A talk by Eoin Bairéad at the North Strand Bombing and the Emergency in Ireland seminar held at Dublin City Library & Archive on 29 May 2010.
Eoin Bairéad has an M.A. in Local History in NUI Maynooth, and is the author of The bombing of Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin, 1941 in the Maynooth Studies in Local History series, 2010.
You can listen to and watch the talk while following the presentation, or scroll down to read the transcript.:
The more you read about it in the newspapers and otherwise the more different it seems. The first difficulty you come across is you ask what made the front page in 1940, the answer is ads made the front page in 1940; we were far too civilised to be putting things like news on page 1. World War II “officially” began in September 1939 on 3rd when the United Kingdom and France told the Germans that they were at war. Two days previously on 1st September the ambassador in Berlin was instructed to inform the German Government that unless they were going to basically stop the war in Poland, “give satisfactory assurances”, was the phrase they used, “His Majesty’s Government would without hesitation fulfil their obligations to Poland”. That’s what happened two days later.
At 11 o’clock the Prime Minister told Britain this country is at war with Germany, and that afternoon France declared war on Germany.
Along with every other country in Europe, but uniquely amongst Commonwealth members Ireland did not join the war. People ask what countries in Europe were neutral in the First World War and the answer is all of them except the belligerent and that’s not being smart. The two that started…well Poland was obviously no longer neutral, it had been invaded; Austria had been annexed in the Anschluss. The United Kingdom and France were at war with Germany, everyone else was neutral when Germany invaded other countries they stopped being neutral and became invaded. Ireland is often described at the time as being neutral, but perhaps a better phrase is Garret Fitzgerald’s ‘non-belligerent’. Because while we weren’t actually at war there was a huge of commerce with Britain, both in people who went to work in the war in the war industries, the British soldiers having gone to fight in the war proper and trade; we sold tonnes of stuff to Britain. The period in Ireland, is normally called as “The Emergency”, and that is normally said to be some sort of euphemism; it’s not because de Valera’s constitution enacted a couple of years previously, Sub-section 3º of section 3 of Article 28 of the Constitution, said:
In this sub-section “time of war” includes a time when there is taking place an armed conflict in which the State is not a participant but in respect of which each of the Houses of the Oireachtas shall have resolved that, arising out of such armed conflict, a national emergency exists affecting the vital interests of the State.
And the day before war was declared, on 2 September the same de Valera said to the Dáil that he was proposing, ‘That Dáil Éireann hereby resolves, arising out of the armed conflict now taking place in Europe, a national emergency exists affecting the vital interests of the State’ – the same exact phrase from his constitution of two years previously.
He went on to say “I do not think it is necessary for me to add anything to what I have already said. I think it is evident to everybody that the circumstances contemplated by the amendment of the Article of the Constitution do, in fact, exist”.
Now the commentators on the war, Eunan O’Halpin, being one of the very good ones, in his book ‘Defending Ireland’, he said that the Government basically accepted the conventional wisdom of the time that aerial bombing of civilian targets would be an inevitable and rapidly decisive tactic in the European war. That’s actually not true; there were huge sections of Europe that knew nothing about aerial bombing. Spain did because the Luftwaffe had practiced their aerial bombing in the Spanish Civil War. And it suddenly struck me while reading this that de Valera did too, because de Valera had two very good opportunities of finding out what happened in Spain. He would have known people who served in Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade and he would have known and indeed locked up some of his own ex-colleagues who fought in the International Brigade with Charlie Donnelly and Mick O’Riordain. That information was not readily available in other parts of the island and I’ll come to that later on.
Before the war started at all in July 1939, they passed An Air Raid Precautions Act. By the way all through 1939, it appears clear that all of Europe was expecting a war and people knew that the German advance into the rest of Europe and the behaviour of Hitler and his government meant that war was almost inevitable. The Air Raid Precautions Act was passed in Ireland in 1939, and it was modelled exactly on the Act two years earlier in the United Kingdom. And they produced a little one penny booklet, called The Protection of your Home against Air Raids, where the Minister for Defence acknowledged the Controller of the British Stationery Office for I think he said the book was based on their book, it wasn’t based on their book it was pretty much a word-for-word copy of their book. Copies were given out to every house.
