Personal Stories

Alfreda O’Brien’s Story

Alfreda O'Brien

Alfreda’s grandfather Francis O’Brien was a member of St. John’s Ambulance, and was involved in organising the rescue and remains identification operation immediately after the bombing. He was falsely accused of trying to signal to the Germans, when he set fire to gas mains to prevent an explosion. Alfreda also speaks about a priest who risked his own life to stay with dying man in the rubble, her grandfather’s job as the “glimmer man” for the gas company, and the family’s temporary move to Cabra. She also speaks of the terrified reaction of her Italian Grandparents who lived in Marino.

Listen to story here:

Duration: 21:20 mins.


Project Name: North Strand Oral History Project Phase 2

Track Number: 05

Name of the Interviewee: Alfreda O Brien

Name of Interviewer: Marc Redmond

Place of Interview: The Lab, Foley Street, Dublin 1

Date of Interview: 13 April 2010

Name of Transcriber: Marc Redmond

Length of Track: 00:21:20

This interview is taking place on 13 April 2010 at the Lab in Foley Street, present are Alfreda O Brien, and the interview is being carried out by Marc Redmond on behalf of Dublin City Archives.

MR: Good morning Alfreda, you had relatives involved in the North Strand Bombing and living in the area. Can you tell us a bit about who they were and what their situation was in 1941?

AOB: Well my closest relation would be my dad, Francis [O’Brien] Junior and then I had both my grandparents, Mary and Francis Senior, and my Auntie Marie and there was a good age gap between Marie and my dad.  On the night of 31st May, I think it was they said that the Germans over-passed Liverpool and had to get rid of bombs in order to return home.  That’s what I was led to believe.  My aunt seemingly came charging into my dad’s bedroom, flung him and the bed upside down, pinning him under the mattress as the walls came in, and he thought she was trying to kill him but in actual fact she saved his life and from then on my grandfather Francis who had huge experience in the First World War as a Medical, he was a petty officer in the Royal Navy. He just went straight into action I believe, and organized a lot of the St John’s Volunteers that lived around the North Strand, straight into groups.  My dad who was ten, he set up as a messenger boy, as a runner, with other local boys. So they had to run between Clonliffe, which was the only place that had a phone, and into the city centre bypassing the other craters. I think there was four bombs in total, I’m not sure.
He then subsequently organized people to gather remains for identification later, which was pretty gruesome but I think he’d seen so much himself he just went into automatic pilot and just did it.  Then he ran the risk of arrest because he had to set fire to the main gas main, because also my grandfather happened to be the Glimmerman (Gas Co. Inspector) which was a hated role down in the North Strand, but he had to set fire to the gas main in order to stop a further explosion that actually would have been bigger than the bomb itself.  With that the local ARP guy, auxiliary guy, came to arrest him with a wooden gun, because he figured he was signaling the Germans.  The Germans had already passed at that stage. And then my father said he spoke, Francis Junior spoke, highly of a priest, you know, a local priest. The bravery of this priest who went into the basement of a house that was really ready to fall, and a man had been impaled by a beam. He actually was impaled while saying his prayers, so he was at the side of his bed and he was dying, and nobody could go into him, and the priest went in and stayed with that man until he died.
My dad never knew… he must have been attached to St Agatha’s because I don’t know who… he never knew who the Parish Priest was. He never met him after, but he always spoke of that man and how he just didn’t think of himself, and he just said, the amazing thing about people, they just rallied together, they just kind of… they all seemed to know what to do to help their neighbour. I think that’s something that stayed with him forever, the spirit of the people of the North Strand, because there were a lot of poor areas too. There were quite a lot of tenements there, just where the old hump backed bridge comes into the five lamps, and yet it didn’t matter, because everybody was involved in the same situation. So I think my dad was lucky enough because his parents were quite okay because they had a small family, he had a good job, he worked in the gas company, and he was involved in the St John’s and he was a very upstanding, probably very strict man.  So I think they had quite a good life compared to some of the other people but at the end of the day it didn’t matter, they were all out of home, they were all scrambling through rubble, to try and find their loved ones and they were all afraid of who was missing and who wasn’t, you know?

MR: But did your dad mention, or speak anything about the aftermath of it, did he have anything to say about the damage?

