Subscriber OnlyIreland

Seán Lemass on rationing: Britain ‘double-crossed us completely’ on tea rations

Lemass went to extraordinary lengths to ensure Ireland got supplies of tea and petrol during the second World War

The British government "double-crossed" Ireland during the second World War when it reneged on a promise that Ireland would be able to import the same quantities of tea per head.

The Irish were obsessed with the tea ration during the second World War, forcing Lemass to go to extraordinary lengths to source it, even though it was, arguably, the least important of the food imports needed.

The trouble for Lemass was that the British controlled the supply of tea for most of the war. Dublin and London had come to an agreement at the start of the war that both countries would receive the same per-capita ration of tea.

However, Lemass complained that the British “double-crossed us completely” in 1940 by announcing that the Irish would only be entitled to a quarter-ounce of tea per person while the British would retain their ounce per person.


The British would not give the Irish a navy certificate to collect tea from the warehouses in Calcutta, so Lemass sought to get around the effective British embargo by hiring an American ship.

The tea was taken via the Panama Canal to New York and then sent by train to St John's, Newfoundland. It was transported across the Atlantic by one of the Irish merchant navy ships, the Irish Poplar.

Having made a perilous journey across the Atlantic dodging German U-boats, the ship arrived with its precious cargo into Dublin Port only to be diverted to Waterford because of a lightning strike at the docks.

“We were able to keep the one ounce of tea ration by and large during the whole war and people regarded this as quite an achievement (which it was) because they assumed there would be no tea,” Lemass remembered.

Acute dilemma

The war provided an acute dilemma for Ireland, which was critically dependent on Britain for its shipping and Lemass sensed the British were trying to exercise some control over the Irish government by restricting the supply of shipping.

Lemass and his principal secretary John Leydon realised in 1940 that they could not depend upon the British to charter shipping on their behalf so they set about putting together an Irish fleet in the middle of the war.

They scoured Europe for vessels and bought a Greek ship that was in such an advanced state of decrepitude that its crew could not even sink her for insurance purposes. It became the Irish Poplar. They sourced other ships from the Estonians and Latvians who had been invaded by Soviet Russia and another from Italy, though Italy was one of the Axis powers.

The government had stockpiled coffee before the war from Brazil in anticipation there would be no tea. By the end of the war, the government had in stock 40 years' supply of coffee, which was then sold abroad at a considerable loss to the State.

The supply of petrol was another source of aggravation for Lemass during the war. On Christmas Eve 1942, a huge oil tanker carrying 15,000 tonnes of petrol arrived in Dublin Port with much-needed petrol supplies. Lemass said the country was so short of petrol at the time that he contemplated cutting the ration to a half gallon per motorist.

If the ship docked, he could increase the ration to two gallons for each motorist. The ship was so laden with oil that it couldn't clear the bar at Dublin Port. It was sent to Liverpool to unload several thousand tonnes of oil. Unfortunately, it was sunk by a German submarine on its passage across the Irish Sea, leaving the country in straitened circumstances again.

Lemass was famous for his scrupulous adherence to the ration regime he created, which included even his own family. Lemass said rationing worked in Ireland because it was perceived to have been fairly applied.

Lemass made his reputation as one of the most energetic and able of government ministers by his handling of the issue of supplies, for which he had been given authority by Éamon de Valera at the start of the war.

He outlined his philosophy as following to his interviewer Dermot Ryan: “I said at one time in the Dáil that if the necessity arose for me to make an order prohibiting men wearing trousers, the public would accept this until the day they saw one man wearing trousers.”

He said he was “ruthless” in dealing with black marketers and those who abused the system. Doctors were given an extra ration of petrol to attend to their patients.

Petrol rations withdrawn

Ten doctors' cars were found outside Portmarnock golf course by an inspector. When the inspector queried what they were doing, they all responded that they were attending to a woman in a nearby cottage. They all had their petrol rations withdrawn and their cars taken away for a period.

“A lot of these were some of the most prominent and well-known doctors in Dublin. Eventually, they got their rations back, but it was the appearance of enforcing this impartially that mattered.”

Lemass had less success in persuading the British government to relocate some of its industries to Ireland during the war.

He hoped Irish industries could take over from British industries which were being turned to war production and Irish industry could benefit as it had done in the first World War.

The British were having none of it. “This reflected their reaction to our neutrality in this world war, this reluctance to allow us to be responsible for any part of the essential supplies and no doubt they had a certain desire to see us suffer economically because of our neutrality, whereas in the first World War we were regarded as the one country and it didn’t make any difference whether the work was done here or in Great Britain. But we never got anywhere with that all.”

Lemass revealed, though, that the British did supply enough arms to the Irish government to equip 250,000 men, but after the danger of a German invasion of Ireland passed, the supplies of arms from the British dried up.