OPINION: We coped with 'The Emergency' but how will we deal with Covid-19?

Margaret Rossiter writes...

Margaret Rossiter


Margaret Rossiter


Coronavirus Covid-19

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe was recently marked by touchingly dignified ceremonies in many cities in Europe. Yet, the five terrible years of death and destruction, officially classified in Ireland as 'The Emergency', did not merit even a casual reference in most of the Irish media.
Perhaps this was so because we are now beset by yet another emergency, Covid 19, which is a serious threat to life and wellbeing and the future of our economy.
Will it, in time, have the same significance in our popular history as that associated with The Emergency of the mid 20th century wartimes.
The Emergency was declared subsequent to an all night sitting of the Dail in September 1939, in response to Britain's declaration of war on Germany, following the country's invasion of Poland. It declared our neutrality and subsequently brought into being a number of laws which came to be known as the Emergency Powers.
The last of these powers were only revoked in the 1970s, though, at least one, the Special Courts, still remains with us in some amended form.
Though enacted originally to deal with subversive threats to the State, where juries could be intimidated, it is now becoming very effective in dealing with drug gangs.
The Ireland in which The Emergency was declared was a very different Ireland from the country in which we live today. The early decades of the new State were devoted to the establishment of our institutions, restoring the law and order fractured by the divisions of the Civil War, still seriously threatened by subversive activity (from at least three proscribed sources), and operating in a very economically depressed world economy.
We had few natural resources - or so it was then thought - few minerals, few industries, a depressed agriculture (largely as a result of the so-called Economic War).
We imported many of our necessities for ordinary living and exported our people. We had to learn fast.
The Emergency Powers enacted by the government infringed on many of the democratic rights of ordinary citizens but were accepted as necessary in the common good.
And today, most ordinary people agree that the common good is best served by the restrictions placed on our movements and behaviour, particularly in the distances we can travel from home, and especially the confinement of elderly people within their homes. But nevertheless, these restrictions are chastening reminders of the limitations of democracy in times of major emergencies.
But these Covid 19 restrictions are almost insignificant when one considers the circumstances of World War 2. It was anticipated that Germany might invade Britain via Ireland. It was a threat, which persisted until the disastrous Russian campaign. In the context of the evils of Nazism, there was nothing noble in our neutrality but it was practical. It was about survival and it was widely supported.
The declaration of The Emergency and the legislation which supported it - known as the Emergency Powers - embraced a vast area of ordinary living: in law, agriculture, land-use, movement, travel, communication, information, and notably censorship. This involved the freedom of the press, which seriously inhibited comment on the progress of the war, or the expression of any opinion on the belligerents. It even infringed on ordinary correspondence and personal letters were open to censorship.
It is, however, the ordinary practical inconveniences, the shortages, the rationing, the on-the-street, in-the-home everyday things that have left The Emergency in the folklore of public memory. Motor vehicles disappeared from the streets and were replaced by horses and carts and traps and side-cars, all taken out from old sheds and repaired and varnished.
Bicycles, always a popular form of easy transport, filled the streets, but as the years went by it became impossible to replace tyres. People walked everywhere, over long distances, and through storms and rain and sunshine. Healthy exercise was not something apart, or gym located, it was part of ordinary living and there were few problems with overweight.
But it was the rationing of ordinary things, tea, sugar, butter, clothes, cigarettes, that caused the most concern. Especially tea! Irish people loved strong black tea - one spoon for every person in the house and one for the pot. This could not be reconciled with the weekly ration of a half-ounce per person. Some relief came in my home when a cousin in the US sent us, children, a bundle of comics, in the centre of which there was a bag of tea.
Fuel was also difficult to obtain. The limited supplies of coal which could be imported went to industry. Few homes had electricity and gas was the source of cooking and lighting (augmented by candles for close written school homework).
Gas, too, was rationed and available for about an hour at midday, for cooking. But, somehow, our mothers managed to produce hot healthy midday meals, using combinations of heat - some by the gas 'glimmer', which was illegal, and also by a contraption in the backyard called the sawdust cooker.
Heating, via the kitchen fire, was hit-and-miss, depending on wet turf from Moneyaha bog and occasionally coke from the Gas Works. This was a residue from coal after the gas had been extracted from it. When rumour circulated that it was available, there was a stampede to join the queue on the Waterford Road, from where it was transported in a variety of vehicles - wheelbarrows, old prams, the crossbars of bicycles and an invention beloved of young boys - the home-made 'four-wheel-car'.
It is now agreed that the Emergency changed Ireland. At the outbreak of the war we depended for most of the necessities of life on imported materials.
Although Clonmel was unique in having a number of industries - cider, bacon-curing, footwear, prams, there were few manufacturing facilities in the country. And as an island country we did not possess a single merchant ship.
By the end of the war, the realisation was that we had to be self-reliant, and under the auspices of the pragmatic Sean Lemass, we had established several industries, started on the development of our bogs, established Irish Shipping, and were exporting substantial supplies of dairy products, and even grain, to Britain.
We also had plans for rural electrification and the extension of piped water supplies into villages.
Ireland emerged from The Emergency (upper case) as a modern viable independent State.
How will we emerge from the emergency (lower case) of Covid 19?