On 8 December 1940, the 1st Battalion of the Construction Corps marched through Dublin. The 408 men wore uniform, had undergone initial training at the massive Curragh army camp, carried a blue flag bearing the Corps emblem, and were led by the Number 1 Army Band. As they passed Government Buildings on Merrion Street, they saluted the Taoiseach, Éamon DeValera, and four of his Ministers.
The Construction Corps was in fact a labour corps, recruited from the unemployed. Bryce Evans, writing in the Irish labour history journal Saothar, traced its origins to proposals from Seán Lemass, who had taken a keen interest in imitating the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. With rising unemployment following the outbreak of the Second World War, Lemass’ ideas were revived. The Construction Corps, run by Ministry of Defence, was the result.
Recruitment, of young unmarried unemployed men, began at the start of October 1940. As in Britain, the authorities argued that work, decent food and camp life would together help rebuild men’s bodies after the damaging effects of unemployment. The men lived in hutted or tented camps, far from the cities, and worked on land reclamation or peat digging in areas such as Connemara. And although born of war-time conditions, it lasted until 1948.
The Dublin parade took place early on in the Corp’s life. It is particularly interesting for me because this was such a public event, watched and applauded by thousands of Dubliners. There was much comment on the men’s bodies: according to an Irish Press reporter,
No onlooker could have failed to appraise these young men, their good colour, fitness and their smart military bearing.
The reporter duly drew a contrast with the unemployed ‘street corner’ city boys who were now ‘erect, healthy and determined’. In similar vein, the Catholic Herald thought that ‘This is what weakening bodies and minds have needed too long . . . we may hope for a better manhood when the trial is over’.
Ireland’s work camp system was distinctive, developing as it did in a nation where the land had historical resonance, where wartime conditions were leading to a steady flow of young men to Britain, and where severe economic disruption led to a series of significant but poorly co-ordinated government interventions. Nevertheless, as anyone familiar with work camp systems will know, manhood and health were pervasive themes: working men’s bodies degenerated if left idle for too long – hard work, solid food and outdoor living could ‘recondition’ these weakened frames.