'The Emergency' (1939-1945) in Monaghan

What¹s the opposite to the Celtic Tiger? The ŒEmergency¹ perhaps? Seamus McCluskey remembers a time of hardship.

The ’Emergency’ as it was known in Ireland, covered the years of WW2 (1939 to 1945) and, for those of us who lived through it, it was an unforgettable experience. Foodstuffs, coal, petrol and oil, rubber tyres, clothing fabrics and even footwear, tropical fruits, glass, and a host of other necessities, were no longer available to us, and we all had to ‘make do’ with substitutes of various kinds. Rationing became an everyday familiarity with coupons necessary for the purchase of tea, clothing and a host of other essentials.

My own earliest memory of the War was the day it broke out - the first Sunday of September 1939. I was on holiday with my uncles in Co. Down and a thunder storm struck as we walked to Mass in Leitrim parish church, where the priest announced that war had broken out. Returning to Emyvale for the re-opening of school a few days later we soon began to hear all sorts of rumour and counter-rumour, with many of us youngsters, in our youthful and probably misguided patriotism, hoping that the Germans would win and that it would all be over quite soon. How wrong we all were. Little did we know of Nazi-ism, or of how long such a conflict might last, or of how it would affect the lives of all of us.

Little seemed to happen to affect us during the first eighteen months but then, as I did my Co. Council Scholarship examination in the Model School, Monaghan, Easter week 1941, during a break between ‘papers’, we looked over the wall to the nearby Railway Station to see an amazing sight. A train from Belfast had just pulled in and emptied itself of hundreds and hundreds of people, complete with suitcases, bags and belongings of all kinds, tied in bundles.

We later learned that Belfast had been bombed the previous night and these were refugeees, fleeing from the ‘blitz’ to find refuge in Monaghan. I returned home that evening to find a Jewish family of three, named Levine, billited in my mother’s house, where we suddenly had to make new sleeping arrangements, and I found myself relegated to a small bunk bed in the corner of my brother’s bedroom.

To secondary boarding school, St Macartan’s College the following September and suddenly things began to happen. No coal meant that the boiler remained un-stoked and the heating pipes all froze during the severe winter of 1941-2. Breaking the ice in the hand-basins every morning was a chastening experience while a huge turf-burning belly-boiler was installed in the middle of the study hall. Those sitting near in were roasted while those of us sitting at the far corners of the hall froze.

Home for the 1942 summer holidays and we were packed off to Bragan (Slieve Beagh) bog to cut turf. For those of us, who knew little about turf-cutting, we soon learned and we quickly became expert at ‘capping’, ‘footing’, ‘clamping’ stacking and finally carting home on the only lorry in the village that had a permit to buy petrol. It was hard work but at least we had fuel for the winter fires.

While I had been away in school, my older brother had joined the LDF, later to become the FCA, and he had been issued with a rifle which he kept under his bed. When nobody was looking, I examined it regularly, cocked it, pulled the trigger and imagined myself a soldier. Luckily, there was no live ammo. around, or if he had been issued with any, he certainly had it well hidden. On week evenings we also watched them drilling in a covered yard belonging to a local merchant and then went to see a huge parade in Monaghan town where Eamonn De Valera and James Dillon, of very different political persuasions, stood shoulder to shoulder on the reviewing platform. There seemed to be thousands upon thousands of people in the town.

Smuggling became a regular pastime along the Border that separated us from Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh. We only had brown bread in the South, while white loaves were available just across the dividing line. I was caught once by the local customs patrol man who confiscated my two loaves which I had tied on the carrier of my bicycle. The same official lodged in my mothers house and usually demanded white bread for his evening tea. When he realised that he might have to forgo that treat later that evening, he relented and returned the two precious loaves to me. On many occasions I had saved the same officers skin, as it was my duty to keep his bicycle hidden at the back of our house and whenever his P.O. would call for him I had been detailed to lie and inform him that the official had just gone out on duty, whereas he was still sound asleep upstairs.

