Belfast Blitz Anniversary Exhibitions

Watch an online exhibition from the Linen Hall Library and see the panels at City Hall through the eyes of social historian, John Gray

You can tell it's the 70th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz. One week bystanders outside the Linen Hall Library stand agog at the sight of an anti-aircraft gun and searchlight unit accompanied by a hand-operated wailing siren; the next and a 1932 Merryweather fire engine driven, as it was in 1941, all the way from Dundalk is parked outside the City Hall.

These were one-night only attractions to draw attention to exhibitions at both venues. City in Flames at the Linen Hall is the more substantial and was mounted with the assistance of the War Memorial and the Public Record Office. It strikes a chord with many and meets a need for some. Entries in the visitors book include: ‘Memories: my grandmother and sister were both killed.'

Original records tell a lot. There is a nice bit of evidence here of laxity and boredom in the Air Raid Precaution units prior to the Blitz. An entry in an ARP Duty Book warns that it is ‘a very serious offence to tear a leaf from this book’, and alongside this is scrawled ‘DRUNK AGAIN’.

By contrast, material from the night of April 7, 1941 is chilling indeed. These include volumes of message slips sent on the night in north Belfast by the ARP; a hastily commandeered 1935 diary used to scribble a rough tally of the dead in Veryan Gardens, Greenisland, which was obliterated; and a rather later tally of the 27 killed in Barbour Street listed house by flattened house.

One of the difficulties in portraying the Blitz is the relative lack of photographs taken at the time, a consequence of rigorous censorship. The Linen Hall has been able to go beyond the well known images of Bombs on Belfast (1942 and 1988) with the discovery of an additional photograph album that is used to good effect. Contemporary newspapers help capture surrounding wartime circumstance rather than the depths of the Blitz crisis, because they too were heavily censored.

All this is surrounded by an atmospheric selection of incidental wartime ephemera including ration books, gas masks, public security posters, magazines, a child’s suitcase packed for evacuation, medals, end of war commemorative programmes and more.

Panels provide a straightforward narrative account of the Blitz. Pre-Blitz unpreparedness and general complacency are given their proper place. Unfortunately, however, there is nothing on the panic stricken flight from the city, the political crisis that threatened the Government, or on the long-term housing crisis that followed the destruction of much of the city’s housing stock.

We focus rather on Ulster pulling together and its contribution to the war effort. The exhibition also contrives to end on an unduly upbeat note by featuring the arrival of the Americans in 1942 and VE Day in 1945, neither of which have anything to do with the Blitz.

At the City Hall, a Titanic exhibition still holds pole position on the front lawns, though now the emphasis is on maritime prowess rather than disaster. Round the corner there is no escaping the disaster of the Blitz in what is a well-mounted panel display rather than an exhibition including original artefacts.

As a north Belfaster, I am glad to see our particular misfortunes acknowledged in a panel headed ‘The Hubb – North Belfast’. Apart from the spelling, this sounds as though we organised the Blitz; epicentre would have been right. Yet the panels tell the story well, and make good use of contemporary quotation.

Mary Muldowney’s recollection of the quirks of bomb blast is strangely evocative. She looks out to see her mother’s house totally destroyed except for a windowsill on which rests an intact ‘bright blue teapot’.

Tommy Henderson, Independent MP for the Shankill, surely caught the mood of the Blitz aftermath and the plight of the ‘ditchers’ who fled to the hills when he said, ‘The Catholics and Protestants are going up there mixed… They are sleeping in some sheugh… They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.'

Both exhibitions leave a sense of unfinished business. A map of our bomb sites would surely be revealing, as would a more penetrating look at the long term consequences for the city’s development. Certainly the Blitz accelerated the focus of the City away from its devastated north-end, and its effect on the housing shortage remained evident in the form of nissen hut ‘tintowns’ up to the 1970s.

Another piece of unfinished business was raised by Lieutenant Colonel Hogg, Chairman of the War Memorial, at the Linen Hall opening: that in this city of memorials and commemorations, there is no permanent memorial to the Blitz victims.

In the meantime, do visit both exhibitions and contemplate one of Belfast’s worst catastrophes and the fate of the more than 1,000 innocent victims who cannot be affixed to any cause beyond that of humanity.

City in Flames runs at the Linen Hall Library until June 30. Belfast Blitz is on show at Belfast City Hall until April 28. In the video below, Deborah Douglas of the Linen Hall Library talks about some of the exhibits currently on display.