For Irish people in 1916, the outbreak of war saw rapid price increases in basics.
By Andrew McCarthy, UCC School of History
The population of Ireland in 1916 was slightly less than the 4.4 million recorded in the 1911 census, almost evenly balanced between male and female. Ireland was predominantly rural, notwithstanding long-established urban centres such as Dublin and Cork, and the bustling industrial heartland of Belfast.
Agriculture dominated. In 1911, about three-quarters of a million Irish people were engaged directly in agricultural labour: about 200,000 as labourers, the remainder farmers themselves or ‘relatives assisting’.
Estimating precise numbers is challenging, but taking David Fitzpatrick’s reasoned estimate that agricultural labourers in 1911 earned 10 shillings 9 pence per week, it gives a sense of value. For most, it would not be an annualized £25 income as work was casual; many earned half that.
In reality, neither their wages nor living standard improved in real terms since the famine.
This was in a period of a near trebling of bank deposits – from £66m in 1914 to £183m in 1920 – driven largely by gains in agricultural production during a bonanza war for farmers.
And by 1916, even that meagre income was squeezed with rising prices. As Padraig Yeates has encyclopaedically shown in his book ‘A City in War Time’, the outbreak of war saw rapid price increases in basics. Sugar rose from 2½ pence per pound to 6 pence; butter from a shilling per pound to a shilling and six pence; flour increased by 20%, bacon by 25%. Rents also increased, as did luxuries.
In general, the cost of living increased by about 50% in the first two years alone of the Great War, and continued rising thereafter. The Cork Examiner cost a penny at the outset of the war, remaining there until January 1918, rising then to ‘Three Halfpence’.
Most beer more than doubled in price. In December 1914, Cork porter increased by 50%, from 2d to 3d; by 1917, it was 5d. Increases were driven only partly by rising costs, but mainly excise levies, particularly on stronger beers.
Effectively, consumers were downing dearer, weaker beers, and as Irish stout had traditionally been strong, this impacted all Irish breweries, as has been beautifully illustrated by Dónal and Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil in their studies of the Murphy’s and Beamish & Crawford breweries.
Even worse for consumers, output was, by 1917, restricted to about 70% of pre-war levels, meaning breweries struggled to satisfy demand, however diluted the product became.
Rising prices led to widespread industrial unrest in Britain. In July 1915, the government conceded to postal workers a war bonus of four shillings per week to men, and two shillings per week to women.
By 1916, pressure from various representative bodies in the public services (unions in all but name) ensured the bonus passed onto Irish public servants.
The primary teachers’ body, INTO, negotiated equal payment for its female teachers. Fully established primary and secondary teachers earned about £100 to £150 per annum, a rate compared not unfavourably with some engineers. For example, Seán MacEntee left Belfast in 1914 to work for Dundalk council as engineer for £100 salary, according to his biographer Tom Feeney.
Labourers had a brief spell of increased earnings. The Agricultural Wages Board set minimum labourer rates at 19 to 24 shillings per week in 1917, by which their incomes and those of all industrial labourers lagged far behind price increases.
But their good fortune ran out in 1921 when the government repealed the 1917 Corn Production Act that guaranteed minimum prices. Agricultural prices slumped as a result and wage levels went into freefall.
Despite poor earnings in agricultural labour, the lure of a shilling a day (£18 per annum – if one survived) was not sufficient to drive rural army enlistment.
Privates earned seven shillings per week, half of which went directly to the wives of married men, who additionally received a separation allowance of nine shillings, and rising for children. A ‘separated wife’ with three children had a guaranteed income of over 22 shillings per week, and no husband to feed.
For many previously subsisting on irregular income, the war had an economic appeal. But war fatigue set in quickly.
While 80,000 enlisted in the first year, about half of whom were from Ulster, only 64,000 joined over the next three years, meaning the Irish enlistment rate of 12% of eligible population compared to about 24% for the rest of the United Kingdom.
Andrew McCarthy is a lecturer at University College Cork’s School of History