‘A pint of plain is your only man’

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 5 (September/October), Volume 22

A wartime John Gilroy Guinness ad aimed at the British market. (Guinness/Diageo)

A wartime John Gilroy Guinness ad aimed at the British market. (Guinness/Diageo)

Seventy-plus years ago—February 1944—and it is at last clear that the Allies are going to win the Second World War (1939–45). In Eastern Europe, the Red Army’s march west is gathering pace. In Italy, the Allied offensive at Monte Cassino is under way. And in Northern Ireland, in anticipation of D-Day, the number of British and American servicemen has swelled to a peak of 120,000.

With this teeming garrison of Allied troops now making up one tenth of the entire population of the six counties, some fear a cross-border invasion. But, for policy-makers in Dublin, the build-up of troops north of the border is the surest sign yet that Éire will emerge from the war with her neutrality and independence intact. One of the main reasons for this rather contented attitude south of the border lay in the title of the play that the well-oiled author Myles na gCopaleen was writing at the time: Thirst.

1941: annus horribilis

British servicemen enjoying a beer. In March 1942, after the British army complained to Whitehall of unrest caused by a sudden and ‘acute’ beer shortage in Belfast, a hasty agreement was drawn up—Britain would provide badly needed stocks of wheat in exchange for Guinness. (Military History Monthly)

British servicemen enjoying a beer. In March 1942, after the British army complained to Whitehall of unrest caused by a sudden and ‘acute’ beer shortage in Belfast, a hasty agreement was drawn up—Britain would provide badly needed stocks of wheat in exchange for Guinness. (Military History Monthly)

If, by 1943–4, the warming certainty that neutral Éire would prevail was gradually enveloping Ireland’s policy-makers, 1941 had been Ireland’s wartime annus horribilis. Attempting to deliver a death blow to the Irish agricultural economy, the British cut the vital annual supply of agricultural fertilisers to Ireland from 100,000 tons to zero. Likewise, the British supply of feeding stuffs was slashed from six million tons to zero. Petrol, too, was cut. At Christmas 1940, pumps across the state suddenly ran dry. Trains soon stopped running as the supply of British coal stalled. With bellies rumbling and the centenary of Ireland’s Great Hunger approaching, there were reports of the Phoenix Park deer and even Dublin zoo animals going missing. Dublin prostitutes, according to contemporary accounts, asked for payment not in cash but in sought-after commodities like soap or tea. As wheat production waned and the state desperately introduced the 100% black loaf (which in turn inhibited calcium absorption, leading to a massive increase in childhood rickets), it was claimed in the Dáil that ‘the poor are like hunted rats looking for bread’. To top it all, German bombs rained down, Dublin Castle was ravaged by fire and, most ominously, Ireland suffered a serious ‘foot and mouth’ outbreak.

Meanwhile, Irish people were experiencing a fall in wages in real terms and a steep rise in the cost of living. With the Irish economic situation aggravated by a booming black market and the seriously belated introduction of full rationing, the situation darkened. Famine soon became a realistic fear. Public health declined in tandem with the supply situation and that quintessential Famine disease—typhus, the ‘Irish fever’—made an unwelcome reappearance in the country. Globally, an estimated 20 million people would die of starvation during World War II. It was the increased incidence of famine and mention of the dreaded ‘F-word’ which prompted the Irish government, in 1942, to take decisive action to preserve its very existence.

Plato’s Cave
Such hardships are often hidden from accounts of life in Emergency Ireland. At the time, the widely quoted Myles na gCopaleen contributed some of his most biting satire to the column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ in the Irish Times. But his references to the ‘plain people of Ireland’ sat too long as a waggish substitute for an analysis of social and economic conditions. As the poet Maurice Craig (writing in 1942) put it:

‘Pity is lost on the tongues of the witty,
And the wolf at the door is a figure of fun’.

Popular appraisals of the Irish experience in World War II went on to quietly but surely influence the historiography of the 1939–45 period. In 1971 one of Ireland’s great historians, F.S.L. Lyons, used Plato’s allegory of the cave to claim that Emergency Ireland was ‘almost totally isolated from the rest of mankind’. The analogy heavily coloured the historiography that followed. Ireland as ‘Plato’s Cave’ was born: shorthand for boredom, ignorance and stasis in the socio-economic sphere.

