Sometimes the best evidence turns up after the book is done and dusted, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to find. A few weeks ago, I was in Edinburgh, speaking to the Modern Irish History and Diaspora Series seminar about Irish republicans in interwar England. My talk ranged from 1916, when a number of English-born Irish men and women were involved in the doomed Rising in Dublin, to 1939, when the Irish Republican Army launched an ill-advised bombing campaign in England against Irish partition. After I’d finished, the Irish historian and author Owen Dudley Edwards asked me if I’d ever read Agatha Christie’s novel N or M? I hadn’t, but thanks to Edinburgh’s excellent used bookstores, I soon put myself in a position to remedy the gap.
N or M? is a Tommy & Tuppence mystery, written and set during the early years of World War II. The charming Beresfords, who represent Christie’s ideal of an intelligent, devoted, well-matched married couple, find themselves under cover at a seaside guesthouse where an undercover German agent is supposedly staying. Their task? Expose the culprit, before it’s too late and they’ve revealed the secrets the Nazis need to invade Britain successfully. A running theme is the internal threat: Tommy and Tuppence are brought out of retirement by a high-ranking British intelligence official who tells them that he can’t trust even his colleagues. ‘The rot’ is too widespread. In a bizarre twist, Christie herself was investigated by MI5 as a result of the novel, which features a ‘Major Bletchley’ – was the name, officials wondered, a sign that Christie knew about the top-secret code-breaking project at Bletchley Park? In fact, it was, apparently, merely coincidence.
Anyway – and this is where the post is about to get a little spoiler-y, if you want to stop for an evening and read the novel first – the Irish are all over this novel. Mrs. Perenna, who runs the guesthouse, has lived abroad in Spain and claims that her husband was half-Spanish. But he was also, at least, half-Irish. (The half-Spanish thing is, I think, a sly allusion to Eamon de Valera, then the premier of the Irish Free State, who was indeed of Spanish heritage. He was also, at this time, a thorn in the side of any patriotic Briton, having insisted on the Irish right to remain neutral during the Second World War.) Her late husband, Patrick Maguire, was a “follower” of Roger Casement, who secured (very limited) German aid for the 1916 rebellion and was hanged for his treason. The fictional Maguire, too, was shot for his part in the affair. Their daughter, the beautiful Sheila, now sulks around her mother’s guesthouse – when she’s not flirting with the handsome German chemist who claims to be a refugee from the Nazis. And then there’s the ominous Mrs. O’Rourke, a muscular Irish guest who seems to know that Tommy and Tuppence are not what they seem.
On January 12, 1939, the Irish Republican Army issued an ultimatum to the British government, demanding action to end the partition that separated Northern Ireland from the Irish Free State. There was no official response, and four days later the I.R.A set off co-ordinated explosions in Manchester, London, and Birmingham, as well as at a few more isolated sites on the electrical grid system. It was the start of a wave of explosions and other attacks, more than a hundred in total, that Irish militants inflicted on English targets in the spring and summer of 1939. The Germans probably provided some of the cash, indirectly through the Clan na Gael in the United States, though the British government at the time did not regard the campaign as a foreign-directed attack.
When I first started research this bombing campaign, I was prepared to find vitriol and prejudice. Although the IRA tried to avoid causing injuries or deaths, explosions are disruptive and frightening, and anger easily spills over onto innocent people who share a birthplace or an accent with those who set the bombs. And, indeed, there was stereotyping, and profiling, and unpleasant incidents. James Terry, a twenty-seven-year-old fitter’s laborer from County Waterford who had been working for three years in Liverpool, caused a commotion when he lit a match, and perhaps some celluloid, in a cinema. After some women shouted, “He’s an I.R.A. man,” Terry was attacked both inside and outside of the cinema until the fire brigade arrived and protected him. A police constable arriving on the scene found him on the fire engine, pleading, “For God’s sake get me out of this.”
One of the most vivid sources that I found was Mass Observation’s 1939 Racial Attitudes survey. Rather unscientifially, the survey asked: “Have the recent activities of the I.R.A. influenced your view of the Irish as a race?” Since it didn’t specify whether that view had improved or gotten worse, or how it had started out, the question isn’t much use from a quantitative perspective. But the comments written in the margins are amazing. Some are sharply negative: the Irish are “very vicious sometimes,” prompting “inevitable disgust and contempt.” Such respondents sometimes saw the hidden hand of Germany. “Obviously someone is behind the Irish—they’d never think of things like acid in balloons by themselves. Far too haphazard.”
But others are far gentler. One person said that bombings “represent a disagreeable but quite obvious side of a national character which in many ways I am very much attracted too.” Another call the Irish “lovable as individuals, but easily worked up.” Still others found the bombings to be a spur for self-reflection. “Yes (greater sympathy)” read one simple response. The bombings “brought to me the realisation that an injustice still exists there,” wrote one respondent, while another explained: “The recent activities of the I.R.A. haven’t influenced my attitude to the Irish as a race, because I have taken the trouble to read some of the ancient history of Ireland and can appreciate the reasons for the unrest in Ireland.”
Such evidence helped lead me to my ultimate conclusion: that by 1939, despite the bombing campaign, English society had made space for the Irish. After decades of conflict over Irish independence, the Irish minority could be assimilated – not fully absorbed, but depoliticized and accommodated as part of the tapestry of interwar English culture. This is not, I should say, a state of affairs that survived the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s: but it is nonetheless a very real example of accommodation and acceptance in the wake of a divisive war and the creation of a new independent state.
N or M? says much the same thing. (Here’s where I really bring on the spoilers.) None of the Irish characters have anything to do with the espionage ring. Sheila and her German boyfriend want peace, not war, and Mrs. O’Rourke only looks frightening. The real culprits? The lovely English mother and the well-off Army man – the latter turns out to be actually a Prussian in disguise, while the former is a kidnapper as well as a spy. In real life, too, many Irish men and women served the British war effort, by joining the armed forces or working in factories. Christie has toyed with us here, playing with lazy assumptions that would link Irishness to treachery, but her novel ultimately exonerates the Irish in Britain.