The Battle of Bass
Many moons ago when I was a bar manager, the pub I worked in had been renovated and a well-known Dublin politician was to perform the opening ceremony but the only stipulation was that I had to have a pint of Bass for him, a product that at that time was not a great seller and once the opening was performed within a week the tap had been removed. There had been a sea change in Irish politics after the battles of the civil war and Eamon DeValera had taken power in March 1932 but despite his movement away from the IRA, including naming his new party Fianna Fail, the IRA remained in the shadows. The organisation manifested itself under different guises including in November 1932 as the ‘Boycott British Goods League’. The Leagues campaign was aimed at one particular company, the British ale brewery Bass.
Bass had already been subject of an earlier boycott in Ireland from 1918 to 1924 as it was a huge seller in Ireland, probably second only to Guinness with a bottle costing the customer 8d and a draught Bass between 10d and a schilling. Bass was targeted because one of its directors was Colonel John Gretton, who was in 1932 a Conservative Party MP and an Olympic gold medallist in sailing, was seen to side with the Unionists in Ulster and during the conscription crisis he was quoted as saying ‘send every young Irishman to Flanders, then the Irish race will be exterminated’. The Boycotters also advised that there were plenty of alternative Irish made Ales for the consumers.
In Dublin the company, Bass, Radcliffe, Gretton and Company imported their casks on ships to the Liffey Quays and then moved them by horse and dray to a warehouse they maintained on Moore Lane. From there the drays would deliver to pubs in the inner city, by truck to Leinster and by train to the rest of Ireland. In November 1932 came the first reports of draymen being attacked and their casks of Bass emptied into the gutter began to emerge.
In December especially in Dublin, publicans were visited by armed men and told that they had seven days to get rid of their Bass stock or face some serious consequences, some threatened with being burned out of business. The problem for publicans was that Bass ale needed to mature in stock before being served and with the run up to Christmas publicans carried a lot of Bass stock. The Minister for Defence Fianna Fail man and War of Independence veteran Frank Aiken said when questioned in the Dail by TD’s allied to the Licensed Vintners Association said that there seemed to be ‘concerted activity amongst members of the Irish Republican Army and kindred terrorist organisations’. The ‘Army Comrades Association’ known as The White Army made up of veteran IRA men who had sided with the Treaty forces at a meeting in the Mansion House said that they were willing and able to assist the publicans in the protection of their businesses from what they described as ‘a bunch of hooligans’.
On December 14th there was an armed raid on the Bass warehouse at Lavitt’s Quay in Cork with all the stock destroyed. Casks were emptied and bottles smashed although it was reported over the festive period that bottles of stolen Bass was seized in a pro-IRA shebeen near Macroom. The next day on Dublin’s north quays a dray moving stock from the port warehouse to Moore Lane was attacked and twenty casks emptied onto the streets. On the 20th, sixteen men from the ‘White Army’ escorted a convoy of drays from the Quays to Moore Lane which itself was now protected by armed guards.
The campaign in early 1933 consisted mainly of attacking Bass signage and advertising inside and outside pubs and in some cases especially in rural areas, hammers were used to smash ads in pubs where only a barmaid was on duty. The boycott and intimidation campaign intensified once again towards the end of the year. In August there were attacks on pubs in Dublin, Killarney, Midleton and Waterford, with masked men entering the pub and ordering the publican to cease buying or selling Bass and destroying the Bass stock on the premises. In September there were more attacks in Dublin stretching from Sandymount to Pimplico Merrion Row to Patrick Street and Henry Street to Stoneybatter. Across the country there were attacks in Ballinrobe, Dun Laoghaire, Clonmel, Navan and Tramore. Armed Gardai were protecting trains as they travelled across the country. Thirty-five pubs were visited in Monaghan on one night by a large group of armed and masked men.
Some of those arrested were jailed for their offences and then in Mountjoy Jail they went on a failed Hunger Strike in an attempt to be released. The attacks trailed off, in October there was just one reported attack in Clare and in November only Tramore suffered the intimidation from the Boycott movement. Pressure from the DeValera Government had reduced the numbers involved and the fact that courts were not showing any leniency, the campaign against Bass ended.