In the South also they set up under that Act, a volunteer Corp known as the Air Raid Precautions, the Air Raid Precaution what? The Air Raid Precautions nothing, it was called the ARP, the Air Raid Precautions. And it was to be controlled by the local authorities, county councils and city councils. And thousands volunteered. Dublin Corporation, being the largest of those authorities had full-time officials running the ARP, and training under those full-time officials began in 1939, with the commencement of the war. The other thing we did was, all around the coast we put big signs like that saying, “You have reached Ireland, go home”. And they built these little horrid pillboxes, which you sometimes see around the coast where misfortunate, poor squaddies had to sit all night in dreadful conditions to repel any German invasion.
On the 26th August 1940, in County Wexford, bombs fell near the railway station in a place called Ambrosetown, near the railway viaduct and near the home of a gentleman called Jim Hawkins, about 5 miles from Campile Creamery. And later on Campile itself was bombed in the first serious bombing of the war; this was in August 1940. Some damage was caused to Mr Hawkins’ house but when the device was dropped on the Creamery three women were killed: Mary Ellen Kent, who was in charge of the restaurant, her sister, Katherine Kent, an assistant in the drapery portion and Kathleen Hurley, who was an assistant in the restaurant. The three ladies aged 35, 25 and 25 were called girls in all of the following reports; it was the days before political correctness. That’s the Creamery after the bombing and you can see it was fairly well-damaged and there’s a wee plaque that’s put up to the three misfortunate women, erected as you see by Waterford Foods in 1940.
Uniquely in wartime bombings and this includes the North Strand Bombing, uniquely the Irish Army were of the view that this bombing was deliberate. There is in the Military Archives in Rathmines a large file called the 2nd World War Bombings on which I base much of what I’m talking tonight and Commandant D.J. Murphy and Captain T.J. Hanley mentioned the earlier bombing of the Rosslare-Fishguard boat, and saw in the set of attacks an attempt by Germany to disrupt or destroy the supply of food to Britain, and a punishment for the breaking off of trade with Germany by the creamery management in Campile, which they had done earlier. So going back to the non-belligerent, not alone were we supplying Britain with much-needed food but we had stopped selling to Germany.
Three months later, in December 1940 a series of events occurred, which I’m going to get back to, all of these were bombings. Bombs fell in Sandycove, and in Monaghan and in Dundalk, and some people were injured.
Eleven days after Sandymount and Monaghan bombings, in the first days of 1941, there was a far more concerted series of attacks. Now you’ll notice from this , all over The Irish Independent of this day there was news of the war. The war featured prominently in every newspaper from its commencement in 1939 till it finished in 1945. The Independent had a habit, down on the bottom of the page on the war, of putting a little tile, day 478 of the war. They had done 478 days of commentary by this time, December 1940. Oslo rail-line bombed, Germans do this, Italian withdrawal from Tripoli, the coverage of the war was incredible in papers that were quite small, often only 8 pages and sometimes even less because of the paper shortages of the time. One week later, well ten days later we had perhaps the most concentrated series of bombing events in Ireland in the War. Where over a few short nights we had mines dropped in Enniskerry, bombs in Drogheda, bombs in Bettystown, bombs in Terenure in Dublin, eight at the Curragh Racecourse, ten near Duleek, and eight in Carlow where three people were killed and finally three more in Oylegate in Wexford. So we had 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 bombings over ten days or 8 of them over two. In the Knock Row in Waterford, three people were killed. Now later that night, that’s the night of 3rd January 1941, Dublin was bombed again. And the rather terse report in the Military Archives on the first major bombing in Dublin since, basically since the Rebellion and the first serious event since the Civil War,
At 03.55 hrs on the 3rdJanuary (1941) two H.E. (High Explosive) bombs were dropped at Donore Terrace, S.C.Rd. Two houses in the Terrace (Nos. 91 and 93) were completely demolished and a number of houses and buildings in the vicinity were severely damaged. Twenty-two persons were injured, none fatally. The bombs fell on either side of the two houses mentioned above. Fragments of H.E. bombs recovered from the scene bore markings indicative of German origin, for which see attached photographs numbered 12 and 14.
