The Horrors of "The Emergency"
In the history books, and from films, videos, commemorative television and radio shows,
anyone can learn about the horrors of World War II. Coinciding with that cataclysmic event
was a peculiar period in Irish history known as "The Emergency", and although it lasted two
years longer than the war, its horrors have not been granted anything like the same
Their reality is fast fading from our ken, retained only in the individual memories of
those who suffered grievously and, to some extent, silently.
In another section of this Web Page, former G.A.A. football stalwart "Big Bob" Gallagher
graphically recalls the plight of Guinness drinkers in Donegal when that renowned beverage
was subject to local rationing. Drinking Spanish brandy as a substitute was a hardship not
easily forgotten, requiring stout hearts and strong stomachs. Thankfully, being too young,
and being still at school, I was spared that particular trauma.
Partly as a result of Ireland's neutrality during the war, and partly as the understandable
reaction of the British war leader, Winston Churchill, in adopting a strategy aimed at
restricting food imports to Ireland, the government of the day led by Eamon de Valera
(his name, like the brandy, was Spanish) was forced to encourage self-reliance in the
production of foodstuffs.
A wheat growing campaign was launched. Throughout the country, fields that had never been
sown in living memory were cultivated. The resultant crops were well below the high grade
quality of imported wheat, especially wheat from Canada, and the home milled flour, when
baked, produced a dark coloured loaf, rough in texture.
Some of the best grazing land around Ballyshannon was given over to oats, wheat, and the
odd field of barley. Happily, by happenstance, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease
reduced the national cow herd, thus freeing up more land to the plough.
Perhaps the greatest hardship of all was in trying to cope with the meagre ration of tea,
half an ounce per person per week. No matter what others might say, tea was the national
drink, and a half ounce of tea could not ever, ever, ever be made to last for a whole week.
Various stratagems were adopted. One of the most widely used was the brewing of dandelion
tea. One word. Don't! Unless you're a taste freak.
Carrot tea was another alternative, and was said to be good for your eyesight.
In one fell swoop the two staples of Irish country diet, bread and tea, were adversely
affected during "The Emergency".
But we always had spuds. And butter.
Elsewhere I have dealt with the shortage of coal and the harvesting of turf, the sleaghán,
the Irish turf spade, being manufactured in quantity to meet the demand. Even some Dublin
city residents were driven to becoming bog-trotters once more, spending summer weekends
cutting their own turf, drying it, stacking it, and carting it home.
"What in under God is that yoke?"
A teenager's question means that, once more, an ancient sleaghán has been discovered
tucked away in the back of a Dublin garage or garden shed.
I do not recall any great shortage of vegetables, but fruit, of course, was almost
unobtainable. Bananas and oranges were just words in a dictionary.
Cigarettes? Everybody smoked, but there was hardly anything to smoke. Believe it, or
believe it not, this was at a time when patients suffering tuberculosis were prescribed
cigarettes by some doctors.
When American forces came to be stationed in the Six Counties, a lucrative cigarette
smuggling campaign was soon underway. But these were American cigarettes, made with
scented tobacco, and not to be compared with the real tobacco in pre-war Players, Gold
Flake, Sweet Afton, and Woodbines. And they had funny names. Chesterfield was one.
"Sure I might as well have taken the chesterfield out of the parlour and smoked it," was
one smoker's reaction.
Black Cat was another brand of cigarette, and wherever it came from, it should have stayed
This was suffering on a grand scale.
Nuts. There was a nutwood way up at the top of the Ballinacarrick road, to the left beyond
Jimmy Breslin's farm. Jimmy was always known as the Laird of Ballinacarrick. His nephew,
Teddy McShea, was one of my school chums.
My uncle used to fill sacks with the hazel nuts from that wood, usually before they were
ripe, and stacked them in the gateway below our house. Sometimes they didn't ripen,
sometimes they did and were a welcome addition to our fare.
There were other shortages. Petrol was one of them. Only doctors could depend on a proper
ration. If you heard a motor engine on the street, it was likely to be Dr. Gordon, Dr.
Daly, or one of the Sligo to Donegal buses passing by.
That was an amazing thing about life in a country town during "The Emergency", the absence
of noise, because of the absence of motor traffic, because of the shortage of petrol. You
could almost tell the time of day by the clatter of a horse's hooves pulling the mail dray
to and from the G.N.R. station twice a day.
Everyone walked, or cycled. It was quiet, eerily quiet, and at night the silence of the
I remember walking through Bundoran on one occasion, in mid-winter, in the witching hours
of the night, and not seeing or hearing man, woman, child, dog, or cat. And the same coming
back through the Purt of Ballyshannon. Even the light at the sentry post outside the gates
of Finner Camp showed an empty hut, no sentry to be seen. The experience in no way equalled
Wordsworth's "Upon Westminster Bridge", captured in the final lines:
"Dear God, the very houses seem asleep;
"Mighty heart" might be a bit much, applied to my midnight ramble in southwest Donegal, but
there you have it!
And all that mighty heart is lying still!"
When hostilities ceased, "The Emergency" continued, and it took two years for a semblance
of normalcy to return to the food and drink front. I shall never forget the look in the
eyes of one old St. Eunan's colleague on seeing, for the first time in years, "Turkish
Delight" candy in a little shop in Letterkenny. It had been his favourite sweet. His name,
too, was Ward, Johnny P. Ward, son of the then County Registrar. He also became a
solicitor, practising in later years from Donegal Town.
Throughout "The Emergency" a steady stream of emigrants left the country, some to serve
with the Allied Forces, some to work in English airplane or munitions factories. An echo
of the horrors mentioned in this tale of Guinness, bread, and tea, is retained in an old
parody sung by many of our departing brothers and sisters of the era:
"Bless them all,
...et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Bless them all,
The long and the short and the tall,
Bless de Valera
And Sean MacEntee,
To hell with their black bread
And half ounce of tea!
For we're saying
Goodbye to them all.... "
Neutrality, for all its success, and it was an undoubted success, exacted its toll in more
ways than one.
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