A century after the devastation of the failure of the potato crop, few could believe that the country was about to face the scarcity of another essential foodstuff. By the winter of 1949, an acute shortage of milk was giving rise to concern, bordering on panic, that people would die for what had always been considered an abundant and reliable source of nutrition.
The milk supply crisis was exacerbated by a variety of factors. A succession of bad harvests meant that fodder was scarce and expensive, so much so that many milk vendors were leaving the business. Even more critical was the imposition of price control of milk, where the Government had set caps on milk prices, but at a level which milk vendors claimed were so low as to make their operations unviable economically. And the door-to-door vendors of milk were finding it too laborious to provide a seven-day-a-week, all-weather delivery service.
In many parts of the country, milk strikes broke out, when producers choose to pour their product down the drains rather than supply at prices which they considered inadequate to make a living.
In this county, the real crux would come in the price paid by Mayo County Council for the supply of milk to hospitals and nursing homes and sanatoriums.
An early warning had come in a dispute over the price paid to vendors supplying the Mental Hospital in Castlebar. The vendors served notice that they would discontinue supply if their demands for a better price were not met. That crisis was patched up, but it did give the County Manager – who at that time was in charge of all health institutions – time to procure a dairy herd, which was grazed on the extensive farm land owned by the hospital, but which also meant that the milk vendors had lost a lucrative source of income at a time of economic slump and hardship.
(It was an experiment the council sought to replicate when it took over Belleek Manor in Ballina as a sanitorium, but the department failed to give approval for the introduction of a dairy herd.)
In Castlebar, an acrimonious dispute was beginning to gather pace. Negotiations between the County Manager and the milk vendors had reached an impasse over the price to be paid for supplies to the County Hospital and the County Home. The vendors had tendered a price of three shillings per gallon. But the controlled price of milk, as per government ruling, was two shillings and five pence. The County Manager pleaded that he could not accept a tender higher than the controlled price, at the risk of being surcharged. His hands were tied.
And so, on the first Sunday of October, 1950, supplies of milk to the County Hospital and County Home were cut off, allegedly without warning, although this was disputed by the milk vendors. Panic ensued as the full impact made itself felt – especially among infant patients in the hospital and the elderly in the County Home, where just one supplier, Pat McDonnell of Rathbaun, refused to observe the embargo and continued with his deliveries.
An emergency supply of milk from the Mental Hospital herd, together with recourse to supplies of condensed milk – a product sold in tins by grocers and retailers – managed to fill the gap until, by mid-week, a deal was done with a Galway firm to supply the needs of both institutions.
It was a crisis that brought an end to the 50-year-long practice that had provided local small suppliers with a ready market for their produce, and that would change the process of milk marketing for all time.
The year the milk ran out