Wednesday 12 December 2018

Feel-good factor returns

With the Great War finally over, a food and ­shopping binge ­ensued

Forgotten men: A victory parade for the Irish soldiers returning from the Great War outside College Green, Dublin
Forgotten men: A victory parade for the Irish soldiers returning from the Great War outside College Green, Dublin

Damian Corless

It was only an advert for porridge, but it captured the mood of the country to a tee. In the Irish Independent of December 30, 1918, the makers of White's Wafer Oatmeal opened their product pitch with the declaration: "We're living in days of victory. The greatest of all Wars has been fought and won - and gloriously won."

The big lie of 1914 was that it would all be over by Christmas, but this Christmas it had come true and people were still pinching themselves. The feel-good factor was at large, manifested in an overwhelming sense of relief, and a more tangible, gloriously giddy, orgy of belt-loosening well expressed in another large advert, this time for Bovril.

Headlined 'The Food Restrictions' to parody four years of grim official notices, it told consumers: "Early in the New Year the supplies of Bovril will be more plentiful so that those who hold a stock at home can use it now with the knowledge that it can soon be replaced."

This massive release of dopamine into the collective nervous system probably helped anaesthetise large sections of the Irish establishment to disastrous news that began pouring in from the moment the ballot boxes opened on December 28. The pollsters had known from far out that a Sinn Féin victory was on the cards, but many, even in the young upstart party, were taken aback as the scale of their landslide unfolded.

The Irish Independent was a staunch supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party. As it contemplated the virtual wipeout of that entity, the newspaper which was normally so openly hostile to Sinn Féin bit its tongue and tried to accentuate the positive for the day that was in it. Many reports from the constituencies were keen to stress moments of good grace and humour, with the reassuring phrase "no incidents". A photo from Dublin's Green Street Courthouse count centre good humouredly showed "a section of the crowd who received the Sinn Féin victories with great enthusiasm".

In Belfast, Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson attempted to put the best spin he could on a result that could only spell trouble down the road. Carson insisted that "the election has cleared the air". The Irish Independent's coverage underlined that the general election of 1918 was not just an all-Ireland affair, but a two-island contest. It published detailed results for every constituency in Ireland and Britain, giving a good deal of space to 'The Coalition Triumph' of Lloyd George's wartime alliance which was entrusted to build the peace.

Ireland and Britain, that Christmas of 1918, were caught in the grip of the great Spanish Flu pandemic which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, claiming some 280,000 fatalities in the two islands. Medical science was less advanced than today and the Independent's sister paper, the Evening Herald, speculated that the cause of the contagion was swine fever caught from eating "bad bacon".

Flu or no flu, such was the sense of release after four strapped down years, that people were ready and willing to risk mingling in large crowds as the January sales kicked off, with Roberts, Clerys and all the big department stores offering pre-war prices on hats, laces, scarves and furs. Some shoppers might be on the lookout for evening dress accessories for the various New Year's Eve dances that, this year, were being dubbed Victory Balls.

And should any belle feel self-conscious about unslghtly hair, the pages of the Irish Independent offered a supernatural solution.

"I Was A Sight From Superfluous Hair", admitted a voice from an ad, accompanied by a sketch of two Indian women in their saris. Happily, though: "I cured it quickly, root and all, so it never returned. I will send full free particulars of the Sacred HINDOO secret which cured me."

Even as it absorbed an election outcome that was beyond seismic, Ireland that Christmas week was blissed out and floating on air, as it basked in its honeymoon with peacetime. Tacked on in small print to the bottom of an advert for Dunlop Tyres, however, was a hint of the reality that would soon bite. It asked: "Are YOU employing a disabled man?"

One of the good news stories from abroad reported that the release of British army POWs from German camps was progressing rapidly. The return of large numbers of injured, disabled, shellshocked and traumatised men would bring with it a whole new range of social challenges.

On top of this, the radically changed electoral landscape in Ireland would soon traumatise the country itself. Before seeing his Parliamentary Party wiped off the map, DJ Gogan MP, said that if the Irish people gave victory to Sinn Féin, they would bring disgrace on themselves and earn the contempt of the free nations of the world. The US was already "disgusted" with the Irish people for spending the Great War squabbling amongst themselves. Sinn Féin had already made the big mistake of siding with Germany in the war, and Gogan wondered how many more provocative blunders the party would make if given a mandate?

He wouldn't have to wait long to find out. Three weeks after the election count, Sinn Féin's newly-elected MPs assembled illegally in Dublin as Dáil Éireann. By that act of defiance, they lit the fuse on 30 months of struggle that would become known as the War of Independence.

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