Probably the most amazing thing to happen to us during the ‘Emergency’ was the night that North Monaghan was ‘invaded’. Sometime in 1942 at about 3am or 4am in the morning we first heard the unmerciful banging of the front door and the shout from outside - “Get up at once and get ready to evacuate.” The previous week I had watched some workmen scoop out a big hole in the stone papapet of the bridge over the river at the south end of Emyvale and was told that it was to hold explosives for the blowing up of the bridge should we be invaded.

Fully clothed and downstairs, the long wait began, though what we were waiting for we didn’t exactly know. The local teacher, who also lodged in our house, was an officer in the LSF, (an auxiliary police force as distinct from the FCA which was a military force), soon took charge of the situation. Some neighbours came in and the questioning began - who was invading us and from which direction? The teacher switched on the radio and began twiddling the knob. ‘There might be a message from Dublin’, someone had suggested, but the radio only emitted lots of static and a series of squeaks and squeals that only made matters worse. Then he found a morse signal of some sort and queried ‘Does anyone know morse code?’ Met by a series of blank faces he then answered his own question - ‘must be a ship at sea’.

On hindsight, one can only hazzard a guess as to why anybody in their same senses up in Dublin would be sending signals of any kind to a crowd of nut-heads in a remote area of North Monaghan. ‘They’re coming across at Moybridge (the frontier post at Aughnacloy)’ said someone out in the street, so we decided that it was the Brits who were invading. ‘No they’re not,’ said another, ‘it’s German paratroopers and they’re landing all round Dublin’. By 6am everyone was tired out and sleepy and, as no invasion had been forthcoming, we all went back to bed. Later it transpired, that the whole thing had been a ‘test call out’ by the Irish Government, just to discover how long it would take the local defence forces to mobilise.

All local road-signs had also been removed, and even the miles-stones in the north of the county were lifted and hidden in an effort to confuse any potential invading force. These same mile-stones had been laid down during the Ordnance Survey of 1837, at one mile intervals all the way from Dublin to Derry, but the mileages were given in ‘Irish miles’ which were much longer than statute miles, e.g. the numbers on one at Emyvale gave the distance to Dublin as 66 miles whereas, in actual fact, it is 87 miles. On hindsight , it might have been much more effective if the mile-stones had been left in place, the mileages given would have confused any invading force.

This aforementioned ‘invasion’ however, might only have been an exercise, but a serious touch of the ‘real thing’ took place elsewhere in Co. Monaghan. At 8pm on the evening of Friday 20th December 1940 an unidentified aircraft, stated to be flying in a southerly direction, dropped two bombs near Shantonagh, some miles north-west of Carrickmacross. The first of these bombs fell one hundred yards from the home of Owen Finnegan and exploded, causing a crater fifteen feet deep and 13 yards in diameter. Two windows of the Finnegan house were blown in, but luckily, neither Mr. Finnegan nor his family were injured.

A short distance from the Finnegan home was the two storey house of Patrick Daly, in the townland of Bocks Upper, where Patrick lived with his wife, three sons and a daughter. On hearing the first explosion Patrick Daly rushed out to see what had happened but suddenly a second bomb fell, dropped from the skies with a noise ‘like an express train’ as Patrick himself would later describe it, and fell just fifty yards from the Daly home. It exploded with terrific force, smashing every window in the house, blowing the plaster of the walls and causing serious damage to the roof and ceilings. A shower of debris rained down on Patrick Daly and he received arm and facial injuries. He was given first aid treatment at home, and fortunately it was not found necessary to move him to hospital.

German pilots, returning from raids on British cities, were blamed for these bombings and it is doubtful if compensation was ever forthcoming. For the Finnegan and Daly families, it was an unusual and very unwanted Christmas ‘gift’ one that they could well have done without. This was easily the most serious of all WW2 events as far as Co. Monaghan was concerned.

Towards the end of the war, in 1945, the non-examinations class of St. Macartan’s College in Monaghan was sent out to cut turf in a nearby bog, and also to gather potatoes in a nearby farm, owned by the college, and the students apparently enjoyed the ‘work’ as a very pleasant change from the dull study routine they had become accustomed to. As the old Irish proverb states - ‘Is olc an ghaoth nach seideann do dhuine eigin’.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2002