Seventy five years ago this month a band of intrepid Dundalk men made a perilous journey northwards to help the people of Belfast who had been stricken by a German blitz which killed over 1,000 men, women and children, destroyed half the structures in the city and displaced over 50,000 people. The Second World War had been raging for nearly two years by that time but the assault on Belfast seems to have been quite unexpected.
How Dundalk responded to the call for assistance is a story that is now nearly forgotten but it was an epic one --- and was one that nearly dragged us into the great conflict that was raging throughout Europe!
The first raid on Belfast by German aircraft had come on April 7, 1941 but this seems to have done little damage, killed and injured only a few people and little did the citizens know that this was only a 'path-finding mission' for the later massive attack on the city. This came on the night of Easter Monday, April 14/15 and brought devastation!
How Dundalk was dragged into the story is told in the words of Dan Devenney, himself a native of Belfast who was Accountant and Commercial Manager Manager in John Halliday & Son Ltd, living in Blackrock with his family at the time, writing in Victor Whitmarsh's 'Dundalk in The Emergency', first published in 1977.
Dan explains that he had been asked to set up a Fire Fighting Unit for the factory in Quay Street at the start of the war in 1939 and that the Dundalk Urban Council were required by the Department of Local Government to organise Auxiliary Fire Services within the town.
He writes --- 'From the start until Easter 1941 nothing of great incident occurred, except that we did regular training and practice.
Early on Easter Tuesday morning, in Blackrock, I heard heavy aircraft crossing Dundalk Bay, at that time aircraft could be identified by the noise of their engines. These sounded like German planes to me and they were in great numbers.
After daylight, we heard Belfast was under aerial attack and much damage had been done. At the request of the Taoiseach's Office all Auxiliary Fire Units in the Republic were asked to volunteer for duty in Belfast. Dundalk Fire Brigade, with its Merryweather (Fire Engine) and permanent staff were mustered, together with Halliday's Auxiliary Fire Service.'
Dan goes on to detail the events of the two exciting days for him; his journey to Belfast, the horrors he experienced there and the welcome they got from the ordinary people of Belfast. The events of those days are also detailed in an article written for the same book by Tom Kenny, an Assistant Dundalk Town Surveyor at the time, who was in charge of the Dundalk municipal Fire Brigade for the trip to Belfast.
As it turned out only various fire fighting units from Dublin City and, I think, Balbriggan, apart for the Dundalk units, made the dangerous journey to Belfast. I believe the the Halliday Unit may have been the only non-municipal unit to take part! The decision by Eamonn de Valera to allow Free State fire services to help, however, could have had very serious consequences for our position of neutrality at the time. Historians are divided in their opinion as to whether or not Hitler was annoyed by the decision but the fact was that Dublin was attacked by German bombers on the following May 21 and many people were killed by the attack on the North Wall area of the city. It is said that Hitler’s interest in attacking Irish targets waned with the launch of his 'Operation Barbarossa' in early June of 1941, as his attention was focused on his invasion of the Soviet Union.
Dundalk itself was bombed on the night of July 23/24, with a 1,000 bomb falling in the area between the Quay front and Castle Road and ten more, smaller bombs fell in a line in fields in the Thomastown area. The only known causality that night was a goat that was killed when grazing near the Dundalk-Greenore railway line where the big bomb fell. My own, small, experience of that night was that a family pet, a canary we had for years, was found dead in his cage on the following morning. I was away on holidays in Donegal at the time but I remember that my mother said that the bomb blast, which happened about half a mile away from our home, had killed the bird. Wonder do any of my readers still remember that night?
No satisfactory evidence was ever found for the bombing of Dundalk on that night so long ago; some say that it was an attack on a British merchant ship berthed at the Quay, others that it was just a stray German bomber pilot who wished to get home by getting rid of his lethal cargo and did not really know where he was dropping them! Who know! Anyway, Dundalk seems to have been lucky that night!