Monday, 20 March 2017

Primary Sources: Life in Cork During World War II

While rooting around today in search of something, I came across questionnaires I had put together as part of my own Leaving Cert History project (before the current curriculum and RSR). Though I ended up doing my project on Felix Dzerzhinsky (of Soviet secret police fame), my original idea was much more local, as I wanted to write about what life was like for people living in Cork during the Emergency years.

It didn't work out, but as part of my research I had given questionnaires to my grandmother and her brother. They lived on Green Street in Cork City at the time, and both were quite young (6 and 13 respectively in 1939) but their memories do paint a revealing picture of a community which felt very many of the impacts of war even though we were officially a neutral country. I've decided to reproduce them here, since they won't serve any purpose just sitting on a shelf. They might be good for document-based questions, as well as context when teaching about the Emergency in Junior and Leaving Cert.

The questionnaire was filled out in March 2003.

Do you remember when you first heard the war had broken out?

"The war started in September 1939. I was on a bus coming in to the city from Douglas on a Sunday morning and the conductor was telling the people that England had declared war on Germany. I was 13, and it didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. The other passengers really didn't know what to make of the news either, not realising what the next six years was going to bring."

"I would have been about 5 to 6 years old at that time. I can't remember how I heard the war had broken out but I had three brothers and my first cousin were in the Royal Air Force. One of my brothers was in the Middle East (Palestine) as far as I can remember, and my first cousin who was 18 years old was killed and is buried in Palestine."

What was your main source of communication (e.g. radio, newspaper) regarding events in the war? How often did you find out about new events?

"News of the war was scarce at the time. Newspapers were our main suppliers of news but they did not give the full news as parts of the paper were blacked out in case it gave any information to the Germans."

"Newspapers and radio would have been our source of information, and I suppose when the boys wrote home they may have said something too. I can remember being told that all letters were checked but I don't know if that was true or not."

Was there a sense of community? (e.g. did people in the neighbourhood often speak about the war?)

"There was a lot of hardship in Ireland. Work was scarce so lots of men went to England to work and join the forces and work in the factories. Most families in Ireland had someone away in England during the war. There was a lot of women and girls went as nurses. A lot settled down and got married and raised their families in England. In the Forties they introduced rationing. Half an ounce of tea, half a pound of sugar... everybody got a book with coupons in it and it was so many coupons for each item."

"Yes, our neighbours would have spoken about the war with my parents since my brothers and others in our neighbourhood were involved and I can remember going to school at St. Maries of the Isle and we would offer prayers for the safe return of our brothers."

What was the atmosphere at that time at home, in the street, and in general?

"Things were fairly quiet around Cork at the time. Money was scarce and people just made the best of what they had, which was tough on the poor who had to make do with a cup of substitute coffee with a boiled sweet floating in it, dark brown bread with lumps of boiled potato mixed into them. Those with money were able to buy on the black market so they didn't feel the pinch as much."

"At home, pretty frightening in case any of my brothers or neighbours would have been killed. When my first cousin was killed we as a family with my mother went to my aunty's house and all the neighbours came to the home. There was a lot of tears shed, and when Sean's belongings were sent home, the house was full of people again, and presents from him were shown to the people. It was a very sad time for all concerned."

Do you remember anything else about the war that you have not already written down?

"Lots of things got very scarce, such as bananas, oranges and other fruits, all disappeared until after the war. The government bought a few ships and they done great work going to Newfoundland and bringing home supplies of white sugar, candles and things which we could not get at home, everything helped to keep us going. There was a lot of men and boys joined the Irish Army, they worked hard digging turf because you could not buy coal at the time, so they done great work."

"I can remember ration books, when we went to the shop for our messages there were stamps taken from the ration books for tea, sugar and butter. These foods were very scarce. There were nine children in our family so what we got did not last too long. Also neighbours were very close at that time, we would get our groceries mid week and would share with another neighbour and she in turn would pay it back at the end of the week when she got her groceries.
I can also remember gas was rationed, so we would use candles and night lights, which were also very scarce, and that was my job looking for candles which took a lot of time after school going from shop to shop.
I can remember going out to play with my friends one day and a plane passed over and I just ran home again, I thought they would have bombs on board. I was so frightened.
I remember air raid shelters were built, one was built near the Garda barracks about 10 mins walk from our house, and also every member of each household was issued with gas masks."

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