World War II, God And Guinness
Religion & Liberty Online

World War II, God And Guinness

For those so inclined, St. Patrick’s Day is a great day to enjoy a pint of Guinness. The legendary beer of Ireland has not only a rich taste, but a rich history.

Arthur Guinness was a brewer and entrepreneur in a time when clean drinking water was hard to find in Dublin. Alcoholic beverages were the norm. While alcohol is preferred to polluted water, it also has the unhealthy effects of drunkenness. Beer was deemed a healthier alternative to homemade concoctions and hard alcohol, and Arthur Guinness set about perfecting the ideal brew.

Guinness was also a man of God. One Sunday morning, while attending St. Patrick’s Cathedral with his family, Guinness heard John Wesley speak.

We do not know exactly what Wesley preached, but we can know a few things. Wesley would have called the congregation at St. Patrick’s to God, of course, but he also would have had a special message for men like Guinness. It was something he taught wherever he went. “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can,” he would have insisted. “Your wealth is evidence of a calling from God, so use your abundance for the good of mankind.”

On this Sunday and on other occasions when he heard Wesley speak, Arthur Guinness got the message. He also got to work. Inspired by Wesley’s charge, Guinness poured himself in founding the first Sunday schools in Ireland. He gave vast amounts of money to the poor, sat on the board of a hospital designed to serve the needy and bravely challenged the material excesses of his own social class. He was nearly a one man army of reform.

His legacy to his children was the value of hard work, being a fair employer, and giving back.

During World War II, the Guinness brewery did its part; one scholar says Guinness saved Ireland. Ireland was officially neutral during the war, which rankled Winston Churchill. He found Ireland’s neutrality “self-serving and greedy.” Churchill sought to force Ireland’s hand in the war by putting a supply squeeze on the island nation; amongst other things, agricultural fertilizer was sharply cut. For the agricultural nation, dependent on wheat, this was nearly a death blow. By 1942, the Irish government took decisive action, and it involved the one resource they had that the British desperately wanted: Guinness.

In March 1942, in an effort to preserve wheat supplies to ensure that the poor had enough bread, the Irish government imposed restrictions on the malting of barley and banned the export of beer altogether. Consequently, the British attitude, hitherto devil-may-care, shifted dramatically. After the British army complained to Whitehall of unrest caused by a sudden and ‘acute’ beer shortage in Belfast, a hasty agreement was drawn up between senior British and Irish civil servants. Britain would exchange badly needed stocks of wheat in exchange for Guinness.

A short time later, though, Guinness complained that they did not have sufficient coal to produce enough beer for both the home and export markets. Guinness was, of course, an established pre-protectionist company which the Irish Department of Supplies did not wholly trust. On this occasion, though, it was worth their while to take Guinness at their word. The Irish government promptly re-imposed the export ban, to the chagrin of their British counterparts. This time, in a further attempt to slake the thirst of Allied troops north of the border, British officials grumpily agreed to release more coal to Ireland.

Barter proved a highly volatile business and when Ireland did succeed in securing fertilisers and machinery in return for Guinness it was often in the face of strong opposition from the United States Combined Raw Materials Board and the British Ministry of Agriculture.

Slowly but surely, though, this pattern of barter repeated itself. Faced with a ballooning and dry-tongued garrison of American and British troops in Northern Ireland in the long run-up to D-Day in June 1944, the British and Americans periodically agreed to release stocks of wheat, coal, fertilisers and agricultural machinery in exchange for Guinness.

These supplies were to keep neutral Ireland afloat during the Second World War and enable the continuance of Irish neutrality.

Arthur Guinness began a business to profit both himself and his country. While Guinness may not have saved the Irish from World War II single handedly, the beer played an important role for the Irish during that time.

Again, if you’re so inclined, raise a pint to Arthur Guinness, entrepreneur, man of God, and maker of darn fine beer.


Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.