Blarney in the Great War

John Mulcahy

War at Sea, Food Shortages, Regulation. The battlefields of Belgium and France may have seemed far away but the war was also being fought just off the coast of Ireland. From the declaration of war, all shipping was subject to attack from German submarines, and in May 1915, the single greatest loss of life occurred when the liner Lusitania was sunk just off the Old Head of Kinsale with the loss of over 1,400 lives. The widespread newspaper coverage given to this outrage, the photographs of the desolate survivors making their way through the streets of Cobh (then Queenstown) and Kinsale, and the burial in mass graves of the bodies of victims washed ashore, all served to bring the war very close to home.

The little coastal steam packets which connected Cork to British ports, bringing vital supplies back and forth, proved easy targets for U-boat attacks. On April 13th 1917, SS Bandon was torpedoed off Mine Head, Co. Waterford on her voyage from Cork to Liverpool with the loss of 28 of the crew. Among those drowned was crew member Jeremiah Long of Rathpeacon.

Many from Blarney served in the Royal or Merchant Navy. Timothy Crowley was serving as a stoker on HMS Conqueror when he received serious burns to his arms, back and face. In spite of being transferred to the Hospital Ship, he died of his wounds on October 27th 1917 and was buried in Orkney, far away from his parents’ home in Rathpeacon. George Lyons was born in Blarney and was serving on HMS Vindictive when he was killed in action off Zeebrugge on April 25th 1918.

As the shipping losses mounted through 1917, Britain faced a severe shortage of food. The government responded by taking unprecedented control over all aspects of food production and distribution. Maximum prices for products like milk were fixed, some important foods like sugar were rationed and the quality of bread dropped as inferior home- produced grain was substituted for imported wheat. Prices for basic food soared and there were concerns about the ability of the poor to buy even a subsistence diet. With increasing prices came increased regulation of the weight and quality of food products. Food inspectors were employed and offenders faced prosecution through the courts.

The Shamrock Co-operative Store Society was summoned to Blarney Sessions for having for sale damaged and undersized potatoes, not having a notice up describing their condition. In defence it pleaded that it was ignorant of the order but it was still fined 6d and costs. On the same day, Denis Hayes of Knocknasuff was summoned for selling nineteen pounds of salted lump butter to the Co-op for a price higher than the price set by the Butter (Maximum Prices) Order 1917. Substantial fines were levied on Hayes, the Co-op and the manager of the creamery involved.

David Livingstone of the Turret Farm, Blarney was summoned on another occasion for selling milk to the Cork Lunatic Asylum which was not up to the legal standard. Following complex legal arguments, the magistrates found that the milk had been sold in the condition it came from the cows and dismissed the case.

Compulsory tillage was introduced. In 1917 farmers were legally obliged to cultivate an extra 10% of their arable land. In 1918 this was further increased by another 5%. As more agricultural labour was required amid increasing competition for labour, the government ordered increased wages. Farmers prospered from the increased production and higher prices.

The government encouraged the cultivation of every available plot of land. In January 1917 the government introduced a scheme to distribute seed potatoes, oats and manure to smallholders and labourers in order to increase the food supply. Money could be advanced and later paid back through increases in rent, or in the case of smallholders, poor law rate. One might think such a scheme might be welcomed, but at a committee meeting of the Blarney branch of the Irish Land and Labour Association, Denis Hayes, R.D.C. strongly criticised the scheme, saying that “if the governing body in Ireland wanted to retard the production of food of a class necessary to the working population, they could not have taken better steps”. He criticised the seed offered as unsuitable for the ordinary working man. The labourers attending had already decided to boycott the scheme. The meeting decided to reorganise the branch and to hold a general meeting. A more pleasant outcome of the meeting was the announcement that Mrs. Meaney of Waterloo and her brother, William Cronin, were prepared to place at the disposal of the branch two fields as allotments to the workers to plant potatoes. This met with general approval; it was noted that the offer was in keeping with their usual spirit of encouraging the improvement of the workers around their locality.

Even the schoolchildren were not spared in the drive for extra food production. An article in the Cork Examiner on May 1918 described how the children in Whitechurch National School were given an excellent demonstration in tree planting under the re-afforestation scheme of the Cork County Committee of
Agriculture. During the Spring, the ground in front of the school was broken up and prepared for vegetable and flower culture. The seeds and plants grown were as varied as possible as they included all kinds of kitchen garden produce. The article concluded that “all the care and attention needed was bestowed by the children who in this way derived a real practical knowledge of vegetable growing.”

Most of the food produced in Ireland was exported to meet the food shortages in Britain. Fears were soon raised of looming food shortages in Ireland. Sinn Fein mounted an export boycott, using the spectre of famine as a threat. When the government ordered farmers to register all potato surpluses in November 1918, Sinn Fein ordered a boycott. This led to farmers being prosecuted in the courts. At the Blarney sessions in December, Catherine Donovan, Killeens; John Hennessey, Gortdonoughmore; John Hallissey and John Wiseman, Garrycloyne; Catherine Linehan and Benjamin Daunt, Coolowen and Daniel Hallissey, Dawstown, were all fined a shilling for having failed to furnish returns for the month of January under the Potato Grower’s Return Order.

Drinking was perceived to lower industrial and agricultural productivity. Early in the war, early closing time of pubs was introduced. The strength of beer was decreased and taxes on alcohol were raised. On May 21st 1916 the clocks were brought forward by an hour, introducing daylight saving for the first time. This growing intrusion into peoples’ lives and regulation enforced by what was increasingly perceived as an alien and hostile administration played an important role in turning popular support away from the established order, and added to the irrepressible rise of Sinn Fein.

Another Year of Slaughter
Throughout 1917, the belief still lingered among the generals and war leaders that the war could still be won through staging great battles against the heavily fortified German trenches.

William Wilson, serving with the Black Watch, was killed near Ypres on July 31st. John Murphy of Boula Beg, Whitechurch, was killed in action with the Connaught Rangers in West Flanders. Thomas Kershaw of the Royal Garrison artillery was killed in the muddy battle of Passchendaele in late October. All were born in Blarney.

Noel and Albert Nunan were sons of Dr. Francis Nunan M.D., long-time medical officer of Blarney, residing in Woodville, Station Road. Both had emigrated to Alberta in Western Canada, but had volunteered their services when Canada raised a volunteer Army to support Britain. They both travelled with the Canadian Expedition force to France and both took part in the assault on Vimy Ridge on April 7th where Noel was seriously wounded. Having endured a lengthy convalescence, he transferred to the Royal Air Force the following year.

The October Revolution in Russia resulted in the Bolshevik take-over of the country and Russia’s withdrawal from the war. This enabled the Germans to switch their forces fighting in the East to now join up with their massed armies on the Western Front. The long awaited “big push” began on March 1918. The results were staggering. In the first weeks the allies were pushed back 40 miles and it looked likely that the British Army would be driven back into the sea. One of the first casualties was Lt. Denis Lynch of Rathpeacon, killed at Arras on March 23rd.

The above item, is part of a much larger article titled: ‘Blarney in the Great War’, written by John Mulcahy and published in ‘Old Blarney’ Journal Issue No 10.

Contact: Mr. Brian Gabriel Email: Tel: 087-2153216