“SORRY LADS, HAVE TO BE HOME BEFORE HALF PAST EIGHT.”
It had been a balmy summers evening, the Friday of the Whit Weekend. We were playing football on Sandymount beach, and my team were not impressed about my departure. I walked home and was sent sent straight to bed before 9 o’clock, so as to be bright and cheerful for my very special day tomorrow. My mother woke me at 6.15 – 2 hours earlier than originally scheduled! She explained she had been awake all night with the noise of our windows shaking from what she thought was an earthquake. But upon listening to the first radio news bulletin of the day at 6.00 a.m. she learned that bombs had been dropped on the North Strand, 7 kms from us. The date was 31st May, 1941 – the day of my First Holy Communion.
As the ceremony was to be held in The Pro Cathedral, Marlboro Street, my mother decided we should visit the scene to see the damage before we went to the Church.
Of course we were not having breakfast until after The Communion. I dressed in my new shiny black shoes, my new knee length grey socks, my new grey suit with short trousers ( my mother vetoed long trousers on account of my regularly scraped knees) a large white rosette with communion medal in the centre and my new school cap. Unusually, I stood quietly while my hair was combed.
I looked out my bedroom window at the rising sun beginning to shine on the sapling my father had planted the previous evening. We caught an early No. 8 tram into town, passing, on the way, the German Legation on Northumberland Road. All the passengers looked left at it, but all was quiet there with no activity visible. (Many years later I read that the arrangement of the flower pots on the six window sills and porch had significance for passing Nazi agents.) In O’Connell Street we passed the infamous Air Raid Shelters. The doors at each end were locked as usual – to prevent their use for nefarious purposes! Leaving the tram at The Pillar, we walked down Talbot Street to Amiens Street, turned left and shortly arrived at the scene of massive devastation. Houses, where only a few hours earlier people had been sleeping no longer existed !
The roofs of many other homes and shops, far as eye could see, had been blown off (it was later found that a total of 2,250 buildings had suffered some form of damage.) Some people were still wandering about in a daze, many still dressed in their nightgowns. One lady was resting on a mattress which lay on a roof joist which in turn was sitting on a heap on a small mountain of bricks – the remains of her home, she cried.
All around her, men in their shirt sleeves, women, some wearing their shawls, and children – many barefooted, were using their bare hands to load debris unto horse-drawn carts to help the search for bodies.
We saw a large group , consisting of Guards, Soldiers, Air Raid Wardens, John’s Ambulance and members of The Local Defence Force were assembled. They were being organised into small groups to assist in rescue operations. Another large crowd were surrounding a huge crater in the middle of the street. We joined them. The depth and width of the crater was the wonder of all.
Down at the bottom, blue and yellow flames were belching from a fractured gas main. One ARP lady leaned down and very proudly told me that a very astute and very brave colleague of hers had deliberately ignited the escaping gas when they had arrived an hour earlier. She explained to me this prevented the danger of an explosion later if the gas had been allowed to gather in any low and confined areas. The flames allowed us to see the other items within the crater. Pieces of bedsteads, tables, mattresses, bicycles pictures, mantle-pieces, fire places, oil cloth, slates, shop signs, along with steel tramlines which had been uprooted and twisted. A distraught woman said to my mother: “My best friend Agnes was blown to maternity”! I saw a young man get off his bike and take a large leather note book from its carrier. He announced to a nearby Guard that he, as a rookie reporter, had been despatched from the Irish Times to get the facts.
The Guard replied, that he himself was from Kerry, was in Dublin only 2 weeks, had only just arrived at the scene, having been despatched on his bike from Rathmines Station and knew as little as he did. We joined a number of people to kneel and say a silent prayer for the people who were either dead, missing or injured. We then moved slowly and silently away. We passed “The Old Maid’s Home” at Richmond Street where the nuns were handing out cups of tea. At Summerhill it seemed as if all Dublin were descending on the area. We had to push our way through hundreds of eager pedestrians and cyclists until we reached the turn for Marlboro Street. After the ceremony and breakfast I made the usual collection from family and friends and accumulated the princely sum of 4/2p. Mainly acquired in 3p and 6p coins. You could get a lot for that – in 1941!
“When peace at last puts on her crown of crowns
And comes from that last cave
Where she is hid
I’d like to take young airmen round the towns
And show them what they did
(First verse from an anonymous poet in 1952, Dublin Opinion)
This article was originally published on Intergenerational Learning Programme DCU. Re-posted with permission.