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Living through the Economic War by Brigid Kavanagh

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Brigid Kavanagh

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Whether one was born into a rural or urban environment, growing up in the 1930s meant hardship and deprivation to the vast majority. Luckily, we were hardly aware of this because most people we knew were no better off. The ‘Economic War’, starting in 1932 and ending in 1938, loomed large in my formative years growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Strokestown.

When the Fianna Fáil government gained power in 1932, it reversed the policy of the previous government by withholding payment of the Land Annuities to Britain. The response came in the form of a 20% tariff on cattle and other agricultural produce to Britain – the major parts of our exports. The issue was settled six years later when Britain agreed to accept £10 million as final settlement instead of the £104 million originally demanded.

During those six years, fresh meat was a rarity on the majority of rural tables and although chickens were in every farmyard, they and their eggs had to be sold to buy groceries and other necessities of life.  However, most small farmers either kept a sow for breeding or bought in a bonham (banbh) to be fattened and then butchered to provide bacon for several months. A government ‘free beef’ scheme was shunned because accepting charity was considered shameful.

We didn’t see any of the free beef and, though times were hard, we never went hungry. We grew our own potatoes, cabbages, turnips and parsnips, and had our wheat ground for making bread. Our fuel was the turf cut in the bog and saved by us each summer.

The dole was introduced in 1933 but only the destitute qualified for it. There was no children’s   allowance. Boots and clothes were patched and for part of the year, there was no butter on the tables of many. Milk was plentiful in the summer but very scarce in the winter, especially when hay was the only fodder. Neighbours helped each other – delivering or collecting a five-noggin bottle of milk was a normal chore for children.

Most kitchens had a huge wooden bin with a slanted lid in an alcove by the open fireplace and it was divided into compartments for flour and Indian meal to feed the fowl and pigs. Both Indian meal and oatmeal were used to make porridge (stirabout) at night, never in the morning. Our neighbour, Mick Joe, made Indian meal porridge on buttermilk. Happy was the household with a hundredweight of ‘Heart’s Delight’ flour in the corner, meaning hunger was far away.

My father had his carpentry trade to supplement the farm income, but in hard times many could not pay in cash for work done. Instead, they paid in kind by helping out at hay, turf or harvesting. Even if my father needed the ready cash, he never pressed for it, as he was one of nature’s gentlemen.

My parents had a remarkable trust and faith in God’s goodness. A problem was met with: “God is good.” The Rosary was recited every night, kneeling with our backs to the fire in a semicircle around the hearth stone. We children did not always say our prayers with due solemnity. It only needed the slightest distraction to set us into a fit of giggles until we were called to order by our father.

Loaf bread was a rarity in farming households. It was bought only on special occasions – house stations, wakes and weddings. Loaf bread and jam – Breffni Blossom – was a very special treat then. The soda bread was baked in a pot on the hearth by the open fire. My mother always had a brown or white cake ready to bake as soon as the dinner was cooked, to use the ‘coals’ as the fire burned down.

Nothing was ever wasted, particularly left-over potatoes. My mother would make potato cakes, cut into four ‘farleys’ which were delicious when eaten hot with butter at tea time. Another favourite was boxty – grated raw potatoes, salt, flour, milk and an egg mixed together and cooked in a pan greased with hot fat. Colcannon (we called it ‘cally’) was made when the new potatoes appeared in July. The potatoes were boiled, mashed, milk and scallions added, dished out on plates, a hole scraped in the middle, a knob of butter placed in the hole, and a more delicious meal was hard to find.

If new boots were needed, they were usually bought on All Saints Day when the annual horse fair was held in Strokestown. Our mother also bought wool on that day to knit socks. Ladies underwear, red flannel petticoats, drawers that were later replaced by bloomers, were very practical, ideal for maintaining warmth for farming. Girls were taught how to make calico chemises in sewing class at school.

One of my most unpleasant memories is of the weekly purging we suffered on Saturdays. We were dosed with a spoonful of Epsom salts, dissolved in a small quantity of boiled water, which had the most horrible taste we knew. The only way to deal with it was to swallow it in one go. Later we moved on to more palatable laxatives; cascara pills, milk of magnesia and syrup of figs.

Bunnamuca, the townland where I was born and spent my first eighteen years including the six years of the Economic War, bears little resemblance to the townland of the present day. When Griffith made his survey in 1858, there were thirty households, but that had reduced to fifteen by the 1930s. Today (2000), there are but four remaining, with one baby (our grandson) amongst them.

Life was hard back then; no running water, electricity or many of what today are deemed necessities.  However, the lack of these things was compensated for by a loving extended family, a close community and neighbours who shared equally in joyous and sad occasions – poor financially but rich in the things that mattered.

(c) Brigid Kavanagh

About In My Mind’s Eye: Walking Amongst Ghosts

This wonderful book by Brigid Kavanagh, is 95 stories and poems about growing up in rural Roscommon, working in London towards the end of World War II, and married life in Dublin

“In fancy I hear ‘God bless the work’ as they passed the fields together where we saved the hay – Frank’s happy laughter ringing out, and Maggie’s ‘Indeed then’ as she bustled past us. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, driving their cows back from milking, their dog barking excitedly, through the boreen to the fields, one in front, the other behind the cattle, and I feel that I’m walking amongst ghosts.”

Copies available to order here and here.

About the author

Brigid Kavanagh, née Shiel, was born on February 17th, 1926, in the townland of Bunnamuca, near Strokestown in Co Roscommon. She was reared on a small farm by her parents, John Shiel, a carpenter, and Mai (Gilleran), a housewife and farmer. She was one of ten surviving children. She left home for England in late 1944 where she commenced nursing training in St Albans, London. It was there that she met her husband, Michael Kavanagh, a Galway native. They married on July 30th, 1947 and returned home in December, 1948, settling in Dublin. They lived in Baggot St for four years before buying a house in Ranelagh in 1953. Twenty years later they moved house to Windy Arbour, Dundrum, where Brigid still lives today. They had six children and after fifty six years of marriage, Michael passed away in 2003.

It was in the early 1990s that she submitted insightful recollections of her rural childhood to the Ireland’s Eye magazine. This was followed by contributions to Ireland’s Own and many of her stories have since been published in both magazines. These stories form the basis of this book, intermingled with biographical and historical accounts of people and events mainly connected to her native Roscommon. She has also written some fiction, both serious and humorous, and her poems are usually linked to a story in each of the book’s nineteen segments.

Brigid is a long-time member of the Roscommon Association in Dublin and had her first article published in the Roscommon Association Yearbook of 1993. She has made regular contributions to this and to its successor, Roscommon Life. Several of her short stories and poems appeared in Writing from Roscommon in the late 1990s. As recently as 2018, one of her stories was included in New Roscommon Writings.

Through her membership of the Dundrum based Fountain Writers Group she has written for its various publications including The Fountain, The Slow Lane, In the House of Long Life, Deep and Flowing, Eyes Right, Cascade and Light and Shade, since 1990.

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