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The spirit that got us through those awful nights of the Belfast Blitz will help us get through isolation of the lockdown during coronavirus

Eight decades after the German raids on NI, three people who lived through that dreadful Easter period tell Linda Stewart about their memories of the nights the bombs rained down on the city


The streets of Belfast during the Blitz

The streets of Belfast during the Blitz

Jim Monroe

Jim Monroe

The streets of Belfast during the Blitz

This week marks the 79th anniversary of the start of the Belfast Blitz, with a small raid on the night of April 7-8, 1941, followed by a major attack on April 15, when 200 Luftwaffe bombers attacked military and manufacturing targets in the city, claiming the lives of 900 and injuring 1,500. With two more raids in May, 50,000 houses in total were damaged - more than half the houses in the city -and 11 churches, two hospitals and two schools were destroyed.

‘You had to be very tough to survive, but this is worse’

Celine McCormick (86) is from north Belfast and was seven when the attacks took place. She has four daughters, two sons, 20 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren.

At the time, she was living off Great Georges Street with her family and was evacuated to live with an aunt in Cushendall after the first night of the Belfast Blitz.

"I remember the bombs falling, but I don't remember whether I was in an air raid shelter that night. Some of the air raid shelters weren't built at the time - they were more or less built after the blitz," she recalls.

"My father was an ARP, an air raid prevention officer - he wore the tin hat that you see in the pictures - and he brought us out to the door to see them dropping the flares from the German aeroplanes coming over to bomb Belfast. They lit up the whole sky.

"I dare say we were frightened, but I don't know. I had two brothers older than me and they probably thought it was exciting."

Celine was evacuated to Cushendall the night after the attacks.

"I do remember being in an air raid shelter, so I must have been home another night. In the air raid shelter people were praying and saying the Rosary, but somebody would have said something and made you laugh," she says.

"I remember this woman thought it was only the one aeroplane and then it went away. Then she said, 'Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, here's it coming back again'. She thought it was only the one aeroplane."

None of Celine's family were injured in the raids, but she did know some people in the neighbourhood who lost their lives.

"We knew there was a family and all the children were killed. They lived off a wee street off North Queen Street and the York Street Mill was down there. There were four rows of houses on the side of the mill and the mill chimney fell on the houses and demolished them," she says.

North Belfast was badly damaged in the attacks.

"The talk was that they looked at the Waterworks and they thought it was a reservoir. If they did damage to the pipes, there would have been no water to put fires out. That was the talk then, what I can remember of it," Celine says.

The toughest aspect of life in the city was the blackout.

"In April it was coming into the summertime and you had to draw your curtains and make sure there was no light shining on the street. The streets were in darkness," Celine says.

While she rarely got sweets because of rationing, the family never went without food.

"My mother was a good manager and we always had food to eat. Maybe we ran short of some things... I know you only got one egg per person per week, so if you'd six in the house, you got half a dozen eggs and that had to do you a week. Everything was rationed," she recalls.

However, Celine misses the camaraderie of those times.

"The area I lived in, people were all good neighbours. If somebody made a big pot of soup, they would have brought you a wee taste, things like that," she says.

"There were more neighbours then because I think now nearly everybody has a car and they come out of the house, get into the car and drive away and that's it.

"We moved from Alexander Street to New Lodge Road and went to school. People miss the camaraderie of houses like that because someone would have come in and you would have had a wee cup of tea and you could have stood at the door and had a wee chat.

"You had to be tough to survive, but I was thinking the other day that I don't know whether this (the coronavirus outbreak) is worse. I find it very hard not being able to get out because we're on lockdown.

"I find it very hard because my daughters would come for me and we would go out, but you're not able to go to anybody's house or anything like that, which I find hard.

"If you met somebody on the street, you could stop and talk to them during the Blitz. The Blitz would have been over that day and the next day you went out to see what damage had been done. But this confinement, because I live on my own, I find that harder."


Celine McCormick on her wedding day

Celine McCormick on her wedding day

Celine McCormick on her wedding day

Celine's finding it lonely now because before the lockdown was introduced, she would have usually seen two of her daughters every day.

"One would have come in at lunchtime and been here for a while. After tea time the other came round," she says.

"One of the other residents here would have come up and we would have sat and crocheted, but that's over. We don't go into one another's houses. There's a big garden out the back and it's beautiful looking into Alexandra Park, but we can't go into it."

