Dublin City Council Historian in Residence Dr. Mary Muldowney and historian Catherine Holmes tell the story of the bombing of North Strand on the night of 30/31 May 1941, an event that traumatised several generations and changed the shape of one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods.
Mary Muldowney’s talk gives the background to the tragedy and outline its aftermath, referring in particular to the memories and photographs featured on this website.
Catherine Holmes draws on firsthand accounts of the night of the bombing from the Dublin City Archives oral history project to illustrate the dreadful impact on the lives of those living and working in the North Strand area.
This special event to mark the 80th anniversary of the bombing was hosted by Charleville Mall Library on 31 May 2021.
I’m delighted to welcome you all to Charleville Mall Library’s event by Dublin City Council Historian-in-Residence for Dublin Central Dr Mary Muldowney and historian Catherine Holmes. The presentation is called Devastation in the North Strand: the bombing of the North Strand on the night of the 30th and 31st of May 1941. Charleville Mall library is located just off the North Strand, yards from where the largest bomb fell. Though the building was fortunate to remain largely undamaged. Indeed the basement of the library provided shelter for many families that night and the library was used as an operational headquarters and housing office for some time afterwards. Tonight’s event is organized by Dublin City Libraries as part of our response to the 80th anniversary of that tragic night and now I’m very pleased to hand you over to Mary Muldowney.
Good evening and welcome to this Zoom talk hosted as Ann said by Charleville Mall Library. Not only was Charleville Mall Library just beside the scene of the worst and heaviest bomb in May 1941 but afterwards it became the headquarters for organising the recovery operations by Dublin Corporation.
Now my name is Mary Muldowney and I’m the Dublin City Council Historian-in-Residence for Dublin Central and I will be covering the background to the horrific events of the night of 30th / 31st of May 1941 and some of the measures that were taken in the aftermath. I’m also very pleased to be joined this evening by Catherine Holmes who will introduce you to some of the personal stories that were collected by the Dublin City Council oral history project which now features in an updated online exhibition which you can view at http://www.northstrandbombing.ie with lots of additional information and including a new video, just five and a quarter minutes long so it won’t take too much out of your day to watch it, but it’s really good. #
Anyway to go back to 1939: at that stage the Irish government’s decision to keep Eire neutral in the second world war was widely supported in this country not least because many people still saw Britain as the main enemy that had needed to be forced from Irish shores. As Colonel Donal O’Carroll explains so clearly in the lecture, that you can listen to on the new website under this tab here, throughout the 1930s various submissions were made by the army general staff for an army organization that would reasonably be capable of defending the country from outside attack particularly from Britain. There’d been a certain preoccupation since the Civil War with internal attack and the remnants of the anti-treaty troops but by this stage was beginning to recognize they’re in far more danger from outside the country. In 1936 the director of intelligence forecasts that war was likely to break out in Europe in ’38 or ’39 and the defense forces should rearm in line with other European states.
The Irish Army was expanded to several times its pre-war size with large numbers joining in 1940 and ’41, when invasion seemed a strong possibility. By early 1942 there were nearly 40,000 men creating two divisions. A local security force was formed on 24th of May 1940 after the invasion of France under Garda control at that stage. In January 1941 most of that force was transferred to army control to become the local defence force whose membership peaked at 100,000 in 1942. Here you can see their uniform which is probably much more like an army uniform than a Garda one.
So in January, as I said they were transferred but the Department of Defence also created a coast watch service, which you can see here -one of the motor torpedo boats that they bought to patrol the coastal areas by land and sea for signs of invasion. And in this picture taken in the early stages of the Emergency members of the Irish army you can see wearing the German style helmet which was later replaced because they were getting such a hard time particularly from British newspapers about the design, so the more British approach was adopted.
In any case when the Irish government responded to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war in Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, it was with the passing of the Emergency Powers Act. [cough] Excuse me. Ireland’s independence at that stage was just 17 years old, its constitution was only two years old and its control of the strategic ports barely a year out from British control. So the Emergency, and the name was derived from the emergency powers act um necessitated preparing to protect error from potential invasion by British or German forces using practical measures to secure the government and the population.
