ireland to the Americans, a link which the Unionist press was happy to publicize.
The group never actively targeted Americans, beyond a few beatings during the blackout, but the perceived threat created considerable anxiety in the consulate.
The management of the 300,000 Americans who passed through it fell to Sir Basil Brooke, Minister of Commerce and Prime Minister from May 1943.
Brooke was the most dynamic minister in a government heavily criticized for its handling of the war, but he did an excellent job, setting up 45 welcoming committees before D-Day. These groups of volunteers, almost invariably led by unionists, organized events, outings and dances to keep Americans away from the “pub and pickup”.
The American Red Cross arrived in February 1942 taking over the Plaza at Chichester Street in Belfast and many other venues, including the Ormeau Baths, to look after GIs off duty.
Many celebrities came, including Bob Hope, Merle Oberon and Al Jolson with Glenn Miller and his orchestra in August 1944 (even performing at Gartree Parish Church in Antrim), while First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit lightning in November 1942.
The Americans brought their sports and their music. To mark July 4, 1942, Windsor Park hosted a baseball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Mid-West Giants.
To celebrate Thanksgiving, American football or “gridiron” was played at Ravenhill between “Hale” and “Yarvard” (reflecting its popularity as a college sport) in front of 8,000 spectators. The Belfast Telegraph said the game was not just “a test of brute force” but “a highly technical undertaking”.
Many Americans, including Lockheed technicians from Langford Lodge Air Force Base near Lough Neagh, formed swing bands to adapt to the “jitterbug fever” that swept the country.
More unusually, US Marines in Londonderry formed a Highland band, with bagpipes but drawing the line in kilts, but they won third place in the 1943 Dromora competition.
To many, Americans, in their immaculate uniforms, Hollywood accents and confident demeanor, seemed to have left the big screen behind. One group, however, had an added exotic appeal.
Most of the locals had never seen a black person before, which sparked considerable curiosity about these particular newcomers.
The Telegraph said these “dark doughboys have captured every heart with their cheerful ways”, and, while condescending to modern eyes, this cover was very well-meaning.
In general, African American GIs and the general public reacted positively to each other; the troops do not appreciate any formal segregation and are welcomed by a white population.
One wrote “the Irish treat us as if we were one of them”, and that they “never hear of discrimination and things like that”.
Indeed, trouble was caused by white Americans enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation, particularly resentful that local girls danced with their black classmates and went out with them; whites also threatened to lynch African-American veterans in America after the war.
The truism that Americans were “overpaid, hypersexual and over here” certainly applied to Northern Ireland.
The sentimental “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland” was a big hit for Kay Keyser in 1942, and love blossomed with 1,800 local women marrying Yanks.
The couples had to overcome many obstacles, such as military bureaucracy, local hostility, religious conservatism and sudden deployment, all delaying weddings.
All of this negotiated safely, wives and often children still had to travel to the United States, but the war brides were so frustrated that 100 occupied the consulate in January 1946 demanding transportation.
The consul canceled non-urgent business and secured ships for most brides that spring.
There was a darker side to the Americans because, along with gum, nylons and jitterbugging, they brought crime, racism and drunkenness.
Drunk Americans killed five civilians while a bus driver in Dungiven was shot dead when his vehicle accidentally joined a convoy carrying General George C. Marshall. The soldier responsible was, however, exonerated.
The Visiting Forces Act of 1942 ceded criminal jurisdiction to the US military, meaning trials by courts martial, including for crimes against civilians.
Fears that the U.S. military was lenient proved largely unfounded, as military justice was often harsh, both in maintaining discipline and in maintaining good relations with civilians.
Alcohol was at the heart of bad behavior. The Guide warned against whiskey and especially poteen (“be careful. It’s dynamite”), warnings regularly ignored.
Women said they were constantly harassed, some wearing pepper shakers and whistles for protection, or reluctant to go out on their own, with one woman saying: “It was by no means safe to be in the dark while they were there.
The physical remnants of the American presence are scattered throughout Northern Ireland, from the rusting and decaying skeletons of old bases and installations, to the memorials at Lisnabreeny and, above all, the unassuming column of the hotel of Belfast City.
The psychological impact of the American presence is more difficult to determine.
The war was undoubtedly transformative for Northern Ireland. Experiments such as the Blitz, rationing, hardship and casualty lists, and the welcoming of Americans, brought Northern Ireland closer to the rest of the United Kingdom and arguably made it more “British”. ” than ever.
Likewise, the neutrality of Éire hardened the border and therefore the divisions between the two states, making the end of the partition even further away.
The war and the Americans did not appease the internal sectarian dynamics, nationalist hostility to the state and unionist domination remaining well anchored.
At the start of 1944 there were 100,000 GIs in Northern Ireland, but by July almost all had left for France.
The American presence officially ended a year later with the return of the keys to Langford Lodge, but it really ended in August 1945, just as the Japanese surrendered, with the visit of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In January 1942, Eisenhower had privately said, “We’re going to regret every goddamn boat we’ve sent to Ireland,” but now his praise was abundant.
Greeted by tens of thousands of well-wishers and an impromptu ticker tape parade in Belfast, he accepted Freedom of the City and an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Queen’s.
At Stormont he said that “without Northern Ireland I cannot see how American forces could have been concentrated to begin the invasion of Europe”.
Eisenhower’s eulogy proved fitting testimony to Northern Ireland’s welcoming of Americans and the closing of an important and positive chapter in its history.
Simon Topping is Associate Professor of United States History at the University of Plymouth and author of Northern Ireland, the United States, and World War II (Bloomsbury, 2022)