NI War Memorial Exhibition

Remembering Northern Ireland's role in the second world war at the Cathedral Quarter museum in Belfast

'Men from Northern Ireland fought in every theatre of war,' says Bob Wright, who served in Burma and China during the second world war. An amiable octogenarian with a nice line in old war stories, Wright is just the man to guide a novice like myself around the excellent NI War Memorial Exhibition in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.

The exhibition contains photographs, documents, uniforms and artefacts, all pertaining to the north's role in the second world war. Previously housed in the War Memorial Building on Waring Street, where it had been since 1963, 18 months ago the entire exhibition made the short trip up Donegall Street to its new home, a bright, airy ground floor space across from St Anne's Cathedral on Talbot Street.

The original War Memorial Building was built, in part, to recognise the role of the United States forces in Northern Ireland during the war. Today, just inside the front door, an impressive stained glass window in honour of fallen GIs bears the haunting inscription: 'They gave their lives that we might live. We will remember them.'

The exhibition also provides a thorough account of one of Belfast's most difficult times – the Blitz. During the war, Wright explains, the city was a centre of munitions manufacture – Harland and Wolff alone built 140 warships and six aircraft carriers – making it a popular target for German bombers.

Between April and May 1941 four bombardments lasting ten hours in total left up to 1,100 people dead and damaged half of the city's housing stock. Belfast was the 12th most bombed city in the United Kingdom and £20 million worth of damage at wartime values was done to property.

'I was bombed during the Blitz,' Elsie, originally from the Ballygomartin road in west Belfast, tells Bob Wright when she overhears us chatting beside a screen displaying the roll call of those who died in Belfast. Elsie is just one of the many visitors to pass through the busy exhibition during my visit, and like many others she is keen to talk about her wartime experiences.

'When the air raid siren went we all gathered in Woodvale Park and I was hit by shrapnel. It went straight through my back.' Elsie was lucky to survive the blast, which had been intended for the nearby Mackie's factory. Samples of shrapnel in a nearby glass case show just how big, and vicious, a weapon it was.

The exhibition has moved with the times. A detailed interactive display provides information on many different aspects of the war, from the Home Guard to the Republic of Ireland's role. But the bulk of the old material remains – glass cases filled with everything from folksy guides to Northern Ireland aimed at American servicemen to ration books and Hitler Youth knives.

As we all know, the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazis was grave but it seems that fighting the bad guys wasn't the only reason for enlisting. 'We all joined because there was no work back in them days,' Bob Wright smiles.

'When I joined the Welsh Regiment in Belfast in 1938 there was no work for anyone in Ireland, north and south, and the regiment was full of Irish lads from both sides of the border.' A plaque in the centre of the room reminds visitors that over 37,000 men from the Republic fought alongside 43,000 soldiers from Northern Ireland in the second world war. 

More than 40 years after it firstopened NI War Memorial Exhibition is still educating visitors of all ages about this central, and complex, episode in our histories. Alongside the mannequins and displays there are replica army fatigues and helmets for children.

'We are always delighted to see kids coming along and trying on the old war clothes,' comments Wright. 'We get schools from both communities here, France, Germany, the south of Ireland. They come from all around.'

The second world war is long passed but its stories and histories contain important lessons for generations, present and future.