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Con Houlihan: Divided by flour and fuel

Food and fuel were the main topics of conversation in Ireland in the autumn of 1939. Food was more urgent. There were people alive whose parents remembered The Great Hunger. The government did its best: it obliged all farmers to cultivate some of their land and sow wheat.

The produce wasn't very wholesome: the white flour was separated from the rest and it left behind a very unpalatable brown flour. People tried to eat it by mixing it with potatoes. The humble potato played a great part in getting the people over the hungry years.

This crisis divided the rich from the poor. White flour was available at crazy prices and some people became very rich. Donal O'Connor, mine host of The Castle Hotel in Dublin, always seemed to have white bread available for his customers. If he had sold his white bread on the black market, he would have become a very wealthy man but Donal wasn't that kind of person.

In those years a new drink appeared on shop counters. It was called bees' wine and appeared in large glass jars that had been used for containing sweets. Small boys and big boys loved to see the bees at their work but, of course, they weren't bees at all -- they were pieces of yeast. It was a lovely drink, but people complained about it. They said that the number of men falling off bicycles was above the national average. The truth is that some people abused the new drink. Children loved it, as it put their adults into a good mood. It was withdrawn as mysteriously as it had appeared.

The elders of the Church and of the State frowned on bees' wine. It gave people pleasure and that wouldn't do at all. All kinds of fruit were used to sweeten the flour but in vain. It was simply bad flour and we had to suffer.

My father, who was with a flying column in Tipperary, told a curious story about this time. The column were told to blow up a local bridge but they didn't because they knew how much it meant to the people of the nearby village. They crossed the river almost everyday to a mountain that abounded in various kinds of fruit. And they told De Valera in no uncertain terms that they would not blow up the bridge.


Life went on and the Civil War came to an end but not without great resourcefulness by the women. They picked wild apples and they gathered all kinds of fruit. The blackberry was the most common. Children loved to see it boiling in the pot and they were armed with spoons with which they skimmed off the scum. We could never see why "scum" was deemed a bad word in the world outside.

Fuel was almost as important as food. The local councils didn't do a very good job in providing it. They employed engineers and overseers who had never been in the bog in their life. The workers had no shelter or no wet time. They were paid poorly. When workers are treated badly, they do not respond well.

When Dan Spring got into the Kerry County Council, he greatly improved the conditions of the workers and the turf began to improve. It was still no better than it should be. The poor people in the towns suffered the most. They were given turf that was very hard to light and slow to burn. They went out into the woods and gathered twigs and branches and bushwood. They collected sawdust in the mills. They got by but it wasn't easy.

When there was a meeting in Castle Island to examine the Buchanan Report I attended it on behalf of the Angling Club. Several proposals were made that night but only my proposal ever became effective. My suggestion was that a number of men should come together and harvest turf for the Community Hall. This, in effect, was the hall for old people and was done so people could sit around and enjoy lit fires. As far as I know this practice is still in effect.


In Dublin there were great mounds of turf in the Phoenix Park. They were old pyramids but a few people came to view them. The ordinary people went there day by day seeking dry turf but they didn't find much. Thus a cartoon appeared in Dublin Opinion which showed a noble man and his lady crouching over a fire from which came more smoke than heat. Eventually she said: "I think it's time darling that you went out and cut another bucketful."

The bad times went by and we were left only with memories and the hope that they would never come back.

White bread marked the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." People are more aware now and in a future crisis there should be no division between the classes. They were bad years in terms of food and fuel and many other things which marked a clear division in Irish society. A division that can hardly ever return.

Ireland didn't come too badly out of the crisis. The people of Europe in general suffered more. Germany took generations to recover. So did the countries surrounding it.

War is a terrible thing. Nobody won that war but a great many people lost it. The foundation of the Common Market was a bid to prevent those bad times from coming back.

Fogra: Many congratulations to Joe Ward and Ray Moylette for bringing boxing glory to Ireland. The two young boxers won gold medals at the European Senior Championships in Ankara, Turkey