Fear of famine in 1940’s Ireland – 1946 agricultural labourers strike in Kildare

by mariocorrigan on October 24, 2007

Kildare Voice: August 10 2007
Fear of hunger united nation
 In 1946, agricultural labourers throughout Ireland came together to prevent imminent famine.
The farmers who are surveying their sodden wheat fields this week will empathise with their counterparts of sixty years ago, the year the harvest was so bad that the army was sent out to help gather it.
According to the records 1958 was the wettest summer on record in Kildare, but local people have more reason to recall the wet summer of 12 years earlier.
Soldiers from the Curragh marching out to the fields do battle against the weather were joined by civil servants and office workers sent out from Dublin..
Senior classes of boys’ secondary day and boarding schools were closed down to enable students to help with the harvest.
Devout sabbatraians were out working on Sundays. For six weeks from August to October all club GAA matches in Kildare were suspended. The county final between Athy and Carbury was fixed for September 15th, then the 29th, and finally took place on October 13th. Floods in October added to the problem.
It added to the accumulated hardships caused by the second world war. Restrictions and rationing were still in place.
Despite the biggest surpluses for years being harvested in Kansas, Oklahoma and Canada, American grain could not be moved rapidly because of the devastation of international shipping caused by six years of war.
Meanwhile mainland Europe was flirting with famine, an experience that directly led to the formulation of the agricultural policy of the EU over the coming decades.
There was a self congratulatory mood at the end of it all. James Ryan, the Minister for Agriculture made a rare appearance on Radio Eireann to address farmers and thank them from their forbearance.
It is a mood touched by Liam Wylie’s 1997 film Harvest Emergency, which asserts that “in 1946 fear of hunger, not felt since the Great Famine, united the nation in an effort to save Ireland’s harvest.”
The image that has endured of 1946 is that it was a feel-good success, a heroic effort, the triumph of a country in difficulties in mobilising its workforce to cope with adversity.
The truth seems to have been more complex. There is something shocking for modern readers about a supposedly agricultural country being unable to feed itself in time of war.
Substantial portions of their wheat, barley or oat crops rotted in the fields, but the harvest was, in theory, saved.
The harvest that was saved was of inferior quality. The poor quality of bakers’ bread was as big a subject of conversation as the weather.
In the midst of it all, there was bitterness, bewilderment, jealousy and resentment, and nowhere was it more evident than in Kildare.
There were claims that compulsory tillage still being enforced on Irish farms was threatening to drive the dairy farmer out of business.
Kildare was a rich agricultural region with a strong tradition of tillage. The compulsory tillage measures of the war, resented in the west, had an uneven impact in the country and Kildare farmers had no difficulty meeting their quotas. Another unrecorded aspect of life in early 1940s Ireland was that the country enjoyed an economic lift as the farming community got good prices for their produce for the first time since the 1914-29.price boom.
As the war ended so did the mini boom. There was resentment that summer at the decrease of 2/6 per barrel of wheat. Guinness led the demand for barley, which increased by 5/- per barrel for barley from 52/- a barrel to 60/- a barrel in some cases.
One TD proposed that the pubs be allowed to open for four hours on a Sunday “so those who can well afford it should be made pay towards helping out the farmer.”
While the maximum price per barrel was set at 55/- many millers were paying 45/- for their wheat.
Under the Emergency Powers (Cereals) Order, 1946, millers could make deductions from the standard price payable to growers in cases where the moisture content of wheat exceeds 23 per cent. Needless to say the moisture content was going through the ceiling so the wheat, which cost 18/6 to deliver to Odlums or Farringtons, was getting even lower prices.
It was a classic example of the economic vulnerability of farming community, as “wage takers” rather than producers.
Farmers were skeptical about how valuable the volunteers from the city were in the end. One wrote to the Sunday Independent? Claiming that city workers “did not take off their coats.”
The anecdotes linger on in the popular memory.
Men harvesting in rubber top-boots because the water was up to their ankles, fields where there were very few spots sufficiently dry for stooks, farmers who left corn uncut.
The ordeal of farmers threshing their wheat on the first available day after it seasons in the stack, and sending it by road to the mill at 9 o’clock at night to get it dried out lest it should deteriorate.
And there were other issues in the background. The resettlement of west of Ireland people on land commission holdings had created a resentment among local people who were lobbying for land of their own.
The land commission was regarded as inconsistent, with Fine Gael supporters believing they were singled out for what was effective confiscation of their holdings by the Fianna Fail administration.
Under 14 years of Fianna Fail government, the policy of “speeding the plough”, which attempted to direct farmers to subsidsed wheat and sugar beet harvesting rather than dairying, had failed to lift farmers’ incomes.
But it was not the farmer who was at the bottom of the food chain in this crisis. It was the agricultural labourer, long underpaid, exploited and taken for granted by the strong farmers of the county. And in Kildare, they chose the summer of 1946 to organise a strike.
One commentator spoke of how the farm labourer “who has to work in the rain, the slush, the frost and the cold” was “getting £2 7s. 6d for his efforts while “a fellow sweeping the yard in the beet factory, the smallest paid man in it, receiving £4 9s 0d. per week while a buckshee cook in the factory itself got £8 1s. 0d.”
In North Kildare the agricultural labourers organised a brief strike for higher wages. The strike disintegrated as the weather deteriorated. Ironically the poor harvest caused a slight increase in wages.
The timing of the strike is significant too. Sean Lemass’s Wages Standstill Order of May 1941 had prevented trade unions from striking for higher wages by removing legal protection for strike action. When it was repealed a unleashed a backlog of industrial disputes, most famously the national teachers who were out from May to October.
The agricultural labourers did not win their battle, but by October questions were asked in the Dail that “in view of the increased costs of production arising from the increased wages payable to farm workers and from unfavourable weather for harvesting, it was intended to increase the prices payable to farmers for barley and wheat.”
Like the promises made seven months earlier to increase the wages of agricultural labourers, it came to nothing.

An intriguing look at the hardships of 1940’s Ireland by Eoghan Corry in The Kildare Voice 10 August 2007. Our thanks to Eoghan

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