An altogether racier high political narrative came to dominate the history of Ireland during World War II, one complete with Nazis-at-large and diplomatic broadsides. Many of the earlier histories of Ireland’s wartime survival are all about Big Men and their rhetorical exchanges. Similarly, in popular discourse, the compelling story of Ireland’s economic survival was nudged to one side as an often ahistorical narrative on the moral rights and wrongs of Irish neutrality took hold, one invariably informed by a Holocaust-tinted hindsight.

The real losers in this broad historiographical process were the legions of ordinary people: those who found themselves in miserable Emergency turf camps or huddled in Dublin’s embarkation centres, shaved of all body hair and doused all over in blue disinfectant as if in some sort of grotesque homage to woad-painted ancients. It would not be until the turn of this century that Emergency historiography would undergo a long-overdue shift, with the emergence of works taking a proper look at Irish socio-economic history at this juncture.

Economic survival

A late 1930s John Gilroy Guinness ad aimed at the German market. (D. Hughes, Gilroy was good for Guinness [Liberties Press, 2013

A late 1930s John Gilroy Guinness ad aimed at the German market. (D. Hughes, Gilroy was good for Guinness [Liberties Press, 2013

While debates such as the one surrounding Dev’s condolences on the death of Hitler are very interesting, therefore, our overriding question when addressing wartime Ireland ought to be ‘how on earth did independent Ireland survive economically?’ Back in 1941/2, just how did tiny Éire—possessing scant natural resources, rapidly regressing to a medieval horse-and-cart economy and described by another titan of Irish literature, George Bernard Shaw, as ‘a powerless little cabbage garden’—hope to sustain itself against the might of Anglo-American pressure?

This is a complex question which, admittedly, bleeds into the high political, and there is no short answer. A clue, however, lies in the communiqués back to London from the Dublin-based British press attaché and future British poet laureate John Betjeman. In these letters Betjeman regularly spelt out the Irish supply situation. A typical report ran ‘No coal. No petrol. No gas. No electric. No paraffin’ but conceded ‘Guinness good’. Guinness, therefore, was arguably the most important economic weapon that the Irish possessed.

In March 1942, in an effort to preserve wheat supplies to ensure that the poor had enough bread, the Irish government imposed restrictions on the malting of barley and banned the export of beer altogether. Consequently, the British attitude, hitherto devil-may-care, shifted dramatically. After the British army complained to Whitehall of unrest caused by a sudden and ‘acute’ beer shortage in Belfast, a hasty agreement was drawn up between senior British and Irish civil servants. Britain would provide badly needed stocks of wheat in exchange for Guinness.
A short time later, though, Guinness complained that they did not have sufficient coal to produce enough beer for both the home and export markets. Guinness was, of course, an established pre-protectionist company which the Irish Department of Supplies did not wholly trust. On this occasion, however, it was worth their while to take Guinness at their word. The Irish government promptly re-imposed the export ban, to the chagrin of their British counterparts. This time, in a further attempt to slake the thirst of Allied troops north of the border, British officials grumpily agreed to release more coal to Ireland. Barter proved a highly volatile business, and when Ireland did succeed in securing fertilisers and machinery in return for Guinness it was often in the face of strong opposition from the United States Combined Raw Materials Board and the British Ministry of Agriculture.

Slowly but surely, though, this pattern of barter repeated itself. Faced with a ballooning and dry-tongued garrison of American and British troops in Northern Ireland in the long run-up to D-Day in June 1944, the British and Americans periodically agreed to release stocks of wheat, coal, fertilisers and agricultural machinery in exchange for Guinness. These supplies were to keep neutral Ireland afloat during World War II and enable the continuance of Irish neutrality. The British wartime economic squeeze, lubricated by Guinness, was slowly loosening—proof that even in wartime, as na gCopaleen would attest,

‘When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN’.

Bryce Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool Hope University and 2014 Winston Churchill Fellow.

Read More: Churchillian bullying

Further reading

B. Evans, Ireland during the Second World War: farewell to Plato’s Cave (Manchester, 2014).
P. Rigney, Trains, coal and turf: transport in Emergency Ireland (Dublin, 2010).
C. Wills, That neutral island: a cultural history of Ireland during the Second World War (London, 2008).

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