AOB: I think after the dust settled and the night became day, and they were all exhausted, I think the shock of seeing the damage, because I think it was the first time too… I mean,  Dublin’s had its troubles by all means, but it was the first time something of that scale really hit the city and the whole city was in shock, as in “did this really happen, and why did it happen? Were they targeting us because of this, that and the other? Were they aiming for Belfast?”  I think it was the first time, that real shock of war was really that close and as I had said that my mother’s parents were Italian and they lived in Marino and they remember the bomb and my ‘Nonna’ [Italian for Grandmother] “Pasco Morrolo” and “Beppi Morrolo”, they… she panicked so badly because she’d gone through the war in Italy [WW1], never wanted to go back, and had come to Ireland to escape the Germans and she said “they’ll never find me here” and on that night she panicked, grabbed all her daughters and her son and went straight out to the back garden, couldn’t speak for two days and for years later when a plane went over she’d say “they found us, they found us” and she was talking about the Germans. For her it just brought everything back, because she had gone through war-torn Europe, lost her brothers, lost her father, lost a huge amount of family and she never thought it would hit Ireland.

MR: This was in the First World War?

AOB: Yes and she was a wonderful person because she really had fought hard, and even my ‘Nonno’ [grandfather] “Guiseppi Morrolo”, he was in the medical side of the Italian army too.  He was actually an ambulance driver, and he had cholera.  He used to give it to all the guys he didn’t realize that, so half of them died because of him, but that’s something he’d to live with.  But, they loved Marino and they really thought they were safe there and for that to happen, so close to the First World War, it sent a shudder down them too that nowhere was safe. There was great camaraderie between both my grandfathers because they both understood the damage it could do and they’d both seen what war can do and when people think it’s a glorious wonderful thing, these two old men would sit side by side and they wouldn’t have to speak and they both shared the same experiences, and my father was very aware of that, Francis Junior, and he said it was something they carried with them all along, and you don’t take it for granted, and that’s when I said about my dad having to relive it again on 17th May in 1974, in Talbot Street (UVF Terrorist bomb), it just brought everything home to him about the North Strand. Then again as he said the Dublin people were amazing in how they handle it.  The regular people just got together and said ok look we’ll try and take care of each other and I think in North Strand that’s what they did too.  But I also think they were very well organized because when they moved everybody to Cabra and Finglas, and all those places that were considered the countryside for somebody who lived in the heart of the city. My grandmother loved her house in Cabra, because it was the first time she had a front garden, and it was the first time that she could plant flowers and the sun always seemed to shine when she was there, and she just loved it, and she had a proper kitchen, and she had her separate pantry and her living room, and her good room and bedrooms. She loved it, and the first thing she did was she planted a monkey puzzle tree. I think it’s still there I don’t know?  It’d be nice to think it was there, and she cried going back to the North Strand, but my dad was very happy to go back to his friends, and to play hurling in the Street.

MR: What year did they move back?

AOB: I think..? I honestly don’t know it wasn’t too long after because my grandfather Francis was very keen to move back to the North Strand because he lived there all his life.  His whole family originally came from Cavan, the O’Brien’s originally came from Cavan, way, way back, and they always seemed to settle around the North Strand, East Wall area and my Grandfather was quite a home bird, and I think he loved the city and he would…  he had a motor bike, so he knew very well between one side and the other, but at least when he was in Cabra he just felt cut off and so it was really important for him to move back.  His sisters moved back to Donnycarney so they were close enough.

And you said there was a long-term impact with your grandmother and did attitudes change and did any rumours circulate around, about why the bombing happened?

Well I was always told by my father that they assumed that they had to offload the bombs because they overshot Liverpool. Other rumours were, that they were aiming for Belfast, because I don’t think, although there was a lot of Irish guys in the army and that and there was a lot of troops moving through, I don’t think the Germans really were bothered with Dublin, per se, because I think there was a good relationship there you know. I don’t know that was the only think I heard was that they missed Liverpool and they had to offload and considering the North Strand was so close to Dublin Port and the sea maybe that’s what they were aiming for, I don’t know.

MR: You said also your grandfather was a Glimmerman

AOB: Yes (laughs)

MR: And how did that ….?

AOB: He wasn’t the most popular person, I don’t think, in the North Strand, because I believe he loved his job, because he was an inspector in the Dublin Gas Company, and always had been, and they also called him ‘The Galloper’, because if they guys were working in Drumcondra, and Francis, he cycled everywhere by the way, he’d be over maybe in the Southside somewhere, and they’d say he’ll never be able to come over here and check us, and they’d turn around and he’d be behind them.  So they called him ‘The Galloper’ because he was so quick to move from one spot to the other, but I believe he was… Yes he loved his job very much so.

MR: And did your grandparents or your parents ever talk about things like the pawn shops or the ration books?

