Monday 19 March 2018

Night death rained down

Dermot Bolger chronicles the tragedy of a close-knit Dublin community ripped apart by a Nazi bombing raid

Dermot Bolger

The Bombing of Dublin's North Strand: The Untold Story

Kevin C Kearns

Gill & Macmillan, €24.99

TRAVELLERS journeying from London to Dublin during the Second World War literally embarked on a trip from darkness into light. Mailboat passengers were greeted by the startling sight (if used to Britain's enforced blackout) of Dublin's blazing lights on the skyline. For visitors with enough money, Dublin was awash with restaurants where they could eat without worrying about ration cards, or dance in ballrooms without the stress of air-raid sirens.

Even though Dubliners regularly heard German planes passing overhead en route to bomb Liverpool and Manchester, Dublin seemed safe from the war. There was almost unanimous agreement on neutrality as the only prudent course, not just from an ideological stance, but based on political and military realities. At the same time censorship ensured that the Irish public rarely glimpsed the actuality of the conflict.

So even though Southern fire brigades had raced north to help after the bombing of Belfast in early 1941, there was more a sense of curiosity than of panic in Dublin on the Whit weekend of that year when German planes were circling overhead so low that anti-aircraft searchlights were switched on and flares fired to remind the pilots they were over neutral territory. For many Dubliners it was like a free fireworks display, but others felt a sense of foreboding. That unease was justified, because -- in circumstances never fully explained -- four bombs were dropped that night.

Compared to the fourth bomb, the first three explosions -- within four minutes of each other, around 12.30am -- caused minor destruction. The first fell at the junction of North Circular Road and North Richmond Street, the second landed in Summerhill and the third in the Phoenix Park. By now Dublin was awake and in fear because one plane was still circling overhead, making low runs over Amiens Street station, with military observers (in a log kept secret for the next 65 years) noting that the pilot seemed to be "awaiting instructions of some sort".

Whatever instructions came, they had devastating consequences for the close-knit working-class community of the North Strand. At 2am a massive bomb left dozens of people dead, houses flattened or set alight, many buried alive under rubble and terrified survivors fleeing or trying to dig out neighbours with their bare hands.

On one level the story of that night has frequently been told, with historians still speculating on whether the bombing occurred due to pilot error or disorientation or if it was a reprisal by the Nazis for what they regarded as the clear breach of neutrality of Southern fire-fighters helping their Belfast counterparts some weeks earlier.

But in this new book, Kevin C Kearns -- long noted for acclaimed oral histories of Dublin, such as Dublin Tenement Life -- tells the untold story of a community ripped apart. Here is the testimony of the survivors who recall the horror of dawn when rescue workers got their first proper glimpse of a landscape changed beyond recognition, with, as Maura O'Toole recalls, a thick layer of thrown-up earth making "everything grey and desolate".

It is a picture of chaos and some small-scale looting and much large-scale heroism on the night that Dublin was totally unprepared for. Men dug with torturous slowness, straining to pinpoint cries under the rubble. A few other men simply abandoned their families and banged on the doors of pubs, demanding porter and sanctuary.

Kearns chronicles the terrible discoveries, the searches for love ones, the long list of funerals and how mourners were left to try and rebuild their lives. This becomes the story of the birth of Cabra too, with houses so hastily finished, without roadways or street lighting, that many chimneys cracked after the first fire was lit. After the corporation gave survivors the bare walls of a new home it felt no obligation to help in any other way, even if families had lost every possession during the bombing.

Kearns argues that if the blast had obliterated Ballsbridge or Donnybrook the official response would have been different and the huge loss of life would be nationally commemorated. Although in 1958 Germany paid the Irish Government compensation of £327,000, many survivors were bitter to only receive a mere €10-€12 reimbursement for the loss of all their possessions.

Funds needed to be raised locally for the small monument finally erected to the victims; the Government did not contribute. Most of the bombsite remained a desolate scar on the landscape until the late Sixties when high-rise flats were built.

Today files are finally being declassified and Dublin libraries have opened their excellent archives in Pearse Street. But Kearns' book is a real contribution to that collective sense of loss, a recreation of the human tragedies and long-term consequences of that night when a small Dublin community was torn apart and when the bitter reality of war was made tangible to a city that had thought itself safe.

Sunday Independent

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