And we immediately complained to Germany. The other things you may read of were that we were hesitant to complain to Germany of these bombing. If we could see the planes we complained, if we found the bombs we complained, if we didn’t see the planes and that was true in a fair number of cases where the bombing were at night, they were officially described as unidentified. But there was no hesitancy when aircraft were seen and recognised in complaining to Berlin and Berlin normally replied in one of two ways, “we’re terrible sorry” or “It wasn’t us”.
The Dublin City Council plans for air raid bombings, the ARP that I mentioned earlier sprung into action within 5 minutes. Oh, I’ll tell you if you walk along the South Circular Road past the National Stadium, there’s a Mosque on your left hand-side; it used to be a Presbyterian Church. Just beyond that there is a terrace of houses on your left, red-bricked houses and if you look at the houses you’ll see that they all have bow-windows in the front except two; they were the two that were demolished and when they were rebuilt they were rebuilt without the bow windows. And if you look across the road, if you’re going out of town on your right there’s a very fine building that looks like a sort of a big church hall or something. It was in fact a synagogue and if you go up to it and look you will still sees the stars of David in the windows on the ground floor. That was a Synagogue and that was bombed and you will still see the pockmarks in the front where the holes caused by the bombs were repaired by just slathering on more cement. The locals speak with some pride of this, they say it was the only synagogue in Europe bombed by the Nazis for which the Germans paid compensation. The City Manager told the newspapers, who said “what took you so long?” He said the Air Raid Wardens were on the scene five minutes afterwards, so were the military from Griffith Barracks which is just beside it (Griffith Barracks is now Griffith College). Five minutes after that the injured had been rescued, and a further five minutes later all of the injured had been taken away, that may not be true. And in very difficult circumstances, the last two victims had been rescued within half an hour of the explosion.
After that there’s almost no reference to bombings in the papers, no one was injured, two houses were demolished and a fair number were damaged, and there is a file that thick upstairs [in Dublin City Library & Archive Reading Room] of the bombing – why? Oh the file is nearly as thick as the North Strand Bombing of which you will hear later. But this is a middle-class suburb of Dublin, where the people were fine middle-classed people, and their houses were damaged and their property was damaged and their garden was damaged, and the greenhouse was damaged. What did they look for? – Compensation! And did they get it? Did they what? When I was doing a study on the South Circular Road I came across another folder upstairs, a tiny thing, and it’s called file number one. And in it the City Manager who was a hugely important man called P.J Herman, the City Manager describes how to deal with strikes in the corpo and there at the back is a foolscap hand-written sheet on which are scribbled notes. The scribbled notes concern a bit I wouldn’t normally be talking about, but nowhere else upstairs is there any record of an event that people talk about still -the Dublin Fire Brigade and their response to the Belfast Blitz. In Belfast unlike down here, they had almost no opportunity to talk to Spanish Civil War Veterans. The Northern Government, the Stormont Government, the Unionist Government wouldn’t really have been mixing with the sort of very traditional right-wing Catholics that went out with Eoin O’Duffy and they certainly wouldn’t have been mixing with Mick O’Riordan and his communist friends.
The ARP got thousands of people in a country, which people figured would not join the war. That had been the promise all the way through. On the day before Belfast was bombed the Town Clerk in Belfast reported that there had been an appeal for air raid wardens in the North, they needed 80; they got 17 applications. They had turned down offers of anti-aircraft guns. They had dismissed as irrelevant any talk of training local people to deal with air raids.
When Belfast was bombed on the night of April 15th /16th 1941, several hundred bombings took place. Belfast knew they couldn’t be reached because they were too far from Germany. No one had figured out that they were not too far from Northern France, which Germany had conquered and it was there that the aircraft flew. There is still a question about how many people actually died in the North Strand Bombing and those who will be talking about that bombing may mention this. However, there is almost no real dispute, the number of people killed in Belfast on that night, the proportion of the city, of the population of the city was probably the greatest in any raid on Britain in the 2nd World War. The destruction was enormous; there was almost no defence.
The following morning the City Manager, normally a most meticulous of men, on a scribbled sheet starts writing down what happened. This is covered excellently in a book that you can buy upstairs by Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead on the Dublin Fire, it’s a brilliant book.
