in 1941, Belfast was bombed by th German Luftwaffe. During four nights of bombing, up to 950 Belfast civilians were killed. The city was inadequately defended and the infrastructure and emergency planning was woeful.
My Uncle Jackie often talked about being in the makeshift morgue at the Public Baths/Swimming Pool on Falls Road. In the 1960s one of our teachers, formerly a radiographer had been on duty in the Mater Hospital and often spoke about it.
Yet it strikes me that it was all very muted. Really this year, the 75th Anniversary is the last occasion when many survivors and eye witnesses to the disaster will be able to tell their stories. For most of my life, it was largely ignored. The 50th, 60th, 70th and now 75th provide formal dates for Remembrance , the exercise in “officialdom” that takes over these occasions.
I was born eleven years after the Belfast Blitz but even in the mid 1950s there was rebuilding going on in the city centre. If I recall correctly, the area around High Street/Bridge Street was a construction site. Even now in 2016, the newer buildings seem ill-matched to the older buildings.
Why were there so many years of Silence?
In a word…Shame.
Really with Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain in 1940, nobody expected Belfast to be bombed. And frankly unionists and nationalists were pretty happy that the war was remote. Nobody was anxious to sign up and Norn Iron was the only part of the “United Kingdom” where young men were not conscripted to fight for King, Country and Empire.
The non-conscription suited everyone. Why would nationalists en masse fight for Britain? Why would unionists who (along with nationalists) had paid with their lives at the Somme in World War One rush out to do it all again?
It suited the unionist poosition that Norn Iron shared a frontier with the potentially hostile Republic of Ireland, not to mention that there was a potential (as unionists saw it) an enemy within.
Unionists were happy enough to be in “reserved” occupations….so important that they did not join British Army. Happy enough to sit fire-watching on roofs at Sirrocco, Mackies and the shipyard. Happy enough to join the B Specials and harass their Catholic neighbours on country roads.
Fire-watching was a strange thing to do for after those four catastrophic nights in April and May 1941, the Germans never returned. Belfast and Norn Iron was a pretty safe place to sit out the war. And there were lots of American GIs to keep us entertained.
But why did the Germans not come back to Belfast?
It is known that the death toll in Belfast in 1941 would have been much higher and damage much worse if it had not been for the timely intervention of the Fire Brigade from Dublin and Dundalk. They were sent north by the (neutral) Irish Government in what was a flagrant breach of neutrality. The Dublin Government had intervened on behalf of the North.
Premier Eamonn de Valera informed the German Embassy that future attacks on Belfast was an attack on “our people”.
The Germans quietly forgot about Belfast.
Now I am not suggesting that the Germans were frightened of the Irish Army launching an attack on Germany. But clearly they wanted Ireland to remain neutral. Clearly in 1941, they did not want the British to have access to Irish sea ports and clearly it was still hoped to give USA no excuse to enter the war.
For most of my life I was brought up in an environment where unionist narrative prevailed…that Norn Iron had bravely stood with King and Country and the Republic of Ireland were cowardly neutrals.
In recent years…maybe since the 50th Anniversary of the Blitz (1991) a letsgetalongerist narrative has been allowed. In official circles, no discussion of the Belfast Blitz is possible without the obligatory reference to Dublin firemen. But LetsgetAlongerism does not permit any reference to DeValera’s neutrality not extending to attacks on Irish soil. Basically DeValera saved the Northern unionists arse.
As I have said …sending his fire engines north was a flagrant breach of Irish neutrality. But there should be no problem…in itself…with neutrality. Belgium, Netherlands and even the United States of America were neutral in WW2….until attacked.
Should Ireland be any different.
DeValera is routinely criticised for signing a Book of Condolence in the German Embassy on the death of Adolf Hitler. In so doing he was observing the diplomatic conventions until the end. It is more honourable than South American nations declaring war on Germany in early 1945.
So really we have moved from a unionist narrative to a LetsGetAlongerist narrative …but we cant go beyond that.
The Second World War in Norn Iron is an exercise in hypocrisy. Unfortunately for the unionist narrative (and the nationalist one) the only Victoria Cross winner from Norn Iron was a Falls Road Catholic. A man who was ignored by both tribes. And a memorial in his honour in City Hall grounds unveiled long after his death.
That is what we do in Norn Iron…we dont celebrate or commemorate History. We just make it up as we go along, to fit in with the prevailing attitudes. In the 1960s there were old men who built the Titanic in 1912 and a statue in City Hall but few Belfast residents could have pointed it out. Then along comes Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett and the rest is (made up) History. We needed Titanic Tourism to combat Terror Tourism, where our visitors just wanted to see our political murals and peace walls.
Can we ever really be trusted to tell the truth about Troubles History.
We signed up to the Good Friday Agreement.
And the GOvts told the Victims they would not be forgotten
Half-arsed schemes were talked about and then the Conflict Resolutionist/LetsGetAlongerist narrative kicks in. We should “move on” they tell us…and so should the victims…the Fresh Start people in DUP and Sinn Féin will make decisions for victims.
After all, a few years ago, a Victims Commissioner (remember them?) told a Platform for Change meeting that only 600,000 (of a population of 1,800,000) had any connexion to the Troubles.
And as the years go by…there are fewer.
I daresay in twenty, thirty or forty years time (like the Blitz in 2016) the handful of survivors of the Troubles will be honoured at City Hall. All of a sudden,people will be interested in our stories…as long as we comply with the narrative that prevails at the time.
People say we have too much History.
Actually we have too little History.
Btw, a great post FJH.
Thank you Sir.
Thank YOU sir. I appreciate it.
There is a very lazy narrative about Irish neutrality. The position was that USA only entered a war when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. As I recall it was a few days later that Germany declared war on USA.
The real story is that the Republic of IReland saved a lot of lives in the North, especially in Belfast but has not really claimed the credit. Yet it has allowed the unionist propaganda of “cowardly Éire”.
One of the first “history” shows I recall was “All Our Yesterdays in the 1960s. It was presented by Brian Inglis, a journalist. And -although I was ony about (say) 9-16, I rarely missed it (Monday 7pm). The theme was what was happening in the news 25 years previously so say in 1964 there was a look at the week WW2 broke out in 1939. It was done thru Pathé News Reels and newspaper clippings. I can still remember a report on “cowardly Éire” as reported on Pathé News. …the Irish Army were mocked for the “Nazi helmets”. ….you might be ale to catch that on youtube.