Celine's daughters and sister would have taken her on trips out in a car up until the lockdown, but they can't do that anymore.

"They bring me what I need. I meet them at the door, they hand me the messages and I go up the stairs again. They don't come in here," she says.

"There are notices up that visitors are restricted."

Celine thinks there was more contact between people during the war years.

"If there was a bombing the night before, you got up and to see what the damage was," she says.

"You would have seen people about. People stopped and talked to one another and maybe talked about who was killed.

"At the moment I crochet and I watch the TV and make myself a cup of tea and a bit of dinner. I put the day in all right and they all phone me up."


Celine as a young girl

Celine as a young girl

Celine as a young girl

‘The shelter took a direct hit... there was nothing left’

Josephine Higgins (91), from Clonard, was 12 at the time of the Belfast Blitz. She has four daughters. She was at school at the time and remembers having to get fitted for a gas mask.

"You left school then at 14 and I remember my mother, who was a widow. There was all the talk about the planes coming and everybody said they were after the shipyards and the aircraft factories," she says.

"My mummy had a friend two doors up, a neighbour, and her daughter was the same age as me. They were going for evacuation, so I went with them out to Newry. I remember them putting us all into the town hall in Newry and seeing all the camp beds and the next day we all went out to homes.

"But the sirens went one night and we were all out in the street and the German planes were going over - it was the Blitz that night in Belfast. The men were saying, 'They'll get Belfast tonight, it'll be flattened', and I was thinking about my mummy and I had to get home again."

Josephine remembers the vaults of Clonard chapel being used as an air raid shelter.

"People used to come from the Shankill Road and go into the vaults at Clonard," she explains.

"There was a bad blitz that night. I remember seeing all the bodies taken into the Falls Road baths.

"Percy Street took a direct hit on an air raid shelter there and there was nothing left."

Josephine went to work at 14 and can remember the Americans soldiers being here during the war.

"The whole place was full of American soldiers - the girls were going out with the Yanks," she says. "We all had ration books, but everybody used to go down south for the black market butter and the rest of it. My mother would make sure she got a bit of black market butter. We all got through it."

Some of the men kept allotment plots and Josephine remembers going round for scallions, lettuce and tomatoes. "The food was far nicer than it is now," she says.


Josephine and her late husband Joe Higgins

Josephine and her late husband Joe Higgins

Josephine and her late husband Joe Higgins

Josephine misses going with her daughters to the Abbey Centre for shopping.

"Now you can't and you are just stuck in the house, but I am not too bad for 91 - I've four daughters and they are very good. I have a good family and I am blessed that way," she says.

"I'm getting on with lockdown okay. I'm just keeping in because that is the best thing you can do. I was really only going out with my daughters twice a week.

"I can't walk an awful lot - you kind of lose your confidence at this age - and I like to know they are beside me when I go into the shops.

"They are all staying in too. I'm not in any need of anything because they bring in anything that I need.

"This is a very good place to be in too, but even the people living in the flats all around, we don't see each other now because everybody is staying in and keeping their distance."

Josephine never thought she would see anything like this.

"This is terrible, the way it's affecting everybody. There is nothing that would save you from it, not all the money in the world. It's affecting everybody, no matter who they are," she says.

"You just have to put up with it, don't you? It's affecting everybody the same. I wouldn't like to be young these days because when you're young you want to be out and about."

‘An incendiary shell set our house on fire’

Blitz memories recorded for the Belfast Blitz Project by Northern Ireland War Memorial at Talbot Street:

Margaret Wilson, lived on McMaster Streetand was 10 during the Blitz. She says:

"The city was in flames. The church at the top of our street was in flames. The sky was red and people were running. People were shouting. People were afraid.

"People were walking up the Holywood Road with prams, maybe with babies or children in them, but piled up with, like, precious things.

"I can remember we had a piano, a very cheap piano. The first thing when the sirens went, my mother and I took the mattress off our bed and put it over the piano.

"Granny and grandpa wouldn't get up. My grandfather said Hitler wasn't going to move him out of his bed.

"Granny's corsets were downstairs and she didn't want to go and get them, but my mum had got me up.

"Our house got a direct hit from an incendiary bomb. It wasn't one of the explosive types of bomb, but it set the house on fire. The air raid wardens came in and they were equipped with stirrup pumps and buckets and hoses. They were able to bring the fire under control, but the place was full of acrid smoke.