At 5.10 am the City Manager received a phone call from Belfast, which requested urgent Fire Brigade assistance from Dublin in fighting fires in Belfast. Who did he phone? (this is Hernon he was in charge) He phoned in his number two, in fact he had two number twos, the fire chief, Major H. Comerford and his ARP Chief – Major S. O’Sullivan. He phoned them first. And he says “at the same time” he phoned de Valera. Well he didn’t phone de Valera third; and de Valera said it was very serious. About twenty minutes later de Valera phoned back and said go for it; give any assistance possible is what Hernon writes down. The City Manager phoned his chief back and said “we’re going”.
Dev rang again and said find out who made the call. So Hernon phoned the Belfast Telephone people who told him, who told him that the Commissioner of Police has asked them to ring him, so the call came from the telephone people who were the only people up there apparently who knew about Dublin phone numbers. The Commissioner of Police said he had been told by the Ministry of Public Security. This was John McDermott, and Seán McMahon’s book on the North Strand Bombing says that McDermott was more aware of the realities of the situation than almost anyone else in the Stormont government. They couldn’t tell the Northern Prime Minister because he was doddering and may have been unwell at that time of the night as he often was, apparently at that hour of the night. But Basil Brooke who later became Prime Minister was informed by McDermott and it may have been Brooke, or it may have been McDermott, took the decision to phone the Town Clerk of Dublin. Now the City Manager of Dublin is called officially, still the City Manager and Town Clerk. The person is Belfast is called the Chief Executive and Town Clerk and at the time the Town Clerk was the normal way that the Belfast people referred to the boss of their city. They didn’t know what the title was in Dublin, they assumed it was Town Clerk; they didn’t know his name, they didn’t know his number they knew nothing they just he could help them. The Fire Brigades were sent with volunteers and Hernon writes down in a note beside it “check insurance”, so the administrative mind was still working, what happens if something happens one of these lads in Belfast? What happens their family? Who pays? Fortunately they all came back.
There will be a talk later on about censorship in the war; the Irish Press said Fire engines and fire-fighting ambulance units from towns in the Twenty-Six Counties assisted the local fire-fighters in saving burning homes and rescuing and attending survivors and that’s about it. No one mentioned where they came from, no one mentioned who they were. I checked the British papers and I checked the Belfast papers – no mention. And then I said no one else mentioned it and I was told you are wrong. There was one Northern paper called the Northern Whig of which I had never heard and never read which says pretty much the same thing, some units from the South came up; didn’t say where they came from. The Irish Times in an editorial said this was great, “Humanity knows no borders…men from the South worked with men from the North in the universal cause of the relief of suffering.
But Dev on April 19, later on that month, in Castlebar in a speech that was published everywhere said:
This is the first time I have spoken in public since the disaster in Belfast and I know you will wish me to express on your behalf and on behalf of the Government our sympathy with the people who are suffering there … they are all our people, they are one and the same people, and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows. I want to say that any help we can give them in the present time we will give to them wholeheartedly believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help wholeheartedly.
Yeah, but he said basically to the entire world if Belfast are bombed again we’re going up to help them. What did the Germans say? The Germans said nothing. Why not? The Germans wouldn’t say why not. But twenty years later in 1960s, Eduard Hempel, who was the, his official title was an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the German Government in Dublin, appointed by the way by His Majesty because we were still officially not a republic told the newspaper interviewer, ‘nobody from Germany protested, and I had no intention of doing so’. Now I think the best possible explanation of that is that Hempel and Dev got on. Famously Dev went up to Hempel after the collapse of Germany and the war, and the death of Hitler and what remained of the government and sympathised with him. Something that was condemned both then and since. Hempel may have had some positive effects both here and in the North.
