Eugene Daly continues his series on various aspects of
Irish folklore and customs
Born in 1946, after the end of World War II, I didn’t experience it directly but learned much about it from my parents, grandmother and the other older people in my area. Since Ireland remained neutral, we never saw the real ugliness of war.
The side effects of being located on the edge of war-torn Europe were very real nevertheless. Scarcity of food and household goods was the main problem. The small farming communities of rural Ireland were still struggling from the effects of the ‘economic war’ of the 1930s and were given no time to recover before war broke out in 1939.
In later years we came to realise that the early forties were years of fears, rumours, shortages, improvisations and adversities. But adversity is a strange phenomenon; it often brings out the best in people, knitting communities together. It makes people aware of the value of having a good neighbour and of helping and sharing. The hardship continued into the fifties and there was little or nothing to spare until things began to improve in the sixties.
Growing up in the fifties, country children had many advantages over town and city children, even though we believed the opposite was the case. Most of our food was home produced – plenty of bacon, salt fish, poultry, potatoes and vegetables, some of our own flour, and plenty of milk and butter. In autumn nature provided us with our own sweet counter – blackberries, apples, elderberries and mushrooms.
The world knows the 1939-45 war as World War II, but in Ireland, possibly reflecting our neutrality, we diminished its importance by simply calling it ‘The Emergency’. A new vocabulary evolved – we had ‘emergency’ rationing, ‘emergency’ petrol, ‘emergency’ tillage, ‘emergency’ turf, the word ‘emergency’ elevating everything to new national importance.
Our area of west Cork had much in common with most places along the western seaboard. The land was relatively poor, the holdings were mostly small and the work was hard. Farm sizes were quoted in the number of cows the land could maintain – ‘the grass of six cows’ or a ‘ten-cow farm’.
In our parish, washed on one side by Roaring Water Bay and on the other side by the River Ilen, there were no villages, two R.C. Churches and one Church of Ireland, two post offices, two pubs, two shops, four creameries and the Skibbereen-Schull Tram ran through part of it when I was very young.
It was an era when the priest was respected, even feared, the master and the local guard equally so. The people, for the most part, had a simple, deep faith, but it was a religion of fear, with a judgemental God who was hard on sinners.
In an effort to ensure the fair distribution of essential items, rationing was introduced. Every person was issued with a ration book, with coupons for the various items. The ration books were deposited with the local shopkeeper, which meant that one could only shop at that particular establishment.
The size of each person’s quota was meagre and, at times, recently deceased people were allowed to ‘live on’ for the duration of rationing. The extra few ounces of tea or the extra pound of sugar far outweighed any fear of future fire and brimstone.
The scarcity of cigarettes and tobacco hit smokers very badly. They were at the mercy of the goodwill of the unfortunate shopkeeper who got only a fraction of normal supply and who usually tried their best to distribute them fairly among their customers.
Each cigarette was good for two or three smokes – just a few ‘drags’, then it was ‘topped’ until it was time for the next smoke. The ‘butts’ were hoarded in top pockets and when supplies ran short a makeshift cigarette could be made from two or three butts rolled in a piece of paper.
When real desperation set in, cigarettes were made from brown paper, tea leaves or even from turf dust. The black market introduced some unfamiliar brand names – Player’s Weights, Capstan, Craven A, White Horse, etc.
A certain amount of wheat was grown and was ground at the local stone mill. The fine white flour in the shops was rationed. The empty flour bags, however, were a boon to the housewife. After washing and bleaching, she had some precious cloth which was converted into bed sheets, undergarments for children and tea towels. Nothing was wasted, not even the thread that been used in making the bags.
Much of the work in the fields was still done manually; the hay and corn, were cut by a scythe; small ‘gardens’ of potatoes were made, using a grafán, a big strong hoe-like implement. The crops were fertilised by farmyard manure; by the seashore and on the islands seaweed was very important as a fertiliser. Sand was taken from sandy strands or dredged, and landed on quays along the coast. Farmers carted the sand to spread in their fields.
On the islands, donkeys were very useful for drawing small loads. This was the era of the pony and the horse, especially the Irish draught horse. People became more efficient in ploughing with the horse, which gave rise to annual local ploughing matches. The blacksmith was a very important tradesman in the community.