I recall reading recollections from people who lived in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. Most were disbelieving that anyone would be mad-hat enough to occupy the General Post Office in O’Connell Street — never mind attempt to stage a full-scale rebellion.
As usual, many Dubliners went to the races — as they still do to this day. The spectators returning from the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in 1916 in the Dublin Corporation buses could see billowing columns of smoke from barricades and buildings, but had no idea what was going on, or why.
One discerning Dublin woman expressed her disappointment that the rioting looters had broken into the wrong shops and hoped that someone would gain her access to Clery’s department store.
We are all aware of the consequences of the Easter Rising and have lived and died from them ever since. However, it is possibly only now, on the 70th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, that the full horror of Easter 1941 is hitting home to many of us.
The stonework on the corner of the Belfast Telegraph building still bears the scars of shrapnel from a German bomb that exploded yards away and left a massive crater in the centre of Royal Avenue. However, the passage of time blurs the memory as many who lived through the Troubles know only too well.
We get on with our lives and may not wish to be reminded of the awfulness that went before. Then, a significant anniversary comes around — as is the case this Easter.
Today’s newspapers, radio and television have brought home to those who did not experience it the full horror and human sacrifice of Easter Monday 1941.
The monochrome images of what happened in Belfast all those years ago, combined with the heart-rending accounts of those who were there, help to open the eyes of those who were not — and rightly so. Viewers who watched the harrowing stories of the people of Belfast — children then, ageing faces now — could not have failed but be touched by their accounts of losing loved ones and living with such tragic memories.
I am fortunate to have a panoramic view of Belfast’s skyline from my home on the outskirts of the city. It is a striking vista, ever-changing with the seasons, but on the 70th anniversary of the Easter Blitz, I looked over Belfast with a different perspective.
The sound of the city came up to my ears as a dull hum. The April sun was setting over Divis Mountain, illuminating the two giant yellow cranes in the east, catching the copper dome of the City Hall and the roof of the Odyssey arena. How different, I thought, was this view on that terrifying night in 1941? What an unbelievable sight it must have been as waves of German bombers dipped over the hills and rained their high explosives and incendiaries on the city.
Had global television news been around then, the images of Belfast on that moonlit night may well have matched the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad and, more recently, of Libyan targets.
Instead, without such a graphic record, we are left to visualise for ourselves the full horror that befell Belfast. More than 1,000 citizens perished. We may never know how many thousands of other lives were wrecked and scarred, nor can we begin to fathom the scale of suffering as we enjoy Easter 2011.
I watched the old newsreels of the Blitz in the company of an elderly lady who was 23 at the time.
“We were never as together as we were then,” she reflected afterwards.
“It didn’t matter who or what you were, everyone was in the same boat. Everyone stood together and some even died together.”
The bombers did not discern between unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. On this Easter Monday, at the going down of the sun, we should not forget that it was never to rise again for so many innocent men, women and children.
The impressive skyline of Belfast today is a testimony to this country’s resilience and fortitude in the face of tyranny and terrorism. It is a living example of the Easter message of hope and revival.