A few weeks later there was a further bombing in Belfast. And with the further bombing in Belfast, by the way, the note upstairs (in Dublin City Library & Archive Reading Room) in the same folder from Hernon is not scribbled on two foolscap sheets, it’s neatly typed up with bits underlined and bits in red and terribly prettily done, because on that second occasion the phone call did not come to Hernon. On that second occasion, remember the first phone call came at 5 o’clock in the morning when it was clear that things were going seriously bad. Three weeks later the second phone call came at 12.30am when Taoiseach “phoned me and stated that Belfast had again been attacked. Told me to be prepared to send assistance”, if called upon to do so. So this time Belfast phoned Dev directly and he phoned the same people. This is the bit that I thought was heavens: at 2.30am Dev phoned Hernon again and stated that all available fire assistance that could be spared was to be sent to Belfast. The Police and Military were to be informed so that the way would be clear for the Brigade. Also stated that we should confine our activities to rescue from private houses rather than military objectives. Hernon rang Major Comerford and Major Comerford said, no way, if we find injured we help injured. And that was it. If they found injured, they helped injured. One of the stories about Belfast which is mentioned in one of the books is when some misfortunate poor very Unionist people in some very Unionist part of Belfast heard the accents of the people who were digging them out of their bombed home “Heavens we must have been blown to the Free State!” (Laughter).
There’s the synagogue in Dublin as it was bombed in January, that’s Belfast. The photographs from Belfast are indicative of the utter chaos that must have been in city during that dreadful bombing. And that’s what it says in one of the newspapers, units of fire fighters from some of the towns in the twenty-six counties assisted. No mention of what towns, no mention of how many people and immediately after that one short paragraph goes on to describe the bombing itself. That’s the official statement from the North, no mention of the South at all.
After the North Strand Bombing there were some other bombings, maybe. This is how important the bombings were seen at the time. There may have been a bombing in Malin in Donegal in May*. There was a bombing in June 1941 of Arklow. And there is a single reference – this is great thing about doing research upstairs (in the Dublin City Library & Archive reading room) you find a reference to something, then you find another reference to the same thing and it’s exactly the same wording and then you Google it on the Internet and you find three references and they are all exactly the same wording so you begin to suspect they all have the one source. Somebody’s daddy told him that there was a bombing in Dundalk in July and he has repeated this and everyone has repeated it afterwards, but I can find no reference to it at all. This bombing in Arklow on the 2 June 1941 was the last bombing of the South during the war. So, all of the bombings of the South during the war occurred between August 1940 and June 1941. About 20 bombings, and nearly 40 people killed, most unhappily in the North Strand, and that’s it. There was apparently an interview with John Bowman last week with one of the German pilots who said he took part in the bombing of Dublin which I did not hear and which someone told me about as I was coming in as I was going to talk about the reasons for the bombing but I’ll go ahead anyway.
The reasons for the bombing: The first reason for the bombing is that everyone knows that Dublin was bombed because that’s where the Jews were, they bombed the South Circular Road because that’s where the synagogue was, there was a bomb a few days earlier in Terenure – lot’s of Jews in Terenure. They were able to pinpoint a synagogue in Dublin and bomb it with incredible accuracy when they kept missing targets all over the UK – it didn’t happen. But anyone of a certain age that you talk to who remembers the time, they’ve said to me “me Mammy told me it was the Jews”. And there’s a lovely record kept by the BBC, a 50th anniversary of the Second World War. They did a thing called ‘World War II People’s Archive’ and they interviewed people with microphones and they put it up on the BBC site. But of course they put up the transcript on the BBC site. So you read the transcript done by some very nice English Historian of some fella whose Dublin accent could not have been learned it had to be acquired at birth. And I was reading about the bombing of Eamonn Street – where’s Eamonn Street? And then I said to myself again “where’s Eamonn Street? Eamonn Street is where the station used to be Amien Street Station.” And the place that was also bombed was the Five Lambs (laughter). Never mind! There’s a lovely book on the Second World War in Dublin where a chap called Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon interviewed people; a very nice lady said they bombed a place on the South Circular Road, which by a strange coincidence was a Jewish stronghold. Unhappily, even the site of a certain City Council not a million miles from where we are sitting when they described the South Circular Road bombing repeated that it was a very Jewish area. But there you go.
There was opinion at the time that Ireland was bombed because the Germans wanted to get Ireland into the war and that Ireland was bombed because the Germans wanted to keep Ireland out of the war. Some rather strange Irish people said it wasn’t Germany at all; it was English pilots in captured German aircraft with captured German bombs because they hated England because England had oppressed us for eight hundred years.
