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Empty tea cups: Living without tea in WWII Ireland

If you think you’re gasping for a cuppa at the end of a long day, you should have seen the country in 1941…

WHAT IS A world without a cup of tea?

With the choice of brands and blends available to the Irish consumer today, it’s hard to imagine a time when the entire country was gasping for a cuppa.

But that was the case at the height of The Emergency, when the then government put strict rules in place to steer the country through the privations wreaked by World War II.

John Porter is a PhD candidate in Trinity College Dublin and his research on the history of Irish consumer behaviours is being funded by the Irish Research Council. He is going to speak on the effect of tea rationing on Irish society as part of the Dublin Festival of History programme, which runs from this weekend until 8 October.

He writes here for TheJournal.ie:

For two centuries, tea had been Ireland’s national drink. It achieved and retained popularity despite the occasional challenger, from alcoholic beverages to soft drinks and more recently coffee.

On the verge of World War II, Irish citizens consumed more tea per head than anywhere else, apart from Britain. It came as a tremendous shock, therefore, when a very meagre tea ration was introduced in 1941. The British government, in that year, restricted exports to Ireland in an effort to punish the country for its neutrality. A tea ration was introduced in Ireland at one quarter the level it was provided to British citizens.

recruit A poster designed by artist Jack Mac Manus which was used as a recruiting tool for the Local Defence Force during 'The Emergency' in neutral Ireland in World War II. Source: National Library of Ireland

Irish society reacted with understandable trepidation to this announcement. Newspaper and magazine articles advised consumers how they could eke out their meagre ration or almost unimaginably try to survive without tea. Businesses advertised substitute products, but these often proved highly unappetising and unpopular. Individuals sought ways around the ration and many were turned into petty criminals by purchasing through the black market.

The empty tea cup became a symbol of the deprivation suffered by Irish society during the war.

The country, of course, experienced many apparently more pressing problems. Coal and petrol shortages crippled Irish industry and transport systems; the country saw a dramatic rise in tuberculosis and infant mortality, as well as, the reappearance of typhoid; and many citizens experienced severe food shortages and inferior quality provisions.

WWII British Isles This Christmas dinner of rationed goods in 1943 in England was about as lavish as meals could get at the time. Ireland was subject to even more severe rationing of some products - including of tea. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Yet the shortage of no other product seems to have invaded the imagination of the Irish public as deeply as tea. Soldiers threatened mutiny and workers went on strike demanding a larger ration; those with money were happy to pay almost any price for tea.

“No privation is too severe provided an occasional mug of tea is forthcoming,” is how one senior army officer put it in 1941.

Hear more from John on this subject at his talk in Ballyfermot Library next Wednesday, 28 September, at 6.30pm. Dublin Festival of History programme is here.

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