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Rationed petrol, weekends cutting turf ... and the glimmer man: Here's what life in Ireland was like during The Emergency

Times became hard after Britain declared war on Germany – and it’s not as if they they had been easy in the 20s and 30s, writes Éanna Brophy.

Eanna Brophy

EMERGENCY? WHAT EMERGENCY? Ireland has come through many emergencies. We are now living in the emergency caused by Covid-19, and the most recent one before this one was the bank crash of 2008/9. But for Irish people of an older generation there was only ever one emergency, the one they call “The Emergency”. In the rest of the world, this was known as World War II.

When Britain declared it was at war with Hitler’s Germany on 3 September 1939, the Irish government led by Éamon de Valera quickly declared that it would remain neutral.

Times soon became hard – and they had not been easy in the 20s and 30s. We depended on Britain for a vast range of commodities, including coal, petrol, tea, flour and sugar. Cars and spare parts, tyres, electric light bulbs and all sorts of building materials all came from our large next-door neighbour which now wanted all these things for itself.

Shortages

The man entrusted by de Valera to sort all this out was future Taoiseach Séan Lemass who was appointed Minister for Supply. The absence of coal was a big hardship, but Ireland had its own secret weapon – the bogs.

pjimage(6) A boy in Connemara with turf and a man digging turf in 1942. Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Turf was harvested at a frantic rate. The main avenue of the Phoenix Park was eventually flanked on both sides by ton upon ton of turf destined for the fires of the people of Dublin. The avenue was soon christened The New Bog Road.

Some citizens bought plots of bog in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains and spent their weekends cutting and stacking the brown sods.

Essential workers and travel restrictions

With petrol in such short supply, its use by private motorists was soon curtailed. It was rationed at first, but as the war dragged on, only members of certain professions such as doctors were permitted to drive their own cars when treating patients. One oft-repeated yarn from the Emergency days told of the ten prominent Dublin doctors whose cars were found by a garda, parked outside Portmarnock golf club. Challenged, they all gave the name of the same local woman they were allegedly treating. The authorities threatened that if they ever did this again, not only would they lose their petrol allowance, but their cars would be confiscated.

Essential tradesmen also got supplied with limited amounts of petrol. Public transport was cut back and as the war – the Emergency – continued the hours of service became less and less. The departure time for the last buses in Dublin was 10 pm. Horse-drawn transport of all kinds reappeared on the streets, and the humble bicycle was a must for most households.

bomb falls Newspaper headline about the bombing of the South Circular, in January 1941. Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The severe shortage of coal was badly felt, no more so than by the thousands of customers of the Dublin and Alliance Consumers Gas Company. Gas cookers could only be used during certain hours, roughly coinciding with breakfast, dinner and tea (the running order for those meals back then). In between those times the gas company had to maintain a very low flow of gas in the pipes for safety reasons. You were not allowed to use this “glimmer” of gas (and anyway you’d be waiting forever for a kettle to boil.)

Hence the arrival of that fearsome figure who still haunts Dublin folklore -  the Glimmer Man. Emergency or no emergency there were babies’ bottles to be warmed, and many mothers used the glimmer in desperation to soothe a crying baby. The Glimmer Man had extraordinary powers: he could legally enter your house and check for recent illegal usage of gas by placing his hands on the cooker ring. Guilty parties could have their supply cut off forthwith.

Lord Haw Haw

Another name prominent in those fraught times was Lord Haw Haw. The nickname was given to him by an English newspaper columnist. The real man behind the name was William Joyce. 

Born in America, but growing up in Salthill, Galway, he was reputed to have been a British agent who helped the Black and Tans. He later joined Oswald Mosley’s fascists before going to Germany. His nightly propaganda broadcasts were widely heard here, and his opening phrase “Jairmany Calling, Jairmany Calling” was much mimicked.

Irish listeners were intrigued that this mysterious personage had such detailed knowledge of Irish place-names. He was hanged for treason by the British after the war: his American birth his downfall.

use this leaflet Gordon Brewster cartoon showing DeValera sheltering under an umbrella which bears the word ‘Neutrality’. Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Ration books

Ration books were issued to all households in 1942. Clothing, tea and other foods were subject to severe limits per person. A parody song included the chorus:

Bless de Valera and Séan McEntee

They gave us black bread and a half ounce of tea.

(McEntee was Minister for Local Government and Public Health).

There was illness and disease then too. Severe shortages of bread left poor families in dire straits and small children who suffered from malnutrition became ill with rickets, a disorder caused by lack of Vitamin D, calcium or phosphate. There were also outbreaks of typhus – and TB – tuberculosis which ravaged the country well into the 1950s.

Smuggling across the Border was rife. While the south had plenty of butter, eggs and other farm produce, the situation in Northern Ireland was very different. Both sides had rationing of food and clothing, but tea, flour and petrol, which were severely rationed in the south were much more available north of the Border.

Illicit exchanges were soon taking place on the many shady roads and boreens that criss-crossed the divide. It was even rumoured that a blind eye could be turned by some guardians of the law to some of these exchanges in return for a share of the fruits of the proceeds.

Oddly enough, razor blades were widely available in the south, but scarce in the north: a Belfast grocer ended up in jail for illegally importing thousands of razor blades from “Eire” and having over 500 pounds of tea ready to smuggle southwards.

pjimage(7) Séan Lemass and Éamon De Valera. Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

It is almost impossible today to imagine the degree of deprivation the population felt because of the shortage of tea in this part of the island. Britain, with its long-established worldwide connections, controlled the tea trade. Dublin and London had come to an agreement at the start of the war that both countries would receive the same per-capita ration of tea, but in 1940 Britain announced that the Irish would only be entitled to a quarter-ounce of tea per person per week while the British would retain their whole ounce per person.

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Lemass hired an American ship, bought a large quantity of tea from the Calcutta merchants and brought it back to Ireland via a circuitous route.

Northern folk of all persuasions who could afford to do so would come to Dublin for weekends to enjoy the relatively more plentiful food and a normal nightlife that was no longer available in Belfast and other towns. It was also claimed that the clientele of Dublin’s better restaurants included spies and agents from both sides of the world conflict. (Think Rick’s Bar in Casablanca). The poet John Betjeman (later Sir) was an attachē in the British embassy in those years, and rumour had it that he was much more than a mere diplomat.

A dearth of news

The news was heavily censored during the Emergency. The newspapers had to submit their page proofs in advance every night to the Controller of Censorship who vetted them scrupulously for any words or photographs that might be deemed a breach of our neutrality. An Irish Times journalist, Tony Gray, wrote a book about the Emergency entitled “The Lost Years” which recounted, among many other stories, the battle of wits between that paper’s editor R.M.Smyllie and the censors who were answerable to the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures, Frank Aiken. Smyllie did his best to slip pro-British news into the paper; Aiken, though certainly not pro-Nazi, loathed the British (he had participated in the war of independence – and some of his activities remain controversial).

On the night before VE Day on 8 May 1945 (celebrating victory in Europe) the censors were still busy, but they gave a clean bill of health to the advanced front page proof from the Irish Times. However, when the later city edition appeared next morning, all the single-column pictures of the Allied generals and other commanders had been re-arranged by Smyllie – they now formed a huge V for victory that ran across all eight columns.

Sadly, many of those who have recently died in Ireland’s nursing homes are of the generation who knew the Emergency as children and had stories to tell about it. One wonders whether the children now living through today’s unprecedented emergency will have as many memories to pass on.

Éanna Brophy is a former reporter and columnist with The Sunday Press.

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