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Clergyman who turns 100 recalls grim days of the Belfast Blitz when he had to tour the city morgues

By Linda Stewart

A Presbyterian minister who is celebrating his 100th birthday has described keeping watch over his church during the long nights of the Belfast Blitz.

The Rev Eric Borland is the last surviving minister of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to have been ordained during the Second World War.

In an interview with the Presbyterian Herald, Mr Borland said he was licensed in his Londonderry home congregation at Great James Street in June 1940, at a time when thousands of soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force and French army were being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.

However, he also spent some time in Westbourne on the Newtownards Road at the time when bombs were raining down on Belfast during the Blitz of 1941, which killed about 900 people.

"It was a very difficult time, with stiff restrictions and half the city evacuated every night," he said. "Hundreds of people just left the Newtownards Road and other parts of the city, heading to the hills to avoid the bombs. They watched the raids there, hoping their house would still be there in the morning."

However, Mr Borland couldn't flee the city because of his responsibilities.

"I couldn't leave. I had to stay in the church, in case it caught fire. Fortunately they missed the church, but hit the hall, which was destroyed," he said.

"Many were killed at the time. One of my duties was to go around the public mortuaries to see if people belonging to Westbourne were there. It was a very difficult time."

Now a great grandfather, Mr Borland celebrated his 100th birthday at the Belfast retirement home where he now lives with his wife Muriel, to whom he has been married for 69 years.

He says he always felt called to the ministry and, growing up, all seven of his family would have attended the church at Great James Street.

"Home had a big influence on me. Both my parents were good churchgoers and in those days it was expected that church became a part of your life," he said.

"My father, a Donegal man, was in the choir and taught in Sunday school. He was a strong Presbyterian and was an elder."

Mr Borland said his debut at Downpatrick Presbyterian Church was delayed by about a week because of the Blitz.

He was to minister there for five years, sometimes cycling to Belfast.

He was then called to Hamilton Road Presbyterian in Bangor in 1946, Rosemary in north Belfast in 1955 and finally Burnside Church Extension in Portstewart in 1978, remaining on the north coast until he retired in 1983.

"Many things have changed within the Church, but you have to live with the times. One of the biggest changes was worship and the new hymn book," he said.

"We lost a lot of the old hymns and the singing of the two psalms. I appreciate the new hymns but miss the old ones."

Mr Borland said one of the most challenging things about being a Christian was being different from others.

"We are called to live differently. You have to make that choice as you grow with life.

"One of the best pieces of advice I was given was live as others like to see you live and bring glory to God," he said.

"When I took the communion service I always felt closer to God. As I have become older I think my faith has deepened.

"What I still love about the Church is hearing God's Word preached.

"Even after all of these years I like to hear it expounded and explained, and I often say to myself 'I never thought of it like that'."

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