In the summer of 1939 the Irish government was conscious that threats to urban areas could be a possibility for Dublin regardless of its being the capital of a neutral state. The development of aerial warfare which had been in its infancy in 1918 when the First World War ended, meant that cities would now be much more vulnerable to attack than had been the case when warfare was largely concentrated on the ground or at sea. You can see here that during Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 unrestricted bombing of towns and cities from the air was first used on a large scale. Some of the images here from Guernica the Basque city that was almost levelled by the German Nazi condor legion and the Italian fascist Aviazione Legionaria – forgive my awful pronunciation. Guernica was destroyed in 1937 and a British study written a year later demonstrated that the combined tactics of silent approach and high explosive bombing both of which were used experimentally by the Germans and the Italians over Spain were seen as particularly effective in inducing a negative psychological effect in the population of a large city and really, understandably so.
We still don’t know for certain if the bombing of Dublin in the early hours of 31st of May 1941 was accidental or deliberate. However, we certainly recognise that the impact was absolutely devastating for the residents of the area who survived that terrible night. Many Dublin citizens who didn’t live in the North Strand / Summerhill / Ballybough area could see the light from fires from quite a distance, and it left indelible marks on their memories too. The sense of security that neutrality was supposed to engender an Éire was undermined from many Dubliners by the city’s lack of protection against attack from the skies.
On the 2nd of September, article 28 of Bunreacht na hÉireann had been amended by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution Act 1939. This was to include a state of emergency in the provisions for wartime governance. Having allowed for the concept of an emergency which would have a similar impact on the state as if the country was actually at war or not neutral at least. On third of September the Oireachtas passed the Emergency Powers Act, as it said “to make provision for securing the public safety and the preservation of the state in time of war and in particular to make provision for the maintenance of public order and for the provision and control of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”. This was the most wide-ranging of the wartime laws in that it was used as the basis for the control of virtually every aspect of civilian life during the Emergency period. It went from food rationing to transport regulation to wage rises and many other issues in between.
Éamon de Valera was both Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs and he appointed Frank Aiken to be minister without portfolio or the Minister for Coordinating Defensive Measures. Aiken used the Emergency Powers Act extensively until he stood down from that position at the end of the emergency in 1945. But in the early years of the war particularly, there was a distinct lack of clarity about what should be done as I said to maintain public order. So until 1941 era had no food rationing system and the rising prices meant that poverty and malnutrition were widespread with children suffering most. Following intense lobbying by such groups as the Irish Women Workers Union the Irish Housewives Association and various senior clerical and political figures. The Department of Supplies was set up in mid-1941 which Seán Lemass at its head. Immediately sugar, tea and fuel were rationed and various other products and foodstuffs etc. followed suit in the years afterwards.
Now while the North Strand, Summerhill and Ballybough area in 1941 have been described as an urban village, this suggests a place that was uniformly comfortable, but it also contained some of the most overcrowded housing in the city so it’s not really an accurate description. You can see in the high percentage of dwellings with whole families living in one or two rooms in the city as a whole, which is highlighted in yellow and throughout the wards that I’ve chosen there, adequate housing was a particular problem for some residents of Ballybough, Summerhill and North Dock, Mountjoy, sorry in the North city and North Dock wards. I’ve left in Clontarf East as a comparator here as being the nearest ward to North Strand, but obviously it didn’t suffer from the same disadvantages. The hardships experienced by families with low incomes as the rationing system got bedded in would have been experienced by many of the people in the north inner-city area. There were still heavily tenanted tenements in Clarence Street North for example where a huge amount of damage was done.
In addition to bombing one of the fears connected to danger from above was the possibility of gas attacks this resulted from the use of gas in the trenches during the First World War. There were survivors of those attacks living in many areas of Dublin with their poor health offering tangible evidence of the destructiveness of poison gas. Plans were made in 1940 and 41 for the evacuation of Dublin in the event of invasion. Although it was only intended to move the cabinet and key figures in the government to the midlands mainly were the intentions, but not for the majority of citizens, including children.
In the course of 1940 gas masks were issued to 370,000 people throughout the 26 counties and this really was as a result of the terror that had been engendered by the gas attacks during the First World War which you remember was only 20 years prior to this. So while these images here are from the First World War that’s what people were thinking of and the government of course as well. This later image is just showing the main kinds of poison gas that were used and the impact that they had, so it’s totally understandable why people were so terrified of them.
