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Thursday 20 September 2018

Of booze bans and a raging flu

Damian Corless on the rurally-led Ireland of 1918 where abject poverty was the norm

Tenement life: Dublin's blackspots were the poorest in the British Isles
Tenement life: Dublin's blackspots were the poorest in the British Isles

By the early days of 1918, Ireland was weary. War weary. The lead headline of The Irish Independent that spring read 'Greatest Battle of the War Begun'. The following day the headline news was "horror". People didn't know what to believe anymore, and were believing less in Empire.

And Ireland was still Empire. We were still very much a part of the United Kingdom. Take, for example, the advert: 'When You Come To Town Stay At The Waldorf - Still The Best.' Coming to stay "in town" didn't mean Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway.

The most groundbreaking news of February did, in fact, come from London. Women were, for to the first time, to "receive the Parliamentary vote and enter into the full rights of citizenship. Six million of them are added to the roll of electors (in Britain and Ireland) and the total electorate is doubled."

But this was no promised land for women's liberation. In the very same week, the Houses of Westminster passed the Midwives' Bill which penalised "handy women" who had been conducting childbirth since the dawn of our species. It was a power grab by the all-male medical profession, which would have far-reaching consequences for maternity in Ireland in years to come.

Before they were granted the vote, Ireland's women were mobilising vocally against drink, or King Grog. Across the Atlantic, women were leading the campaign for a total ban on booze, and victory, which would come in 1919, was in clear sight. In Ireland too, women were at the vanguard of the crusade. That is, apart from those accused of blowing the housekeeping budget on drink. One typical temperance meeting in Dublin was told of "the shameless drinking of the wives and mothers of soldiers at the front". It was alleged that 'separation money' from the State was being "recklessly" squandered, leaving kids to go hungry.

The Irish Independent of early 1918 did reflect a very real difference to industrialised England. We were deeply rural. We were Britain's farm. The Indo was a farmer's paper and proud of it. The adverts were almost all to do with the land. Take, for instance: "Farmers - five great cures for stomach trouble in young calves." Many of the adverts featured horses, cattle and sheep for sale. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, after nearly four years of war, the next most advertised commodity was drink.

There was great poverty. In recent decades Dublin's rich had abandoned the city centre for suburbs like Ranelagh and Drumcondra, and by 1918, their formerly fine homes had fallen into dereliction, though not disuse. While much of rural Ireland was dirt poor and hungry, many Dubliners lived in a massed squalor which condemned them to lives that were nasty, brutish and short. The capital's blackspots were the poorest in the British Isles, with a death rate 33pc higher than in the worst slums of London. The inner city was crowded with livestock kept in filthy dairy yards and laneways, and the sound of animals being slaughtered rang from countless backstreet abattoirs. Offal, blood and excrement splattered the pavements of the city centre.

Disease plagued the slum tenements where one-in-three families lived in one room. Henrietta Street, just off O'Connell Street, was now a by-word for wretchedness, with some 800 people squashed into 15 townhouses originally built to house just one well-heeled family each. Out back there was a piggery. Dublin Corporation's efforts to improve conditions were lamentable, not least because many Corpo members doubled as slum landlords collecting rents from the crumbling tenements. And as disease raged, and infant mortality in particular soared, the hospital system was falling apart as huge war inflation crippled fixed budgets.

In the bars and kitchens, adult chat revolved around the news from the front, the chances of a flu epidemic and the prospects of army conscription ever happening.

The Irish enjoyed more meat in their diet than their neighbours across the sea, but Catholic dietary norms were interrupted in the weeks before Easter by the restrictions of Lent, which began on February 13. Bakeries, sweetshops, butchers and restaurants took their seasonal hit, as did the pubs as menfolk swore off for the duration.

However, for the fish trade, Lent was always a festive time. Tinned in England, Skippers were heavily advertised as 'The Best Fish For Lent'. The advert continued: "Skippers enable you to observe the Lenten Fast without sacrificing nourishment which is really necessary for health. Skippers themselves are rich in just those elements which build up the system and enable it to bear the extra strain and extra work imposed by the War. Ask gently but FIRMLY for Skippers."

For most working families, urban and rural, the main meal of the day was dinner at lunchtime, with stews made from leftovers a popular fare. For eating out, Restaurant Jammet at Dublin's Burlington Hotel was beyond the means of most, but many pubs did affordable soups, grills and sandwiches.

At the very bottom of the food pyramid, the board of the Roscrea Workhouse in Tipperary tendered for a supply of white bread which "must be equal to and will be compared with the Best White Bread made in the town of Roscrea". It said something about Ireland's subservient place in the United Kingdom that far greater proportion of Irish adults and children were incarcerated in workhouses, reformatories and mental hospitals than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

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