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Research activity

Steven O'Connor

Post-doctorant

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow

Steven O’Connor is an historian of modern Europe, with particular interest in military, social and transnational history in the era of the two world wars. He did his PhD at University College Dublin and in 2014 Palgrave Macmillan published his first monograph, Irish Officers in the British Forces, 1922-45. He held a two-year Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin from 2013 to 2015. Subsequently, he was editor of The Revolution Papers, a weekly newspaper which retold the story of the Irish revolution (1916-1923) through the newspapers of the period. Since November 2016, he has been working at the Centre for History, Sciences Po, on a project funded by the European Commission.

Project from 1/11/2016 to 31/10/2018: Grant Agreement – 703854 – FFABFORCE correspondant au CALL: H2020-MSCA- IF-2015, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions

As the subject of his Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, O’Connor is researching the thousands of Free French who served with the British armed forces during the Second World War. The principal objectives of the project are to assess the British approach to organising effective multinational forces during the Second World War, using the Free French as a case study, and to analyse the responses of the Free French to their host’s efforts to integrate them. This will be achieved by carrying out research in at least 16 archives in 5 countries. My innovative project will contribute to one of the key drivers of Horizon 2020: to develop new knowledge and enhance the skills of excellent researchers. Moreover, one of the societal challenges outlined in Horizon 2020, ‘Europe in a changing world’, aims at ‘supporting inclusive, innovative and reflective European societies’. FFABFORCE will contribute to this goal by increasing academic and public understanding of the transnational nature of the Allied war effort during the Second World War and by demonstrating the weakness of the nation-centric approach to understanding the war. In this way, my research will act as a counter-weight to extreme nationalists who deliberately distort the history of the war for their own political ends.
 

Selective bibliography

Books

Irish Officers in the British Forces 1922-45, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 272 pages.

Reviews of Irish Officers in the British Forces

1. Loughlin Sweeney, English Historical Review 130, no. 545 (August 2015), pp. 1044-5: ‘This book is a valuable and intriguing foray into new historical territory which is not afraid to cover a wide subject area, resulting in fascinating and worthwhile insights.’
2. David Fitzpatrick, Irish Historical Studies 39, no. 155 (May 2015), pp. 549-51: ‘His book should be welcomed as an original and imaginatively documented exploration of a neglected strand in Ireland’s military past.’
3. Prof Matthew Hughes, British Journal for Military History: ‘O’Connor’s detailed empirical study is rich on detail, informed, and interesting to read, drawing on, inter alia, school rolls and histories, his own dataset, memoirs and interviews. His book… will appeal to a broad audience interested not just in Irish and military history, but also in how military service mediates notions of identity’.

Articles

  • « The pleasure culture of war in independent Ireland, 1922-45 », War in History, Vol. 22 No. 1 (January 2015), p. 66-86.
  • « Why did they fight for Britain? Irish recruits to the British forces, 1939-45 ». Etudes Irlandaises, Vol. 40 No. 1 (Sping-Summer 2015), p. 59-70.
  • « Irish identity and integration within the British armed forces, 1939-1945 », Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 39, No. 155 (May 2015), p. 417-38.
  • Steven O’Connor et Martin Gutmann, « Under a foreign flag: integrating foreign units and personnel in the British and German armed forces, 1940-1945 », Journal of Modern European History, Vol. 14, No 3 (2016), p. 321-41.
  • « Imperial continuities: Irish doctors and the British armed forces, 1922-1945 » in Dr. Ian Miller and David Durnin (eds), Medicine, Health and Irish Experiences of War, 1914-1945, Manchester University Press, 2016.

Comprehensive bibliography

Books
Irish Officers in the British Forces 1922-45, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 272 pages.

This monograph focuses on the men and women from Southern Ireland who became commissioned officers in the British armed forces from the foundation of the Irish Free State and its own armed forces in 1922, until the end of the Second World War (in which Southern Ireland remained neutral). In order to study the social origins, motives and experiences of this group a sample of 1,000 officers was collected and analysed.

This research suggests that a significant minority of Irish officers during the interwar period and Second World War were Catholic and that in obtaining commissions there were several principal influences on Irish officers. Firstly, at least one third of the officers were following in a family military tradition, which generally had its origins in the First World War. Secondly, many Irish officers were influenced by their education at schools with strong military traditions. Thirdly, the popularity of British boys’ magazines and war films exposed Irish youths to a positive perception of British military service and encouraged some to associate their yearning for excitement with the military life. Finally, some Irish people became officers motivated by the lack of other employment. This economic influence was particularly noticeable among Irish doctors who composed 30 per cent of the British Army Medical Services during the interwar period.

The Southern Irish background of these officers was not a hindrance to integration and many led highly successful military careers. In comparison with the experiences of other non-British contingents in His Majesty’s Forces and that of Irish civilian immigrants in Britain, the Irish officers’ experience was a largely positive one.

Lastly, an analysis of the responses in Ireland to this continuing tradition reveals that it caused little animosity in the newly independent state. The government placed no restrictions on those joining the British forces and only an extremist minority condemned it. Recruitment from Ireland visibly increased during the 1930s and 1940s and in many towns there was evidence that the British military was valued as a legitimate career outlet.

