The Emergency 1939 – 1945

The Emergency 1939 – 1945

Ireland was still very dependent on our nearest neighbour and it was hoped that the politicians would remain in good terms with them. Britain in turn had to do a bow turn, it had a large population to feed and supplies from abroad had suddenly become uncertain. The Second World War was a prosperous time for its farmers and farm labourers. According to Newby, ‘the need to expand agriculture almost at any cost was not only a wartime imperative but was given a added piquancy by Britain’s reliance on imported food, following decades of free trade agricultural policy. The intervention in agriculture was certainly the most urgent and in many respects the most far-reaching manifestation of the state’s new role in the countryside, but it was by no means the only element of rural reconstruction to be undertaken. ……………..Henceforth rural Britain was to be fashioned, controlled and administered through public policies, influenced albeit by familiar hierarchy of farmers and landowners. Nevertheless these policies were to emanate from Westminster, Whitehall and – much later – Brussels. The whole pattern of farming was drastically changed: neglected and derelict land was reclaimed, large numbers of livestock were slaughtered in order to save on feedstuffs, and a record acreage of land was placed under the plough. Compulsory cropping orders were issued and mechanization was enforced using a system of local tractor stations borrowed from Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union. Since Britain’s Ministry had virtually no field officers of its own and thus was ill-prepared to offer detailed advice or to safeguard the efficient use of government resources at local level – the Ministry created WAR Agricultural Executive Committees, or ‘War Ags’ as they were dubbed, drawn primarily from land commissioners, county advisory staff and university personnel, leavened by local exemplary local farmers and landowners. The War Ags issued advice, issued cultivation directions and allocated scarce resources such as fertilizers, feedstuffs and machinery. The intervention of the War Ags, into what previously regarded as the farmer’s own business was helped by the fact they also channeled grant aid and subsidies. British public opinion of agriculture also changed during the War, on the basis of renewed awareness of its strategic position.

For Ireland during the Second World War, James Meenan commented ‘The picture of Neutral Ireland waxing prosperous on wartime prices is therefore misleading’. Raymond Crotty gave the war years scant attention, because in his opinion, ‘they left no permanent imprint on Irish Agriculture. Farmers fared out reasonably well in comparison to other sections of Irish society according to Crotty. According to Cullen our exports halved between 1938 and 1943 in sharp contrast to the First World War. In 1945 net agricultural output, which is a close approximation to income from farming, was 16.8 per cent higher than in 1938/39. ……………………..and most of this was due to an expansion in tillage. However, these figures according to Cullen,and Daly ‘were very influenced by underinvestment in agriculture,   and that the U.K. had continued to subsidise their own farmers to produce the maximum amount from their land’. Furthermore Northern Ireland farmers were able to enjoy the subsidies and markets that the farmers in the South were excluded from.

The level of output obtained during the war years could only be held for relatively short period, and at a later date additional investment in the form of fertilizer and equipment would be necessary to make good the neglect or under investment of the war years’. Although the British market offered no wartime bonanza, Ireland’s enforced self-sufficiency gave farmers the security of guaranteed price and a guarantee for most commodities. Politically farmers became more astute, in the form of deputations, delegations and resolutions. As result there were occasional allegations by the government and civil servants that farmers were furthering their own interests at national expense. 

The Emergency got its name from the 1939 Emergency Powers Act, which enabled government to make emergency order covering almost any matter, without going the time-consuming process of enacting legislation in the Oireachtas. During 1942 and 1943, for example, emergency powers orders were introduced to ensure the equitable distribution of fertilizer among farmers. Propaganda was an important aspect, which included Radio broadcasts, ministerial speeches (read on the newspapers), advertisements, emphasized neutrality and the survival of the nation was dependent on the ability of farmers to provide sufficient food. Posters at railway stations, creameries and schools urged farmers to till more land. ‘More and More Wheat’ was one of the slogans. The Great Famine references were used as a prod. Daniel Twomey secretary of the Department of Agriculture in a letter to the clergy remarked. ‘It would be tragic if, in view of the natural resources available, we failed to provide the means of feeding the people, and as a consequence had to face a repetition of the hardship endured during the forties in the last century’.  In April 1944 de Valera commented that although conditions were serious, he did not expect them to deteriorate to the level of Bengal, China, or in Ireland a century earlier.

The wheat output during the war increased from 255,300 tons in 1939 to 573,050 tons in 1945 an increase of 124 per cent, while acreage increased from 255,280 acres in 1939 to 662,498 acres in 1945. Wheat was essential for the national survival. For 1940/1 season the compulsory tillage order was extended from 12.5 per cent of the arable land to 20 per cent requiring to be tilled for all holdings greater than ten acres. The objective was to supply 50 per cent of flour from native wheat. The wheat growers were to be given 35s a barrel of wheat produced. In 1942/3 when prospects of imports appeared bleak, the quota was raised to 25 per cent of the land as the prospects of supply from a broad appeared bleak; Corry of Irish Sugar Beet Growers Association and a T.D. for East Cork gave helping hand by forcing through an increase per barrel of wheat of government subsidy to 50s per barrel. The percentage of land that had to be devoted to wheat increased to 37.5 per cent for the following year. In September 1943 the Department of Supplies recommended that flour-millers include 7% barley in the manufacture of flour as they expected that imports would not be sufficient. Also the Cabinet reduced beer exports by 50% in order to preserve supplies of barley. In 1939 the Department of Agriculture estimated that 65,000 acres of sugar beet would  be necessary to provide self-sufficiency. This figure was substantially exceeded for four of the War years. It was grown under contract to the factories.

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