But while the gas masks were issued, really Dublin had virtually no active defences and had bomb shelter accommodation for fewer than 30,000 people. You can see one of the air raid shelters here in the middle of O’Connell Street – this is in 1944 – and while many of the measures were being copied from the British example they weren’t really copying them in terms of the structure because as you can see a lot of this is actually overground which was probably not the best protection for bombs falling from the sky. We didn’t have very many of the Anderson shelters and others that were built in Northern Ireland for instance, though there were of course some, but mainly installed by people themselves if they had a garden.
Here’s one of the gas masks which are kind of horrifying to look at but better than breathing in what was expected but the equipment or the general sort of, as we know now would call them PPE, you can see I’m not sure how effective they would be if maybe the gas got on a cut or something on your exposed hand. But as I said it didn’t actually arise. The picture here is the interior of a Dublin air raid shelter being dug out and unfortunately, I didn’t find any other illustrations to know quite whether this is on a ground level or deeper underground. One of the major problems about the air raid shelters apart from their absence to the great extent, was that quite often they were locked, particularly in the city. Allegedly this was because the male citizens of Dublin were using those toilets.
Now most of the measures that were adopted by the Irish government under the Emergency Powers act as I said were a copy of those in Britain, but they mainly were the administrative ones in nature primarily concerned with maintenance of law and order. The most widespread precaution against bombing raids was the imposition of a blackout during hours of darkness the blackout was regulated by the Emergency Power’s Control of Lights order in 1939 which was passed by the Dáil on the 16th of October that year. However, the directions about the blackout were fairly unclear, resulting in what happened to be a patchwork of lights around most parts of Dublin the letters pages of the newspapers at that time reflect the debate that was going on about the wisdom of having a blackout at all. Some people argued that a neutral country should not be blocked out so that aircraft could identify the difference between Éire and Northern Ireland because of course Northern Ireland was a belligerent state being part of the United Kingdom, so they were very strongly backed out where there was confusion about it in the south.
Before the North Strand bombing there were previous incidents of German bombs being dropped on the south most of which have been dismissed as pilot error although various rumours suggested there might have been more sinister motives but none of these were completely substantiated. On the 26th of August 1940 three women lost their lives when a bomb struck Campile creamery in County Wexford. The German government subsequently apologized and offered nine thousand pounds in compensation to their families.
A few months later, in January 1941 another three women were killed when a bomb struck their farmhouse in Knockrow, Carlow. A bomb also dropped in Terenure on the first second of January 1941, thankfully with no fatalities this time, and it was followed by a second one the next day under North Terrace off the South Circular Road. There were other incidents in Louth, Kildare, Wexford, and Wicklow, significantly all on the eastern seaboard over which German planes would have flown if heading for Northern Ireland and they are generally accepted to have been due to pilot error.
The theory about the Dublin bombs on 31st May is more complex and frequently attributes the moral blame to Britain albeit recognizing that the actual weapons were German. Winston Churchill claimed after the war that the royal air force had interfered with the radar beams which the German pilots used to navigate at night. So the pilot who dropped the 500 pound land mine on North Strand probably thought he was flying over Belfast or one of the English cities closer to the Irish sea. However Churchill was no friend of Eire and put a lot of effort in trying to undermine our neutrality so this account is not that reliable because it was intended to really put the blame on the Irish government.
If you listen to the RTÉ History Show segment on the North Strand bombing website, you can hear an extract from a very English sounding pathé newsreel broadcast and the broadcaster is saying that Maybe the bombing is the price error has to pay for sitting on the fence and sounding rather disgracefully gleeful about the prospect.
So Catherine will be dealing, or rather detailing some of the tragic stories that emerged after the bombs landed on the night of 30th into 31st of May 1941. Apart from the debts and injuries there was significant trauma arising from the destruction of people’s homes and businesses as I mentioned earlier there was pressure on housing and overcrowding throughout the area. Although the shock of losing all or even some of one’s possessions would have been dreadful regardless of the size of a home. In Dublin slum clearance had already been well underway and when the Emergency started but the shortage of raw materials for construction was to bring the program to a virtual standstill in mid-1941 North Strand, Ballybough and summer hill were tight-knit communities and neighbours would usually have come to the aid of other neighbours in need, but the devastation was so extensive that assistance was needed from all over the city.