"Andy, my mother's youngest brother, went up to help and when he came out and stood on the landing and smiled at me, I couldn't see his teeth as there was a soot deposit all over his mouth. I think this annoyed me more than the fact that the house had been on fire."


Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson

Jim Monroe was 27 and married at the time of the Blitz, working as a bus driver for what later became the Ulster Transport Authority on the night of the Easter Tuesday raid. He says:

"I was out of North Street depot to where the golf course is now on the Malone Road. There was an RAF camp there and I had to bring a bus-load of airmen out at quarter to 11 that evening. We'd just dropped them off when my conductor said to me, 'Jim, get turned quickly because I hear the planes overhead now'.

"The sirens went and we got back into the city centre. I was about to drop the conductor off when one (bomb) came down around the back of City Hall just as I was passing the top end of May Street. It was the first time I ever took off in a bus. I thought there'd be a load of damage, but we came down on our wheels alright and I drove on.

"I got home okay, but once I dropped my conductor off, he ended up in the Agnes Street shelter. It was full, so he and another man stood in the doorway, which was a good thing. When the bomb hit they were blown clear and they were the only two survivors there."

The Northern Ireland War Memorial would like to record how NI people were affected by the Second World War. Contact Michael Burns on 07588 634847 or email projects@niwarmemorial.org.

‘We had no time... the bombs were coming down’

Sheila McGibbon (86) lived in College Court in Belfast at the time of the Blitz and was one of a family of eight.

She later married Jock and was widowed two years ago.

"I was only six at the time of the Blitz and I remember well where I was - the whole family was in Queen Street barracks in the underground shelter," Sheila says.

"I remember wee things. I remember my mother taking us the night after the Blitz up High Street and from High Street right through to North Street.

"There was this great big square tank with water in it, probably to put fires out or whatever.

"After that we were evacuated and I remember my mother leaving us to the train. Her brother lived in Irvinestown in Co Fermanagh. That's where she came from herself.

"Three of us went, but she kept the youngest one. We all went to school there, but we were in different houses."


Part of a huge bomb crater in Ravenscroft Avenue, off the Newtownards Road

Part of a huge bomb crater in Ravenscroft Avenue, off the Newtownards Road

Part of a huge bomb crater in Ravenscroft Avenue, off the Newtownards Road

The family stayed in the underground shelter at Queen Street barracks for two full days.

"I suppose they were being cautious in case they came back again. They gave us food. There wasn't time for anything because the bombs were coming down. You knew that there were bombs coming down and you knew you had to rush and get your coat on because the police came around and told you to go to the barracks," she says.

"But it was okay. People were speaking to each other and were frightened at the same time.

(They were) sad times... sad times again now too.

"I remember going up High Street after that because we had to get evacuated quickly.

"I remember having our gas masks and all that at the train station and crying because we had to leave our mother and father. It was a sad time.

"I was in one house and my sister was in another. The other sister was in my mummy's brother's house."

Sheila's uncle's old rations book is still on display in a glass case at Mahon's Hotel in Irvinestown.


Belfast city centre in lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic

Belfast city centre in lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Belfast city centre in lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic

Already in voluntary lockdown for four weeks, Sheila has received a letter from her GP saying she must stay at home for 12 weeks because since she has COPD she is at a high risk of contracting Covid-19.

"It just brings back memories of what we went through during that time and what we lost. I don't know whether this is worse or that was worse, to be quite honest, because this is so many people losing their lives," she says.

Up until lockdown, Sheila led a very active life and would have gone out in the car.

"I am locked up here. My daughter would phone and say, 'What do you need today?' and will get any shopping I need. I've square eyes from watching TV, but I've some nice CDs that I would sit down and listen to," she says.

"It's changed for everyone. My daughter Pauline is a residential support worker for people with disabilities and in between she does my shopping and puts it through the window, but she doesn't come in. She's very good to me.

"I would have seen friends before, but they're locked in as well - they're standing by the rules.

"At least I'm in a place where people are going in and out and I can look out the window and see them."

Things are very frightening for Sheila at the moment. "There are times you say, 'I'll take a chance and go out', but I don't. I go out and sit at the front of the building. If I clean any more, the germs will be afraid of me," she says.

Belfast Telegraph