Ireland couldn’t stomach war, so it went hungry at home

Ireland During the Second World War
Bryce Evans
University of Manchester Press, €85


EARLY histories of Ireland during World War II were dependent on British, American, and German archives, because Irish state papers were not made available until the mid-1970s. As a result, the writing concentrated on security and diplomatic matters.

Bryce Evans ignores defence and foreign policy issues and concentrates on economic and social conditions. Ireland may, on reflection, have appeared a tranquil isle in a world gone berserk, but this was not how it was.

At the dawn of the last century, Sinn Féin had dreamed of a self-sufficient Ireland, but this turned into a nightmare during World War 2.

The fruits of modern living were largely denied to the Irish people, due to the virtual suspension of trade with the outside world.

Petrol supplies were drastically reduced and private cars disappeared from the roads. The country was catapulted back to a “horse-and-cart economy,” according to the author.

As Minister for Supplies, Seán Lemass sought to tackle the shortages by resorting to compulsory tillage and labour camps to cut turf, as a fuel substitute.

“Land policy must be geared towards ownership, based on ability to work the land,” Lemass said.

Farmers were compelled to till 37.5% of their land, and they had to do so without mechanised farm machinery, due to fuel shortages.

Many, who were unable, or unwilling, to till their quota, were prosecuted. There were 300 convictions annually. Some 7,365 acres of land were confiscated from those farmers.

The labour camps set up to cut turf were unpopular. “Of 400 unemployment-assistance recipients in Mayo offered employment in the reserve pool, only four took up the offer,” Dr Evans says.

Lemass cut off dole payments to the others.

“Why should the State maintain a man who refused to join the Construction Corps?” Lemass asked. This provoked rural disquiet, but the heavy war-time censorship suppressed reports of such uneasiness.

A priest in County Galway complained about being unfairly apprehended for the ‘non-essential’ use of his car. He contended that he was engaged “in the moral policing of local hurling matches.

How else, he asked, was he supposed to combat the ‘sheer blackguardism’ that occurred on such occasions?”

Commodities such as tea and white flour were drastically rationed, and this led to a thriving black-market economy.

Cross-border smuggling flourished, with butter, bacon, eggs, beef, sausages, and ham going one way, while flour, soap, clothing, and blankets went the other way.

Many a skinny girl travelled North in the morning, and returned that night appearing heavily pregnant.

One smuggler in a dress was recognised as a cross-dresser, because of the ease with which he carried an eight-stone bag of flour over his shoulder.

Lemass called for military courts to deal with price-control and rationing offences, but the Government would not agree.

While depicting Lemass as a dictator in rural Ireland during the Emergency, the author gets a little carried away in suggesting that Lemass wished to execute some blackmarketeers.

Nevertheless, the book provides a real insight into why Lemass — the prototype of the modern urban politician — never enjoyed the same popularity in the countryside.


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