Sunday 17 November 2019

Firefighter from the Blitz hailed a hero at 90

Elaine Keogh and Anne-Marie Walsh

He may not look 90, but John Gray can certainly say he has lived.

The humble pensioner once found himself in the middle of one of the worst scenes ever to visit this island.

But the wartime hero tried to remember the good side of life despite the utter devastation he witnessed in Belfast during the World War II Blitz.

Mr Gray was an auxiliary fireman in Dundalk when he travelled north to help the wounded and dampen down the raging fires that engulfed the ruined city after the Nazi bombings in 1941.

Yesterday, he was among the firefighters and their families who attended a memorial service in Drogheda, held to honour their efforts during the overnight air raids 70 years ago.

As he recalled the crossborder mission, he paid tribute to the people of Belfast and the gratitude they showed firemen from the south, then and now.

Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 100,000 left homeless due to the terrifying air raids.

“A woman came out to me as I came down some rubble and she gave me a cup of tea with a saucer,” he said.

“Her gratitude to me remains with me to this day.”

He fondly remembered a young couple who had just had their business destroyed.

“They put a cigarette in our mouths as we finished our work, told us to take off our helmets and they threw 20 Gallagher cigarettes into them,” he said.

“In the midst of all their adversity they had the goodness to think of us.”

Crews from Dundalk, Drogheha, Dublin and Dun Laoghaire travelled to assist fire crews in the North after the Nazis bombed Belfast on Easter Tuesday, April 15 1941.

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera agreed to send firemen to assist the homeless and injured despite Ireland’s neutrality.

Drogheda mayor Paul Bell called for a permanent memorial to be erected to “these silent heroes. I hope their unselfish commitment and humanity will act as a beacon for those of us who want to work for a better society, where difference is valued, tolerated and respected”.

The ceremony was also attended by Bridie O'Byrne, whose father Patrick was part of the mission, and Brian McEneaney, a member of the Dundalk fire service whose grandfather Bernard also travelled to Belfast to help.

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