By highlighting the persistence of military, socio-economic and cultural connections to Britain this thesis demonstrates that continuity rather than change characterised the first three decades of British-Irish relations.

The book was published in March 2014 and has received much media attention:
- interview by Fintan Lambe for The Gorey Guardian, 8 April 2014, p. 35,
- interview by Ronan McGreevy for The Irish Times, 9 June 2014, D-Day: The Irish Connection
http://bcove.me/7me4h3pv
- I published an article on the website of The Irish Times, 1 July 2014:
"Why did the Irish volunteer as British officers in WWII?", http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/why-did-the-irish-volunteer-as-b...
- interview on the radio show Talking History on News Talk 106 FM, le 15 June 2014,
- interview on the radio show Deise Am on WLR FM, le 4 July 2014,
- interview on the radio show The History Show on RTE Radio One, le 31 August 2014.
- book reviews in Irish Historical Studies, the English Historical Review and the British Journal for Military History

Articles in peer-reviewed journals

  • « The pleasure culture of war in independent Ireland, 1922-45 », War in History, Vol. 22, No. 1 (January 2015), p. 66-86.

Most studies of Irish recruitment to the British forces during the Second World War have identified a desire for adventure as one of the principal motives. While this motive has existed throughout history and in every part of the world, this article argues that its prominence among Irish recruits was due to the image of war that was diffused in independent Ireland. During the interwar period the market for children’s literature and cinema was dominated by British adventure novels, boys’ weeklies and war films which portrayed British soldiers as glamorous heroes participating in wars that were exciting and just. For some Irish youths this influenced their perception of British military service : it offered them an escape from the dullness of everyday life, a particularly tantalising prospect for restless youngsters living in neutral Ireland.

  • « Why did they fight for Britain? Irish recruits to the British forces, 1939-45 », Etudes Irlandaises, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2015).

In spite of Ireland’s neutrality tens of thousands of Irish people fought in the British forces during the Second World War. Previous studies of these transnational volunteers have focused largely on government policies towards the recruits and on ascertaining an accurate figure for the number of Irish people in the wartime British forces. However, there remain important questions about these Irish recruits. This article examines their social backgrounds and their motives for enlisting. It concludes by assessing the significance of Irish recruitment within the wider context of the contribution to Britain’s war effort from members of the British Commonwealth.

  • « Irish identity and integration within the British armed forces, 1939-1945 », Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 39, No. 155 (May 2015), p. 417-38.

During the Second World War tens of thousands of volunteers from the island of Ireland served in the British armed forces. This article examines the effect of an Irish background on the volunteers’ experience of the British forces. It explores the ways in which the military authorities facilitated and encouraged the development of a pluralist Irish identity. In doing so the article demonstrates how the volunteers’ ideas of Irishness were influenced by British perceptions and it will assess to what extent volunteers from North and South really shared a common Irish identity. The article also places the Irish experience of the British forces in the context of a multinational army incorporating personnel from, among others, Scotland, Wales, the dominions and Poland.

  • « Imperial continuities: Irish doctors and the British armed forces, 1922-1945 » in Dr Ian Miller and David Durnin (eds), Medicine, Health and Irish Experiences of War, 1914-1945, Manchester University Press, 2016.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Irish doctors led successful careers in the military medical services of the British Empire. However, this connection did not cease after Southern Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom in 1922, rather it grew. From 1900 to 1914, 29.1% of the recruits to the British army’s medical service were from Ireland – this rate of recruitment was not only maintained during the period 1919-39, but actually increased to 31.7%. Moreover, the outbreak of another world war saw a disproportionate number of the Irish recruits to the British forces coming from medical backgrounds. Out of a sample of 459 Irishmen and women who served as commissioned officers during the war, 85 (18.5%) were medical practitioners.
This chapter explores the reasons why British military service proved so popular with Irish doctors. It argues that the poor job prospects in Ireland, combined with the attractive opportunities of empire caused the outflow of Irish medical practitioners to continue well beyond the achievement of Irish independence. In doing so, it demonstrates that close ties existed between the Irish and British medical communities, and that a transnational outlook persisted among Irish doctors in spite of the deterioration in Anglo-Irish political relations during the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, the paper examines the recruitment of Irish doctors to the British forces during the Second World War, paying particular attention to their motives and experiences.

  • Steven O’Connor et Martin Gutmann, « Under a foreign flag: integrating foreign units and personnel in the British and German armed forces, 1940-1945 », Journal of Modern European History, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2016), p. 321-41.

Significant numbers of foreign personnel served in the British and German armed forces during the Second World. Yet there is no study that compares and situates these armed forces as multinational entities. This article examines Britain’s and Germany’s policies towards the recruitment, organisation and employment of non- nationals in their armed forces during this conflict. There were several forms of multinational participation but this study focuses on recruits who came from German-occupied or neutral countries. It was in these units that the exchanges and tensions of the multinational militaries were most profoundly felt.
The article finds that though there was significant transnational military co- operation this did not erode the primacy of the nation-state. In both the British and German cases, the multinational forces served as a stage on which ethnic and national tensions played out and, at times, were amplified. Arguably the most important aspect of the multinational forces was their legacy. For Britain and her European allies the experience created willing partners for closer multinational military cooperation in the postwar world.

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