Yes, well you see, this was the funny thing, I think my dad’s family were quite ok.  They seem to have quite a good life, like they had a car, when very few people had a car; my Grandfather had a Norton motorbike, when nobody had motorbikes. On my mother’s side, the Italian side, they were very self-sufficient. My nana made pasta, she kept chickens in Marino in the back garden, even to now we still do it, vegetable patches, she could never understand how the Irish kids would be walking around you know, not even with a slice of bread because she made her own bread.  I think they were very self sufficient as a family.  I have heard stories of other families that were not so fortunate, and where some boys who lost their fathers had to be sent into, I suppose they’d be called orphanages now, but at the time they were called schools and then until a family member could afford to bring them back home.  Some of that happened to my father’s friends, I don’t know who they were, but I know he spoke about it.  On my mother’s side, no I think they were okay because they were all in full time employment as well.  There was pawn shops, I know my dad used to teach me about me gold balls outside and I know there was one in Capel Street and down off Smithfield, I think there’s still one there and Kilbride’s up on Camden Street [actually Clanbrassil Street], because I’m sure there was things pawned, because how else would he know they were there? So there must have been that kind of thing, Yes, Yes.

Francis Thomas O’Brien and his wife Mary Hughes

MR: Now, you’ve brought in a selection of photographs here and just for the record I’d like to go through them.  We’ll do them one by one.  You’ve a large photograph here (photograph no. 1), now can you tell us who’s in that picture.

AOB: Yes, this is Francis Thomas O’Brien and this is in his uniform for the Royal Navy as a Petty Officer, with his service medal, and his wife Mary Hughes, and her family, she came from a large Irish speaking family, and I never knew that my Grandfather was a fluent Gaelic speaker.  But seemingly he was strolling down the street in his uniform back home, and she passed a remark, not a very pleasant one “As Gaeilge” [in Irish] and he answered her back, and I believe the romance kind of started from there.  Tough cookie of a lady, but I think it was a really good match. We found some old love letters and things, he was really smitten by her, and he then went on to work in the Gas Company, but he served doing the St Johns for years, and he was knighted for his services in the St John’s because he always liked the medical side of it, and was very technical and very proficient in dealing with medical things but, nice family.

St John's Ambulance training day

MR: Another photograph here [photograph no. 2], of four men with gas masks?

AOB: Gas masks, Yes, this was on their training day, I believe it is the Phoenix Park where the St Johns trained with local volunteers and the auxiliary army and all that kind of thing, and they’d have quite a lot…., I think it was a fun day, because he loved the military precision of it all, and it was just to try and keep up to date if ever there was a threat of a gas mask.  I don’t know how practical it would be, I mean it’s hard for me to believe, because we still have the gas mask at home, they’re horrible smelly things, but I think they had to stand for that photograph, because it’s an old standard size camera size that they used but yes my uncle Peadar is in that one.

MR: This one here of an ambulance [photograph no. 3]?

AOB: Yes, that’s a St John’s ambulance in the North Strand. There was quite a lot of them there.  Actually it’s my uncle Peadar behind the wheel.  He lived in Donnycarney, so they were a well known sight around Dublin for the football matches in Croke Park, and for along O’Connell Street.  O’Connell Street had a little medical centre, a little hut, a St. John’s ambulance hut, so that if anybody got injured during the night they’d sort them out.  The ambulance, yes, it’s a really old, old ambulance, but they used it a good few times.  I think there was very few of them in the city at the time.

St John's ambulance in the North Strand

MR: And did he speak much about his duties on the night [General Ambulance duties in Dublin]

AOB: Yes he did about Dublin, and I think it hasn’t changed there was the usual things, broken bottles, cuts, bruises, girls the worst for wear.  My dad did deliver a baby at eleven in the back of taxi on O’Connell Street (laughs) as a young St John’s cadet, and a lady there just went into labour, and they had to deliver the baby, but it was great to think that they were there to help.

MR: Absolutely

AOB: The taxi ranks in the same spot opposite the Gresham so that’s where, I don’t know who the lady was, my dad never found out but there was a little baby born there one night.

St. John's Ambulance Training Day

MR: And you have another group here, some in uniforms, can you tell me about that [photo no. 4]?

AOB: This is St John’s again, this is my Auntie Day, as we call her May, she’s in the back there, my dad is in the front.  It was just shortly after the North Strand bombing, because he was ten at the time, so he would have been eleven in this picture, and again it’s another practice run in the Phoenix Park, and training day where they would have worked with other volunteers, like the Fire Brigade and all that kind of thing, and you can see there’s a lot of smiling faces, so I think it was a social thing.  A lot of romances started on those days, sisters would be introduced to friends and friends introduced to sisters and that kind of thing, so it was very much a sociable side to it as well; a matchmaking conference I think, you know?

Francis O'Brien (junior) and his mother Mary O'Brien

MR: And this is your grandmother [photo no. 5]?

