Analysis: rising food prices, war, the Irish Revolution and the Great Depression triggered a major and devastating cost of living crisis

By Ian Miller, UIster University

Between the First and Second World Wars, Ireland faced a cost of living crisis when food prices rose exponentially. The crisis was triggered by a combination of factors including war, the Irish conflict and the Great Depression. Before 1914, the poorest were already living on an insubstantial diet of white bread and stewed black tea. In the 1890s, asylum owners blamed rising asylum admissions on such poor diets driving the Irish 'mad'. It was hard to imagine that dietary and nutritional health could decline further still, but it did.

Starvation occupies a pivotal position in Irish history for obvious reasons such as the Famine and various hunger strikes. It's often forgotten that many people quite recently faced the prospect of starving outside of these unusual events. For many, hunger was part and parcel of daily life.

When author James Esse published his short book, Hunger: A Dublin Story in 1918, he portrayed impoverished Dublin families as living 'just over the death line of starvation’, although they rarely ‘made much complaint about a condition which was normal for them all, and into which the children had been born’. In Hunger, the father and two children die from hunger-related causes. The mother, who turned to begging, is left with a physically disabled child to care for.

From inception, the new Irish state dealt with a legacy of poverty and poor diets, on top of problems caused by a declining global economy

Esse was writing during the First World War, a time when the cost of basic foods was spiralling. Much to the anger of political groups such as Sinn Féin, Irish farmers continued to export food to feed the British market. Meanwhile, potatoes, milk and meat became ever scarcer in Ireland.

In the revolutionary decade, nationalists such as Maud Gonne accused the British government of deliberately starving the Irish. The government initially refused to provide free school meals and supported economic arrangements that saw nutritious Irish foods exported to Britain.

But after independence, it proved harder to blame the British. Rather than ushering in a utopia of food and plenty, the post-independence/partition period saw little improvement. From its inception, the new Irish state dealt with a legacy of poverty and poor diets, on top of the problems caused by a declining global economy.

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From RTÉ Archives, Maud Gonne MacBride speaks to Dr. Eileen Dixon about witnessing evictions in her youth

In the 1920s and 1930s, Irish newspapers published numerous tragic accounts of families who had slipped into poverty, hunger and starvation. In 1927, Daniel Sullivan died in Castletownbere. Before independence, his family had lived quite prosperously. The British fleet had been stationed in the local harbour, providing him with a ready market for his farm produce, fowls and eggs. However, the family then fell on hard times. As Sullivan owned land, they were denied relief and Mrs Sullivan was found dead in the home from hunger-related causes. A few days later, their children, Timothy and Rita died too. Thrown into grief and suffering, Daniel Sullivan reportedly became ‘demented’ and passed away himself.

In the 19th century, doctors had criticised housewives who lived on little else but tea and bread. They considered such women to be recklessly addicted to caffeine and neglectful of their families. However, in the interwar period, the tea and bread diet was more compassionately recognised as a symptom of deep-rooted poverty, a warning sign that an untimely death from hunger was likely. Laissez-faire policies which supported the idea of hunger as way of life gave way to ideas based upon adequate social welfare.

The 1920s and 1930s were hard times for Irish pensioners, and made worse by the introduction of more stringent application conditions from 1924. The vulnerable elderly were at particular risk of going hungry. In January 1925, an elderly women was found in her Kilmihil home lying in the corner of a filthy, verminous room. She was more or less naked, with only a dirty rag covering some parts of her body. Her husband and two daughters, aged 36 and 40, were found in a similarly deplorable condition, weak and hungry. They had once been wealthy and owned 50 acres of land, but all their cattle had died over the years.

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From Epidemic Belfast podcast, Ian Miller talks about tea addiction and under-nutrition in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast and why these were linked to the onset of 'insanity' in working-class women.

Another harrowing case occurred in 1929. Mary A. Gaskin, aged 75, was found in her Temple Bar tenement house, where she had lived for 11 years, starved and malnourished. She had always refused to claim relief or visit a doctor. Broken furniture littered the floor. Window panes were broken. Several cats lived in the place. There was not a mouthful of food or water to be seen, nor a bed, table or chairs.

In 1939, siblings Martin and Mona Boyle, aged 70 and 65 respectively, were found dead in their Ballaghaderreen house due to lack of nourishment and exposure. The house had no bed, food or cooking utensils. The bodies were partly naked, found lying in the pools of water that covered the floor. There was no fire or turf. A cow was tied at the end of the kitchen. It had recently given birth to a calf, which was lying dead on the floor. The couple were found to be in receipt of four shillings each for relief.

In the 21st century, families are once again struggling to purchase food as its costs escalate. We live in an era when food is more abundant, and welfare systems more robust. Yet we need to remember the impacts on dietary choices which cost-of-living crises bring, particularly in relation to vulnerable groups. As the choice of cheaply available food dwindles, it seems likely that nutritional health, as well as well-being (physical and mental) will suffer as people decide to go without.

Dr Ian Miller is a Lecturer in Medical History and Course Director of the MA in History at the School of Arts & Humanities at Ulster University. He is a host of the Epidemic Belfast podcast


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