In March 1942, in an effort to preserve wheat supplies for bread for the poor, the Irish government imposed restrictions on the malting of barley and banned the export of beer altogether. The British attitude, hitherto devil-may-care, shifted dramatically. After the British army complained to Whitehall of unrest caused by a sudden and “acute” beer shortage in Belfast, a hasty agreement was drawn up between senior British and Irish civil servants. Britain would exchange badly needed stocks of wheat in exchange for Guinness.
A short time later, though, Guinness complained that they did not have sufficient coal to produce enough beer for both the home and export markets. The Irish government promptly re-imposed the export ban. This time, in a further attempt to slake the thirst of Allied troops north of the border, British officials agreed to release more coal to Ireland.
Slowly but surely, this pattern of barter repeated itself. Faced with a ballooning and dry-tongued garrison of American and British troops in Northern Ireland in the long run-up to D-Day in June 1944, the British periodically agreed to release stocks of wheat, coal, fertilisers and agricultural machinery in exchange for Guinness. These supplies were to keep neutral Ireland afloat during the Second World War and enable the continuance of Irish neutrality.
So, with Guinness consumption today heavily associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, perhaps it’s time to pause and reflect that even in wartime (in the words of Flann O’Brien):
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night,
A pint of plain is your only man.
* Bryce Evans’s new book "Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave" (Manchester University Press) is out now.
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