THE HARDSHIP YEARS
By Michael Corish
At dawn on 1st September 1939 the German Panzer divisions advanced across the Polish frontier. An ultimatum was then issued by the British and French governments to Germany demanding that the war of aggression be ended forthwith. By Sunday evening the 3rd September no answer had been received from the German Government and both England and France declared war on Germany. So began World War II, which was to last for almost six years, and which involved the majority of the nations of the world. A minority of the countries, including ourselves, managed to remain neutral. For this we have to thank Eamon de Valera. He was the moving spirit behind this policy, which he held to steadfastly all during the war despite being subjected to extreme pressure to throw in his lot with the Allies. For this the nation has been excoriated by some historians, including some of our own. But when you consider that it was only barely over seventeen years since the British had been evicted from the country, it is easy to understand the stance taken by our Government, and we owe no one an apology for it.
When the fighting had ceased in Poland in October a period of military quietness ensued, known as the ‘phoney war’. The eastern French defences, the Maginot Line appeared to be holding, but in June 1940 the German Army invaded France, advancing through the Low Countries. In a few weeks France capitulated and the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated through Dunkirk.
After this matters moved at a swift pace and we soon noticed shortages becoming apparent in our lives. Items we had long taken for granted disappeared from the shops. A Minister for Supplies was appointed to the Government and soon ration books had been issued to every woman, man and child in the country. Many staple items of food were rationed. Bread came on the list in 1942, and at one stage the ration of tea was one ounce per person per week, with sugar at eight ounces and butter at six. I don’t think potatoes were ever rationed, but at times they were extremely difficult to get especially in the cities.
Petrol became extremely scarce, and soon the only cars allowed were those belonging to the priest, the doctor and taxi and hackney car owners, but their supplies were severely rationed. Paraffin oil and candles, the main source of illumination in country houses, were rationed too as was electricity and gas in the towns. The Turf Board, now Bord na Mona, was established to organise
the cutting of turf on the midland bogs and have it transported to the cities and towns. At one time the main road in the Phoenix Park was lined by huge banks of turf, up to thirty feet high.
As a result of the scarcity of coal and oil, public transport became a skeleton of what it previously was. Passenger train services were reduced to one each way each day on every line and for periods there were no trains running for some days of the week. The trains hardly ever ran to time and could be hours late as the coal available was of very low qualily and often had to be mixed with timber and turf. Bus services, too, were severely curtailed and one bus and one only, left for each destination. If the bus was full when you reached the door, you had no option but to return home and hope for better luck the next day.
The pony and trap, the horse and cart and the bicycle became the only modes of transport in the countryside. The latter had its own problems, as when the tyres became worn, it ‘vas almost impossible to find replacements. Many ingenious ideas were tried, such as lining the tyre with strips of binder canvas, and I even heard of tyres being stuffed with hay.
Clothing and footwear were strictly rationed and various stratagems were adopted. Suits were turned by the tailor, shirts were patched, and shoes and hoots were soled and re-soled and the uppers patched. Many a younger sibling born in the early years of the war never possessed a new garment until the war was well and truly over.
Due to the shortage of imports all farmers were subject to the Compulsory Tillage Order, Every farmer, even if he had never opened a furrow previously, had to till a certain amount of his land, and sow, especially, a certain acreage of wheat, and all this was policed by government inspectors. As well as this, there was a severe outbreak of Foot and Mouth in March 1941 which spread over much of the country. Over 550 farms had outbreaks and thousands of animals were slaughtered. It took months before it was finally eradicated.
Prices of all essentials were controlled even down to second-hand bicycles. wages and salaries were also controlled and there were two government sanctioned increases granted during these years. The first was eleven shillings per week (approx. seventy cent) about 1942 and another one for five shillings
(approx. thirty two cent) some time later.
At the start of the war the standing army numbered approximately 7000. As there was a real danger that the country might be invaded by one of the warring sides, an intensive recruitment campaign was undertaken. When this was finished the army numbered about 40,000, backed up by the Local Defence Force (the LDF now the FCA), the Maritime Inscription Corps and the Coast Watching Service. The LDF, a force of part time soldiers, reached a strength of over ioo,ooo. The Local Security Force (the LSF) was also established as auxiliaries to the Garda Siochána.
No account of this period would be complete without a mention of the merchant seamen who daily risked their lives to bring badly needed supplies to this beleaguered island. At the outbreak of war there were only fifty six ships on the Irish Register, none of them really suitable for deep sea trading. The Government established Irish Shipping, who took over the ocean going vessels that had been marooned in Irish ports and managed to purchase or charter a number of others. All these, together with our coastal fleet, sailed the wartime seas, alone, not in convoy, their only defence the flying national flag — the tricolour and the letters EIRE painted large on the side of the ship, and sailing at night under full lights. Nevertheless they suffered forty one belligerent attacks which resulted in sixteen sinkings, and 187 casualties in all including 127 deaths. Perhaps the most poignant case was the loss of the Irish Pine, which disappeared on a voyage to Boston in November 1942, with the loss of thirty three lives. It was not until 1977 that an entry was discovered in the log book of U.608. This showed that the Irish Pine had been torpedoed by them at 7.14 pm on 15th November 1942 and ‘sank stern first at 7.17pm.’ The Irish also effected many rescues during these years. Perhaps the most notable was that carried out by the Kerlogue of the Wexford Steamship Company. This little ship of 335 tons and only one hundred and thirty feet long under command of Tom Donohue of Dungarvan with Ssa crew of nine was homeward bound from Lisbon on 29th December 1943. About 11am a German aircraft signalled that there were many shipwrecked sailors in a south easterly direction. The ship altered course and came upon an appalling sight, hundreds of sailors trying to survive in an oil covered sea. The crew were soon pulling survivors on board. This continued for ten hours, until 9 pm that night when the Kerlogue turned north for Ireland with 168 survivors on board. There was very little on board in the way of supplies or dry clothes, to alleviate the distress of those rescued. These were crowded into the wheelhouse, into alleyways and cabins, and even into the engine room. The captain’s cabin was turned into a primitive hospital where efforts were made to administer first aid to the most seriously wounded. A roll call the next day disclosed that three were dead, and they stopped to bury them at sea. There was another death before they arrived in Cobh at 2.30 am on New Year’s Day and he was eventually buried in the German Cemetery in Glencree.
We had hoped that we would be spared all the horrors of war, but soon we had some of them on our own doorstep. In the afternoon of 20th August 1940 a German plane dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs on the Shelburne Co-Op in Campile, Co. Wexford. Three young women in their twenties were killed in the wreckage of the canteen.
The following May, bombs were dropped on the North Strand in Dublin killing thirty four people. There were a number of other incidents throughout the country, where people were killed by bombs or floating mines.
The war ended in August 1945 but that didn’t mean the end of the shortages. Compulsory tillage was still in force in 1946. August and September that year were appallingly wet, even worse than last summer. But the harvest was so important that many volunteers from the civil service, public offices and shops were brought down the country to assist the farmers in saving the corn. This was before the days of the combine and harvesting corn involved much manual work.
Then in early 1947 we had the long snow. It started to fall in the very early days of February and the ground did not clear until St. Patrick’s Day. However the following summer could not be bettered and supplies of all sorts became more plentiful and a sense of normality had returned to our lives by the following year of 1948.
Children of seven or eight born after the start of war saw an orange or banana for the first time or if they were a younger sibling, they no longer had to endure hand-me-downs but got their first new garment. And best of all, we could buy new tyres for the bike.