Emergency economics: Ireland during the Second World War

Review: While the world was at war, Ireland was catapulted back to a ‘horse-and-cart economy’

‘Economic dictator’: Seán Lemass, above, addressing a crowd in Dublin in 1943, probably had more control over the economy during the Emergency than when he became taoiseach. Photograph: Haywood Magee/Getty Images

‘Economic dictator’: Seán Lemass, above, addressing a crowd in Dublin in 1943, probably had more control over the economy during the Emergency than when he became taoiseach. Photograph: Haywood Magee/Getty Images

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 10:55

   
 

Book Title:
Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave

ISBN-13:
978-0719089510

Author:
Bryce Evans

Publisher:
Manchester University Press

Guideline Price:
€85.0

Given that the second World War was probably the deepest economic crisis in the State since independence, particularly with regard to food and energy supplies, Bryce Evans’s new book raises a number of important issues, which go far beyond the traditional focus within the literature on diplomacy, neutrality and security.

The book sets out to provide “a clear summary of Ireland’s economic survival at the time as well as an indispensable overview of every published work on Ireland during the second World War”. While it does not comprehensively achieve those ambitious objectives, it makes a convincing case that the war was the high watermark, after independence, of centralised State intervention in the economic sphere.

While the existential security threat to Ireland never fully materialised, the implications of the war created arguably the most challenging economic circumstances faced by Irish society since the formation of the State (including the recent crash), due to the threat to food and energy security.

With Ireland’s policy of neutrality (albeit as an un-neutral neutral), Anglo-Irish relations took a turn for the worse, and Britain imposed major restrictions on Irish trade from January 1941. This starkly revealed Irish trade dependence on Britain. The situation was compounded by a general lack of raw materials, most notably coal.

Abnormal trading conditions prior to the war, Evans writes, had already given rise to the establishment of the emergency supplies branch within the department of industry and commerce, in September 1938, in Seán Lemass’s ministerial backyard. Its powers were extended early in the war, when Lemass became the new minister for supplies, subsequently controlling prices, profits and the storage and movement of goods.

This dramatically increased his influence as the core figure in government in economic matters. He was instrumental, for example, in the establishment of Irish Shipping, in March 1941, which predominantly focused on importing wheat. Evans has revisited this key phase in Lemass’s career, which he covered in his excellent critical biography, the best yet written. The subtitle of that book, Seán Lemass: Economic Dictator, was most apt during the Emergency when he probably had more control over the economy than when he became taoiseach. Yet Evans argues that under Lemass’s guidance, the department of supplies performed somewhat more unevenly than generally supposed, with its undoubted dynamism offset by ineptitude and failure.

Top-down

The first chapter takes a top-down perspective on the department and “Lemass’s stewardship of the Emergency economy”, as the severity of wartime austerity deepened. Evans concludes Lemass was g caught by surprise and had not prepared and stockpiled vital supplies before and in the early years of the war. This harsh judgment on both Lemass and his wartime department certainly challenges the received wisdom.