Dublin Corporation officials mobilized to provide new housing for those made homeless but the dispossessed needed more than just a roof over their heads the Irish Red Cross provided an emergency shelter at the Mansion House and in parish halls throughout the city. The City Manager decreed that damaged houses should be repaired where possible and these made those made homeless by the bombing were to be relocated to Dublin corporations new housing estates at Cabra and Crumlin. However, the new houses were still to be completed and the progress on refurbishing the damaged homes was very slow so there were many people still being housed in emergency accommodation months after the destruction had happened.
The delays were causing such distress and so many complaints being made to the government that Seán Moylan who was the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Defence walked down to the bomb sites to see for himself what was happening. He wrote an angry letter to P.J. Herman, the city manager pointing out that public morale would be damaged by the failure of the corporation to act swiftly. Compensation was provided. But really only to the owners of damaged property or and this was under the terms of the neutrality war damage to Property Act 1941 which was passed by the Dáil in September, so even then people have been left for some time without being able to claim recompense for the damage done to them you can see that the act was to make provision for the payment of compensation out of public monies to “persons who on or after the 26th day of August 1940 suffer injury to their property in the state or the territorial waters thereof as a consequence of an act of the armed forces of an external government or an authority engaged in a war in respect of which the state is neutral or as a consequence of an accidental occurrence arising from something done outside the state by any such armed force and “to make provision for matters connected with such injuries to property or the payment of compensation therefore. Now as you go down through the various regulations and the terms of the Act it is quite clear that it didn’t apply to people like tenement dwellers who were paying rent to a landlord rather than being able to claim for their own, their own property as owners.
Dublin Corporation did acquire two areas where the bomb damage was most severe one off the Summerhill Parade and one of the North Strand for the purpose of clearing the districts and developing a new housing scheme.
Clothes, precious family possessions and food were destroyed even when people escaped injury or death. In some cases, victims lost their livelihood as businesses were demolished. Calls for donations were made through the city’s press and many people did respond generously. Fundraising events were held but there are many accounts of tenement dwellers who were left destitute. They didn’t have much in the first place and the compensation terms as I said mainly excluded them.
Dublin Corporation commissioned photographer Henry McCrae of 152 Clontarf Road to record the destruction for insurance and assessment purposes. He began work on the 4th of June 1941 and continued until the end of October that year. McCrae’s 57 photographs can be seen in full as part of the online exhibition and Catherine and I are showing some of them this evening while we know that the worst damage was inflicted on the North Strand itself – on the North Circular Road and on Clarence Street North. You see some children here sitting on the remains and basically it was decades before all the bomb sites had been cleared and new buildings erected on them in the short video on the exhibition site you can see some of the destruction as it was back in the 1940s side by side with pictures of the sites as they are now.
This is another McCrae photograph of North Clarence Street, and another one of Quinn’s cottages and here you can see how if a bomb fell it could literally cut buildings in half and Catherine will tell some of those stories. Charleville Cottages quite near the library which was incredibly untouched by bomb damage although it was so close to the epicentre. So Summerhill Parade and you can see people continuing on as much as they could with their daily lives, but obviously it wasn’t an easy thing to do. and Empress Place – which of course is gone now anyway – but the damage to what was a fairly heavily tenanted building.
I am going to hand you over now to Catherine as she presents some of the moving testimonies from the website thank you for listening and it is something that is very difficult to remember even 80 years on.
Thanks, oh sorry thank you. So I’ll be looking at the oral histories collected during the North Strand oral history project by Dublin City Archives mostly in 2009 and 2010. These oral histories, or these memories of people who experienced the bombing and its devastating effects first-hand add to the documented history we have of the time, and they often catch the personal experience or anecdotes that otherwise wouldn’t have been collected and record the impact the event had on the community of the North Strand.
