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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 widespread recognition.

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 there.

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 tomb.

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;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!"
"Mighty heart" might be a bit much, applied to my midnight ramble in southwest Donegal, but there you have it!

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,
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.... " cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Neutrality, for all its success, and it was an undoubted success, exacted its toll in more ways than one.

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