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Belfast Blitz ballroom swings again at Ulster Hall with memories of wartime

By Linda Stewart

Published 03/05/2016

Sandra and Billy McKee enjoy a dance
Sandra and Billy McKee enjoy a dance
Ladies in red enjoying themselves
Band members John Smith, Bill Cheney and Bill Richardson
Sheila and Richard Patterson on the dance floor
Susan Mayes, Helen Martin and Owen England
Revellers have fun
Revellers have fun

It was once the ballroom where Belfast's beleaguered wartime citizens could dance their troubles away - despite the bombs falling on the city outside.

And yesterday, shimmering lights and evocative Dixieland dance melodies revived those bittersweet days as the Ulster Hall staged a special tea dance to commemorate the Belfast Blitz.

The hall was packed with revellers dancing to a live jazz band and raising their voices in a singalong in an event organised by Belfast City Council and supported by Punjana.

Revellers famously danced through the night at a ceilidh at the Ulster Hall on one of the worst nights of shelling in 1941, emerging to scenes of devastation, according to Jan Carson of Belfast City Council.

When the sirens went off outside, there was nowhere to go because the hall had no bomb shelter - so the performers kept going. "They danced from 8pm through to the small hours and nobody was allowed out because it was too dangerous in the city centre," Jan said.

"There were no direct hits on the building and the live-in caretaker and his son were on the roof all night kicking embers off so that it didn't catch fire."

The hall is well known as the spot where many couples met, as it was used as a place of entertainment for the American GIs.

Jan said: "One famous story from the war was that in 1942 the GIs danced so hard they danced right through the dance floor. This was a disaster because they wanted to keep the boys happy and the American Embassy paid for a solid oak floor so that the GIs could keep dancing at the Ulster Hall."

John Graham from Sydenham Court in Belfast, who was at the dance yesterday, was just 11 when the air raids took place in 1941.

He remembers hiding in the coal hole with his granny and three other children as the bombs fell - but he didn't always stay put.

"I used to run out in the streets looking for shrapnel and it was red hot. We went out to see who could see the planes - it was very stupid," he said.

"We couldn't see the planes - they were so high up and the searchlights were flying across the sky.

"One of the shelters at Percy Street got a direct hit and I remember the men pulling it down and telling us not to come near."

Margaret Lowry (93) from the Newtownards Road remembers people sleeping in the Castlereagh Hills at night to escape the bombs. "My dad went with a horse and cart and used to pick ones up," she said.

Her friend Angela Fitzpatrick (93) said: "If there was trouble outside, we would have had the doors closed and the windows closed. We weren't going anywhere."

Some of the musicians playing in the Dixieland Jazz Swing Band yesterday had their own memories of the Blitz.

Trombone player Bill Richardson says the children used to jump on top of the air raid shelters and would light fires and roast potatoes in the bombed-out wasteland.

"That was the children's playground," he says.

"I remember all the air raid shelters were bare inside and the DIY men used to build bunk beds. The children were put up in the bunk beds, two and three in a bed."

Bass player John Smyth, from east Belfast, says he remembers the difference between the sound of the German and the British planes: "The German planes made a droning sound."

"My aunt was hit by a landmine in Sunningdale Park North. They got under a table with a metal top and were dug out 18 hours later," he said.

Band leader, trumpet player Bill Cheney, who was born in 1944, says: "I didn't realise when I was younger how many people lost their lives and how bad it really was. People didn't talk much about it after the war - they preferred to talk about other things."

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