With war raging since 1914, Cork like many European cities suffered food shortages. In January 1918 Cork Corporation continued to be pressurised by citizens to react to protect food supplies for basic living standards. To discuss and broker some steps of resolution to the supply problem, on this day 100 years ago, 18 January, a public meeting was convened by the Lord Mayor, Cllr Thomas C Butterfield in the Council Chamber, City Hall. It was held at the request of an agreed resolution passed at a meeting of the City Council.
Addressing the meeting, the Bishop of Cork, Dr Cohalan proposed a number of resolutions: “(1) That a Committee be formed, consisting of food producers, men engaged in the cattle, grain, potatoes, pig, butter, eggs and milk trades, to report on the food supply of the country, and on the means to be adopted for its conservation; (2) That it is the duty of merchants to retain for the use of the people the existing supplies; (3) That the following [persons] be requested to act on the Committee, and to report to a general meeting of citizens to be held on Friday, 25 January 1918”. The High Sheriff Mr O’Connor formally seconded the resolution.
Present at City Hall were Mr Lucey (chairman of the South of Ireland Cattle Trade Association), as well as Councillors and business representatives. Lord Mayor Butterfield highlighted that citizens were living in “very serious times”, and they wished to retain “the produce that was necessary for the people of the country”. He declared he was not knowledgeable to declare whether there was a surplus quantity of food in the country but they should do more to import necessities, such as coal and wheat.
A number of people spoke at the meeting. Mr McCurtain said he wished to support the motion. He had mined down into the figures of the Cork Harbour Board regarding the export of food supplies. He revealed that as far as those figures and statistics were obtainable, they showed that necessary food stuffs for the people were being exported at what he described as “an alarming rate”. He noted; “if some definite action is not taken and an effort made to hold supplies of food for the people, they would drift into a very serious state of affairs. Mr McCurtain placed the responsibility of retention of adequate supplies on the merchants who were making money. He called for them to re-organise their export of supplies without any financial loss to themselves.
Mr Seán Twomey considered that a statement or suggestion should go forth from the meeting to the merchants and exporters, asking them to export a lesser amount of food than they had been doing up to that moment. Mr T Barry noted cartloads of dead meat were still being sent away, and such exportations needed to be stopped. Mr Delea supported the motion describing that poor people who could not depend on any certain market were starving, and it was a shame that any foodstuffs should be sent out of the country. Mr Houston asked for the merchants of the city to be called upon to take immediate action to provide some funding for the successful working of a proper supply scheme. There were plenty of funds in Cork for such a purpose; “we have merchant princes in our midst, and it is their duty to take steps to sustain the working classes in the present crisis. Those merchants should provide a central fund for the purchase of food for the citizens of Cork”.
Mr Houston drew on a proposition that had been put forward in Dublin, where the merchants were called upon to provide necessary funds. In Limerick they had funds to the extent of £10,000 already guaranteed by the merchants, and he did not see any reason why Cork Corporation should not pledge their rates to such an extent as to be able to purchase and store the necessary food for the citizen. In Old Castle, County Meath, a similar scenario was being pursued.The banks had even issued overdrafts on the signatures of the local representatives, in order that the situation would be met and the necessary food provided. That was a matter that should be taken in hands in Cork. Mr Houston pitched a resolution to the effect that the Cork merchants should form a Supplies Committee to raise funds for the provision and storing of food for the people and the selling of it to the people as required. He outlined the scheme started in Dublin and said at that moment in time the first duty of the people of Ireland was to run the food supplies of the country.
Bishop Cohalan’s motions were carried unanimously, and the meeting ended. Other meetings followed in the ensuing months. The cause was also taken up by the Sinn Féin representatives in the region but in general it was the sentiment of protectionism that prevailed more so than progressive steps to resolve a deepening problem. Other challenges such as the conscription call for Irish citizens also came into the play as the year 1918 progressed (to be discussed in weeks to come in the column).
Note: All the 2017 Our City, Our Town columns can be accessed on my website www.corkheritage.ie under the index to the Cork Independent column section.
Secret Cork, which is my 2017 book, and published by Amberley Press, is now in Cork bookshops.
929a. Suttons Building, South Mall, one of the key coal merchants in Cork in 1918, from Cork: Its Chamber and Commerce (source: Cork City Library)
929b. Advertisement for the importation of coal from the City of Cork Steam Packet Company, from Guy’s Directory of Cork, 1917 (source: Cork City Library)