One modern author, although his views are clear from his book on why cowardly Ireland stayed out of the war – Eire as he calls it. Then said that it was bombed to stop us getting into the war and it was successful.
There is a story that went around that Britain was able to bend the navigation beams of the German aircraft by various secret devices and even to point them away from Coventry and to South Circular Road. You might imagine that would be so silly as not to deserve comment but someone asked Winston Churchill and he used to deny it, which was enough for the journalist in question. However, Richard Hawkins writing in ‘The Sword’ does a very good and very technical article where he says it couldn’t have happened. However, in December 1945 at a press conference given by the British Ministry of Information the R.A.F. people said that they had intercepted German radio messages, and it showed that the German navigation was extremely poor. Planes over Peterborough when they were over Central London – you’ll remember me saying that mines were dropped in Wicklow, mines were to be dropped at sea, he didn’t even know whether he was over land or sea when he was dropping them. There was an interview last week with one of the Irish survivors; he was 19 when he was put in charge of a bomber – awful young! So you had 19-year-old kids who had never been out of Germany in their lives trying to navigate a thousand kilometres across Europe, find somewhere they knew nothing about and navigate back. Two of the people I spoke to when I was doing my own research on South Circular said the same thing and it was repeated in one of the books I read about the North Strand – the sheen of canal water confused them and they thought that they were over water. I don’t know and it’s not down a common misconception. But it was something that may have happened.
One of the people I spoke to may have given me the story of where the story of the Jews came from. He was in the ARP during the war, now he is in his 90s but his mind was brilliant; himself, his father and his brother were listening to Joyce, Lord Haw Haw one evening and Lord Haw Haw taunted the Jews of Dublin saying “yis were bombed”. Now he couldn’t have said “we bombed you deliberately” that would have caused a major scandal but he said “the Jews of Dublin were bombed” and that I suspect was enough to get the word deliberately put in at the end and from there the story grew and grew.
I think the only reason it happened was that pilots got lost and additionally knew they were not going to fly back home to Germany with bombs in the hold. It would have taken from their journey times, it would have meant they couldn’t fly as far and it would have been dangerous when they were landing so they just opened the bomb doors and dropped the bombs.
At the end of the war the ARP was disbanded, and almost immediately they realised they needed it again. The threat this time did not come from the Germans, they had been defeated, the threat this time came from the Communists – Joe Stalin and Russia. And using exactly the same legislation as set up the ARP we set up Civil Defence, which still has the same structure. Civil Defence is local authorities, so you have Dublin City Council Civil Defence and so on. This I’m coming back to.
One week in January 1941, it can’t have been the same bomber – they were in different places, it can’t have attack in Britain – they were all over the place. I think it was just at this stage they were getting totally confused and ever afterwards between the war in the East and the British success in the Battle of Britain they just were not able to get that lost anymore. Not because they didn’t want to but because it was too dangerous. So I suspect it was pure and simple incompetence.
Eleven or ten months of bombing of the South was that all? No it was not. The next slide has nothing whatever to do with bombing but I kept noticing it on the side of articles I was reading. They are the ships that were sunk, Irish ships, neutral Irish ships that were sunk in the Second World War – look at them. The first one was sunk in 1940 and they were being sunk up until 1945. In every single sinking people died. Perhaps as few as 3 in the Naomh Garbhan at the end, perhaps as many as 33 where the Irish Pine was sunk by Germans in 1942. Look at the numbers killed, well over a hundred killed. Far more than were killed in all of the bombings, far more incidents. So did the Second World War affect people in the South? If you were living here perhaps a bit. If your husband or your son was in the merchant navy – tell me about it! That’s it, thank you very much.
* [Note: Eoin Bairead wishes to make the following correction to talk given on 29 May 2010 regarding the Malin Head and Dundalk bombings “On neither of these two events could I find any report in the newspapers, although a piece of shrapnel from Dundalk is known to exist, and , complaints were made to the German authorities concerning both – complaints that were not accepted by the authorities in Berlin.(National Archives of Ireland, file DFA 221/147A. Thanks to Dr Michael Kennedy of the RIA for the reference) “]