One of those interviewed was Michael Carrick and Michael would have been 10 years old in 1941 when the bombing occurred. He was living in a tenement house at 155 North Strand with his two older brothers Seamus and Philip, his mother and his aunt they had a whole floor, so they had a kitchen and a parlour in the front room and then a bedroom in the back room. On the night of the 31st Michael, recalls waking up in the back room to his brothers looking out the window at the searchlights in the sky and hearing the anti-aircraft guns. He himself was too nervous to look out the window and his mother instructed them all to get back into bed quote “we were hardly back in bed when I didn’t hear a bang but a shudder the whole house shook everything shook”. At 2.05am a 500-pound bomb had been dropped between the tram tracks on the North Strand. They hadn’t had gas installed in the house for long but after the bomb the smell of gas was absolutely overpowering. Michael describes quote “the whole front of the house had been cut like as with a knife. Everything was gone just like that. Everything in our front room everything we had that was in any way decent” end quote. And just a few weeks before Michael’s mother had actually moved the boys into the front room and for some reason, she changed her mind and brought them back into the back room which saved their lives in the end and Michael and his family walked down the stairs of their house and where they should have seen a big, long hallway there was nothing they could see directly out onto the street. Volunteers helped him across the debris and you can see the type of destruction that would have been around them in the photo on screen, and Michael was covered in blood and so a doctor came over was brought over to examine him quickly realised that Michael was actually fine the blood wasn’t his own but his Aunt’s, she’d been cut by a lump of plaster as it fell from the ceiling but thankfully she was also fine.
The family then went to William Street Convent where they sat eating soup in a big classroom with all of their neighbours. And this is where they started hearing stories about what had happened and how many people were killed. Very sadly Michael’s neighbours who lived in the basement below them, John and Mary Farren did not survive.
A few days later, on June 5th Michael celebrated his 11th birthday in the Irish Red Cross headquarters in Mespil Road with cake and a bottle of lemonade, describing it as quote “one of the best birthdays I had. I suppose…to be alive and all that.”
So, eventually the family got a house in Cabra West and a salvaged bed and table and chairs from their destroyed home were brought to the house by a Dublin Corporation car. His older brother would describe them as quote refugees in their own country. And as Michael had a lot of friends still in the North Strand, he did go back and visit but he described how it had changed quote “it’s not the same you can never go back. It brings back memories, it doesn’t bring back the people that was there at the time under the same conditions.”
At the end of the interview Michael said that he was delighted that he got someone to listen to him and have the story on record. This comes up again and again at the end of the interviews when you read them that people are just happy that they’re getting to share the story that it’s going to be in the Archive forever. They want this the major event of the bombing but also the experience of growing up in the North Strand and living in the North Strand in the community there to be on record.
Of the 28 people who sadly lost their lives in the North Strand bombing, seven of those were from the same family. The Browne family were originally from Edenderry, County Offally and included Harry Browne, his wife Molly Corrigan, their children Maureen who was seven, and five Edward and baby Angela and also Harry’s mother Mary. The only surviving memory of our member of the Browne family was Harry’s sister Minnie who lived not far away in a house with her family in Clontarf. It is her descendants who survived to tell the Browne family story to the Archives. That’s Thelma, Minnie’s daughter, so Harry Brown’s niece and Seán, Minnie’s son-in-law.
In 1935 Harry’s parents Edward and Mary moved to Dublin for work and they found a home in the North Strand. So two years later in 1937 Harry and his family joined them, as Harry found a good job as a coach builder in the bus department of the Great Southern Railway. The family moved into a flat over Nally’s shop at number 25 North Strand. His mother Mary later moved in with them in 1939 when she was widowed and according to accounts they were settled and happy in the area.
Harry was a member of the local defence force, so when reports of the first four bombs dropped that night reached him, he rushed to Summerhill to help with rescue efforts. A German plane was circling over the north of the city evading the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. So, Harry Browne worried for his family rushed home, but it as he made it to the front door but it was too late. His body was found within the rubble by rescue workers with the doorknob still in his hand. Sadly, his entire family, his mother, wife and four young children had perished inside. According to Thelma, her father who had to identify the Browne family at the coroner’s inquest told her that quote “there was no more to identify” end quote. Angela the baby of the family had never been found but realising they needed closure, she was confirmed dead and after the inquest their bodies were transported home to Edenderry for the funeral. The town was in shock that a young family who had only left the area a few years ago were returning in coffins. Mary Browne, the grandmother of the family had been due to move back to Edenderry the following week and after a funeral mass they were buried together at Drumcooley graveyard.
Thelma describes the effect the tragedy of losing her family had on her mother for her entire life quote “everybody belonged to her was gone”. Minnie and her family didn’t live in Clontarf long after the bombings first they moved back to Edenderry and then to England. So, while many residents didn’t want to leave the North Strand in their communities for Minnie and her family quote “there were too many stark memories around the North Strand for them to stay there. That they would be passing through it every day and the buildings that were all flattened. It was after sharing the story that Seán said he hoped it wasn’t too late as many of the people who would have known the Brownes were already passed on like his father-in-law and, but he said quote – I love the way he put this – he said quote it is better to have something than not to record it at all “so long as they are not forgotten.”
