Because most people in Brigid Kavanagh’s farming community near Strokestown, Co Roscommon, did not have a radio in September 1939, no one knew that war was declared between Britain and Germany until some time later.
Anyway it all seemed so far away. How could a war on the continent of Europe disturb the rhythm of country life with its seasons and busy markets, the walking to school, the All Ireland finals; the evening rosary in the kitchen, and clean clothes for Sunday Mass. There was the pleasure of friends calling, and the joy of a wedding, but World War II, euphemistically called ‘The Emergency’ in Ireland, did impinge quite severely and quickly on Irish country life, mainly through the rationing of basic staples such as tea, sugar, butter, flour and bread. Petrol rationing stopped all non essential transport. It was back to the horse driven plough for the land.
Newspapers were heavily censored, and few people realised the pressure the British government was putting on Ireland to allow her merchant ships access to her Atlantic ports at Cobh, Bearhaven and Lough Swilly, Donegal. Ireland had no merchant navy of its own and was totally reliant on Britain for her imports. As the submarine war became more deadly, and Britain’s imports seriously threatened, Churchill turned up the pressure on de Valera, to allow his trans-Atlantic shipping a safe harbour; while de Valera reasserted our neutrality by refusing to allow any belligerent country to land on Irish shores.
Churchill lost patience, and simply turned off the tap. All Irish imports were halted, leaving Ireland scrambling to develop its own indigenous supply systems, and to launch its own merchant navy.* While Europe was locked in a deadly war, with unforeseen cruelties and horror; Ireland was locked in a trade war with Britain.
Jekyll and Hyde
Brigid tells us that although farmers were generally self-supporting in meat (mainly bacon ), vegetables and dairy products, the one thing everyone complained about was the shortage, and in many cases the total absence, of tea. The Kavanaghs liked their tea strong enough ‘for a mouse to trot on’, and to suddenly find that tea was not available or was strictly rationed, was a blow. Like farms around them, there was always a chest-full of tea to dip into. Now ‘tea-leaves were boiled over and over until they turned white’.
The shortage of tea was not the only thing to cause misery at home. Tobacco virtually disappeared. Brigid’s father John, ‘normally a placid man’, would transform from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde so bad was his craving for a cigarette. He would ask Brigid to walk back the two miles to Strokstown on the chance that there was a delivery to the local grocery since she came home from school. There never was. Various tobacco substitutes were tried: crushed oats (‘so strong you were almost knocked out’ ), also the geranium herb ‘crowfoot’ (dried and soaked in either rum or porter ), and worst of all, but if you were really desperate, there was always ‘turf dust’.
A sharp divide opened up between rural and city life. Envious Dubliners imagined that their rural children were growing up plump living off the fat of the land. Life was undoubtedly healthier where your farm could supply eggs and bacon. Rabbits were hunted and sold to butcher shops, and county children were probably healthy all through the war. Whereas, it was reported that children growing up in inner city Dublin, suffered rickets due to a total absence of fruit and vegetables in their diet.
A lot of pressure was put on farmers who were required to till and sow a quarter of their arable land. This was a demanding task as no fertiliser was available. Bridgit’s bachelor uncle refused to carry out the order and continued with his cattle trade. The Department of Agriculture took over the stipulated amount of land, had it ploughed, seeded, and the ripe corn put up for auction. The sale was boycotted by his neighbours.
The blackmarket thrived. It was usually possible to get extra tea or some other luxury at a price. Decent bread was always welcome. In order to conserve wheat supplies the Government imported wholegrain wheat from Canada which made a black bread, which was universally detested, and actually caused nutritional deficiency.
There was no electricity in Brigid’s home, they were completely dependent on candles or paraffin lamps. When paraffin became scarce, homework was done by the light of the fire. Shoe polish was made from burning ’strong black sugar bags, ink was made from elderberry juice. It appeared as if the entire population of Roscommon cycled to Croke Park to see Jimmy Murray raise the Sam Maguire Cup in 1944.
A difficult time
The war, in fact, did come crashing down into Brigid’s rural community when a large American-built Mitchell bomber, en route from Newfoundland to Britain, crash-landed between Strokestown and Four-Mile- House in July 1942. Every man, women and child for miles around ran to Michael Murray’s field at Riversdale. The ‘monster’ plane had simply run out of fuel, and headed for the widest field possible. Bridgit’s brother was in the LDF and proudly guarded the plane. It was dismantled and quietly taken across the border.
The pilot, Paul Lowman, returned in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of his landing, and was reunited with Michael Murray. It was a day that brought back memories of a difficult time.
NOTES: * Irish neutrality was a delicate balance between strict neutrality and secretly aiding the Allied powers, which we did frequently. British shipping in Irish ports would have been a highly visual contradiction of our neutrality. The German minister to Ireland, Eduard Hempel, was very vigilant; insisting that the rules of neutrality were strictly observed.
The Irish Shipping Company was set up in March 1941. Despite the shortage of available ships it soon had a fleet of 15 ships, of all conditions and sizes. The first ship, The Irish Poplar (they were all called after Irish trees ), was originally the Greek-flagged Vassillos Destounis, which had been attacked by German war planes. It was bought into Spain where it was abandoned.
This brave little company of ships, and her crews, risked their lives bringing vital machine and food stuffs through the Atlantic battlefield to Ireland, all during the war. The company was eventually disbanded in 1984. It is a story that deserves to be better remembered.
Brigid’s wonderful book is available [email protected].
Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Galway Diary Podcast.