AOB: Yes my grandmother and my dad.

MR: This is in the house in Cabra, is that right?

Francis O'Brien (jnr) and Mary O'Brien

AOB: Yes, my dad in short pants, and she loved that house, I don’t know where in Cabra it was.  You can even see she has lovely curtains on the window.  She didn’t have a picture window as she would call it, and she never had a front garden, so it overlooked the garden and you can see all her plants, and she just loved it there, she was very, very happy.  She’s actually wearing white and I never saw my grandmother in bright colours (laughs)

And the family eventually moved back to the North Strand?

They did.  They moved back to Ossory Road.   My grandfather loved being in the heart of the city, and my dad grew up playing on the streets of Ossory Road and Patrick’s Road because the abattoir was quite close by too and it was always, always busy, busy place you know, he loved it.

MR: And finally we have two other photographs there, family photographs, who’s in these pictures?

Francis O'Brien (jnr)(1st on right) with friends on Dollymount strand, c. 1943

AOB: My dad as a young boy walking over O’Connell Street and… that’s before the bombing, [Photo No. 6]. That was about the 1920s probably, no actually it was 1930s, it must have been in the 30s, because he was born in 1931.  In a teddy bear suit and my auntie day looking exceptionally elegant, she always did, in her 1930s gear but, it’s a really happy picture.  That’s one of those street photographers.  He took photographs of people just randomly walking down the street. You always looked like something out of a magazine, so I love that picture.  Then my dad on Dollymount strand, because that to them was heaven, halcyon days you know, warm summers and his buddies from Ossory Road, and they loved to swim, every chance they got they were down at Dollymount, or along the coast they just loved it. [Photo No. 7]  It’s a nice happy picture, that’s just after, I suppose when as a kid you kind of bounce back.  It’s almost like a lifetime ago I suppose when you’re that age, you know, but yes nice happy pictures.

MR: Would you remember if your dad ever spoke about school-yard games?  Would they have played the Germans and the Brits as opposed to cowboys and Indians?

AOB: Yes, cowboys and Indians were a big thing, and up to the day my dad passed away there was always a cowboy picture on the telly. Cowboys and Indians were the big thing.  He cycled all the time, everybody went everywhere on a bike.  Dancing, mad into the ballroom dancing when he got older, and the cinema.  The cinema was king; that was where he went and switched off, you really did.  But it’s funny, hide and seek they used to play, even when they were older, but I think cowboys and Indians were his number one.  He went to St Laurence O’Toole school, and, definitely cowboys and Indians constantly, and like that the swimming, fishing off the canal, cycling and all that kind of thing, that’s really what he was into and hurling, he did a bit of hurling

The O'Brien family and friends

MR: Did he mention at all if the war had affected the kids, like the idea of having to get gas masks, were the kids curious about that?

Yes, I think a lot of them didn’t have them I think his house had them because of the connections my Grandfather had with the St John’s, and the army, but an awful lot of houses didn’t have them, but it was kind of pot luck and it was a real case who’s going to survive and who isn’t.  I think he said there really was a distinction as to what some people had and what some others didn’t have because there was quite a lot of poverty around too, but he was in a little protected area, but walking up the road there was tenements, where there was like three families living to a room and it wasn’t that long that my grandparents lived like that.  I mean, my grandfather would have lived like that as a young boy, and he worked his way up to have his own house, where his own family lived, and they had a room each, he and his sister had a room, so they were quite okay, but he was aware of the poverty of the city and it’s something he always had empathy for even when he got older. I know my dad worked in the gas company also, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but if he knew of a house, say in a nice part of town, that was getting rid of a cooker, well, my dad would put it into the back of the van and bring it to a family that couldn’t afford a cooker, and fit it, and just set them up to help them out.  So he was very good at recycling things and sharing the wealth because he was aware that it was only a stone’s throw for him and his family too.  I think that was something that has been installed, instilled in all of us that’s it’s only… it can happen to anybody, you know just for ..

There but for the grace of God?

Yes exactly, it can just…. I think he was very aware that that can happen, and the same way, even with my Italian grandparents in Marino, because they had to work so hard to find a place and to prove to people that they can do it, and everything in my family was, if you work hard, and don’t be too foolish, and you know be aware of other people around you, and I think that’s something that he learned from the North Strand bombing because the way people helped each other out was just phenomenal. He often spoke about how families who would probably never speak to each other, it was a leveling ground for everybody, you know? Because, everybody’s home was gone, and belongings and everything.

MR: Alfreda I’d like to thank you very much for coming in and taking the time.

Interview Ends

See also: Alfreda’s Story

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