It wasn’t just, as Mary mentioned, lives that were lost that day, homes and businesses were also destroyed and Brendan, Vincent and Maura Roche spoke about their family barbershop which was destroyed by the bomb. The barbershop was located at 34 North Strand Road and had originally belonged to their grandfather who lived at 54 North Strand Road until his death in 1937. Brendan and Vincent remember living in the basement under the barber shop before they moved out to Kimmage in 1934. In the photo on screen, you can just about see the barbers behind the tree in between the chemists and Roddy’s shop.
On the night of the 31st the boys, who would have been about 13 and 9, remember watching the searchlights in the sky. They remember vividly that although the sash windows of their home always rattled quote “they really rattled that night”. The first they knew of the bomb was their uncle Dessie arriving at their house in the early morning shortly after the bomb had dropped shouting for their father to come quick because the house on the North Strand was on fire. Their father got on his bike and cycled to the North Strand he was extremely concerned about two women who he had working there in the ladies salon as they lived in the North Strand. He was very relieved as he cycled up Fairview that he saw the two of them walking home they had been at a dance in the Metropole Hotel that night on O’Connell Street.
The window of their shop had been blown in and the shop itself was completely destroyed. This put the family in a very difficult place financially. They had a mortgage on a housing image with four children and a fifth on the way. The Roches don’t remember their father getting a lot of financial help, bar some money from the Red Cross at Christmas and later they got 1,100 pounds compensation from the German government. They were able to salvage some marble slabs, chrome and brushes from the store in the North Strand which they reused when the family opened a barber shop in Kimmage on a shoestring budget in about 1942.
This is just another angle of the street with the shop just at the very edge of the photos you can really see the destruction of the area. On Saturday morning after the bomb Brendan was pushed on the crossbars of his dad’s bike and brought to the North Strand. He clearly remembers the large hole in the ground left by the bomb and thinking quote “god you’d fit a bus in that.” As a child it appeared huge to him and often it’s the funny or out of place elements that we remember the most, so when Vincent was brought into the North Strand on Sunday he laughs as he remembers that opposite the shop in the apartments that had been badly damaged by the bomb, you saw a dresser stuck on a wall with no floor underneath that hook to hold it up. And that it was just sitting there looking terribly strange. And how all the jam jars on the shelf of the grocers next door to the barber shop, the glass had smashed so the jam was running down the shelves. For years, well into the 1960s, whenever they passed the North Strand, their dad would point out the tiles that were still there on the doorstep of what had been the family barber shop and proudly say look at those tiles that’s where my shop was.
Alfreda O’Brien tells the story of her dad Francis O’Brien Jnr, her aunt Marie and her grandparents Mary and Francis senior. On the night of the 31st, her aunt Marie charged into her brother Francis’ room, flung him from the bed and pulled the bed upside down on top of them. A confused Francis thought his sister was trying to kill him but she probably saved his life as the walls caved in around them. Francis senior, his great grandfather had been a petty officer in the Royal Navy and had experience as a medic in the First World War so he went straight into action, organizing the other St John’s Ambulance volunteers that lived around the North Strand.
These photos Alfreda kindly donated to the archive show the St John’s Ambulance Brigade at a gas mask training day and also the type of ambulance that they would have been driving around the North Strand. Rescue services from all over Dublin gathered in the North Strand as quickly as possible including the Fire Brigade, Gardaí, soldiers, Red Crossand as mentioned St John’s Ambulance.
In the Evening Herald published Saturday May 31st, the assistant commissioner of St John’s JT McNamara paid tribute to the work of volunteers who worked in quote “complete coordination and cooperation.” Later in the Irish Independent on June 2nd it was reported that the air raid precaution services had searched the debris for bodies and further victims while the Red Cross and ambulance services found accommodation for and fed those who had become homeless. Younger boys like Alfreda’s father Francis who was about 10 at the time were set up as running messengers running from Clonliffe where there was a phone, and into the city centre.
