Sunday 23 September 2018

Of allotments and 'bad legs'

Food shortages and poor public health were among the themes of March 1918

Advocate: Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne (second left), seen here with Fr Flanagan, Éamon de Valera and Bishop Foley, was causing a stir in Australia over his vocal support for Irish independence
Advocate: Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne (second left), seen here with Fr Flanagan, Éamon de Valera and Bishop Foley, was causing a stir in Australia over his vocal support for Irish independence

Damian Corless

Perhaps the most depressing item in the Irish Independent of March 23, 1918 was a postcard-sized map of action in the trenches of the Great War. It was headlined 'The Life and Death Struggles in the West', and illustrated that these struggles were a cruelishly slow stalemate. What little movement there was, was happening off these coasts where the German U-boat campaign against British shipping was taking a heavy toll, not just on lives but on food.

Ireland was not immune from this strategy of strangling Britain's food supply, and the Irish Independent's stories and adverts encouraged readers to plant and till every fallow inch of ground. Adverts for seeds were front page stuff. One of the bestselling books was how to convert your garden into an allotment. The war was still very much in the balance. And yet, while shortages and even starvation loomed, there was room for adverts informing parents that six-month-old infants should be "sturdy and not too fat". Strict censorship meant news was thin. Paper shortages meant newspapers were thin, but advertising went on, although in terms that seem unfamiliar today, such as "Have You a Constipation Habit?"

And even under those war clouds there were reasons to be cheerful. Lent was coming to an end and the Easter weekend beckoned. Tramore in Waterford advertised itself as being a "glorious" place to enjoy an Easter Monday. Greystones in Wicklow expressed even more self-confidence. It invited day trippers to 'Stay at Greystones -Climate Milder than Bournemouth'. Inquiries could be made by phoning 'Greystones Eleven'. The phone was the new miracle medium, not just because it was transforming communications, but the world of work itself.

Two new sectors were flying at terrific speed. The rapid advance of wireless and telephone technology, and a parallel growth in motor transport, provided prospects outside traditional occupations for men such as blacksmith, farm labourer, butcher, carriage maker, etc, and for women beyond shop assistant, domestic servant and the clothing industry. Girls in particular were courted by the new communications industry, through dozens of adverts along the lines of that by The Ladies & Gents' Telegraphy School which boasted: "Over One Hundred Pupils Recently Obtain Positions."

Decades later, the man who gave us the term 'global village', Marshall McLuhan, would contend that the world's first radio broadcast was made in Dublin just two Easters earlier by the rebels holding the GPO. He wrote: "Wireless had already been used on ships as ship-to-shore telegraph. The rebels made, not a point-to-point message, but a diffused broadcast in the hope of getting word out to some ship that would relay their story to the US press."

In an unregulated world, some job descriptions were vague, such as: "Australia. Girls wanted. Fare £1. Grahan Corbet, Government Agents, 18 Lr Ormond Quay, Dublin." One that wouldn't be seen today read. "Boy, about fifteen, wanted for light work. Good home, orphan preferred." Most of the jobs on offer were more traditional, such as the one for an upholsterer, who should apply to the Irish Curly Hair Company.

In an age before the flu jab, a bout of influenza could, and often did, prove fatal. The newspapers advertised countless compounds including Iron Jelloids and Beecham's Pills which claimed to protect against flu and, for good measure, against just about anything else that might ail you. Two years later those fears came horribly true when a global influenza epidemic killed some 50 million including tens of thousands here.

The chronic state of Ireland's health service promoted the spread of infectious disease, with the poor, the homeless, the orphaned and the infirm shoehorned into inhuman workhouses, reformatories and mental institutions. During recent decades, the country's rulers had dampened down dissent by pumping generous subsidies into Ireland's local authorities, maintaining Dickensian institutions which should have been long shut down. In 1918, the sparsely populated county of Monaghan had four hospitals and a workhouse.

Up the social ladder, St Patrick's Hospital for the Treatment of Mental Diseases was always touting for custom. Advertising its refurbished "mansion" on 200 acres, it announced: "Urgent cases can be admitted to the Hospital on application to the Medical Superintendent."

If the adverts were to be believed, bad legs (which included boot rash and corns) ranked second only to constipation as a public health concern. One carried a testimony allegedly from a monk, headlined: 'How a Bad Leg Escaped Amputation'. With his mother's leg facing the chop, the monk recommended that she try Grasshopper Ointment & Pills. Her cure was instant and miraculous, and readers could share in it by sending off a postal order for two shillings.

One of the most eye-catching headlines is 'Sinn Féin in Australia'. It stated "The Australian branch of the British Empire Union is preparing a petition ... expressing alarm at the disloyalty of the adherents of Archbishop Mannix". Archbishop Mannix had risen to the top of the Catholic Church in Australia and was a vocal advocate of Irish independence. His reputation was global.

Five years later, reporting on the Free State's first general election, this paper told of an elderly Kilkenny woman who insisted on voting for Mannix. Officials politely explained that Mannix was not a candidate in her constituency nor in any other, since he was fully occupied with his job as the Archbishop of Melbourne. On hearing this, the woman said that if she couldn't vote for the Archbishop, she would vote for no-one, and she walked out.

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