Gas at the time was rationed during the war and Francis Senior was a gas company inspector also known as a glimmerman whose job was to catch anyone who used extra gas, which as you can imagine was not a particularly well-liked role in the North Strand or any other area. So if the glimmer man was spotted in the area the word would go around all the neighbours that he was near so you would have time to turn off the gas and Francis Senior was locally nicknamed “the galloper” because he was so quick to move from one house to the other many of the people interviewed mentioned how they would always have a cold wet rag beside them when they were cooking so if the glimmerman called around you could put the flame out and cool down the gas pipes so the glimmerman would be none the wiser.
But Francis’s knowledge of gas lines came in extremely handy that night the bomb site was an incredibly dangerous place for the victims and the rescue workers as they were surrounded by live wires at tram cables and escaping gas. Gas can be highly explosive and they’re also not so there was small fires appearing air in the area and the danger was growing as the firefighters tried to tame the flames volunteers searched for the gas leak the bomb had blown up the huge 12-inch gas main. Thinking quickly, Francis O’Brien put a match to the gas leak which created an ordinary flame to burn the gas coming out and save the area of a further explosion.
Like many others in the aftermath of the bombing Alfreda’s family was moved to Cabra. Her grandmother Mary loved the house as she had a proper garden and a proper kitchen and her quote “good room and for the first time she could plant flowers as she had a front garden. She cried going back to the North Strand”. But her husband Francis was extremely keen to move back to the place that he loved had lived all his life and where all his family were, quote “when he was in Cabra he felt cut off and so it was really important for him to move back and their kids were also very happy to be back in the North Strand with all their friends. Alfreda describes how the spirit of the people of the North Strand stayed with their father forever quote “the amazing thing about people they rallied together they always seem to know what to do to help their neighbour.”
The last person I’m going to talk about is Betty Keogh. Betty was five years old and living with her mother Dora, father Jack and eight-year-old brother Noel. They rented one room from a family in number 10 Charleville Mall. On the night of the 31st Betty woke up to the screams and cries of her mother and the sound of explosions. Her father ran outside to try and find out what was happening and after he’d been gone a while, her mother went out to look for him. But before she left, she put Betty and her brother in a bed that faced the back wall of the house, with the son of the family they lodged with. Betty didn’t really understand what was happening but all of a sudden quote “the entire back wall of the house completely collapsed and disappeared the memory of this is clear”. In Betty’s mind and she says quote “sometimes I don’t remember what happened this morning, but I can remember that as if it happened last night.” Noel her brother remembers their older neighbour taking them down the stairs that were covered in broken glass.
They were taken to an air raid shelter in the basement of either the church or Charleville Mall Library. In the shelter they were surrounded by scared women crying or saying the rosary and other children who were running around in their pyjamas not really understanding what was going on and some of them thinking it was a bit of fun, a bit of a game. They were later brought to the convent across the road the Irish Sisters of Charity and given tea and bread by the nuns. Every single thing her family owned was destroyed by the bomb. Despite losing quote absolutely everything – “there wasn’t a stick of furniture or anything to wear. All we had left was what we were wearing” – the family only received 18 pounds in compensation. Relations helped them with clothing and personal items. They moved in with her aunt and uncle in East Wall which would have been a squeeze as they that family already had eight children. Her father joined the British Army almost immediately and was sent to Southeast Asia and then Germany not returning for eight years Betty stayed in and grew up in the North Strand as when her mother was offered a house in Cabra she turned it down and said because she thought of Cabra as the countryside. They rented a room again on the North Strand before moving to Amiens Street and this came up again and again in the interviews people didn’t want to leave the North Strand or the community they had there.
Betty remembers the North Strand in the aftermath of the bombing. She remembers quote “a lovely cake shop right at the five lamps and Byrne’s grocery shop that a big space was still empty after the bombing all the buildings that were destroyed were just left like that for years.” The whole North Strand was just full of rubble for years and as kids they would play in the wreckage using the broken bricks around them to playhouse when the rubble was cleared they would make slides in the winters it was all flat quote “all the boys played with all the girls we all played together and we kind of looked out for each other”. There are so many stories and anecdotes about the night of the bombing but also life in general in the North Strand during the emergency and beyond. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to go through them all but if you are interested in reading more or listening to the people themselves tell their story they’re all available on the website northstrandbombing.ie. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much Mary and thank you Catherine. That was a fascinating recreation of the events surrounding the bombing of the North Strand. The combination of background material and the political, economic and social context with the contemporary photographs of the devastation and the personal stories from survivors has given us an understanding of a tragic event in May 1941 which has shaped lives and communities ever since again. Thank you both.