Gerry O’Flaherty was aged 8 in 1941, and living in Crampton Court. He attended the Christian Brothers, O’Connell School on North Richmond Road, which was directly across the road from where one of the bombs fell. Gerry speaks about the reaction of school friends and Christian Brothers to the bombing, about public views on Irish neutrality, and life in Ireland during the Emergency, including rationing and air raid drills.
Listen to Gerry’s story here:
Project Name: North Strand Oral History Project (Part 1)
Track Number: 07
Name of the Interviewee: Gerry O’Flaherty
Name of Interviewer: Ellen Murphy, with Andrew O’Brien
Place of Interview: The Lab Foley Street
Date of Interview: 9 April 2009
Name of Transcriber: Ellen Murphy
Length of Track: 00:20:48
Ellen Murphy (EM): Interview on the 9th of April with Mr. Gerry O’Flaherty. Present is Ellen Murphy, Andrew O’Brien and Ulrika Nilsson of Dublin City Archives. Mr. Flaherty what age were you in 1941
Gerry O’Flaherty (GOF): 8
EM: You were eight years of age. What do you remember specifically about the night of the North Strand Bombing?
GOF: Well, peculiar thing is that I slept through it all. It didn’t wake me at all. It wasn’t until the following morning that I discovered what was a terrible who-ha around. Everyone seemed to think that the Second World War had come to us, and that was it.
EM: And where were you living?
GOF: I was living in the centre of Dublin, in Crampton court
EM: So you would have been quite close really?
GOF: Well how far would the Olympia be away, about a mile and a half.
EM: And did your parents wake up?
GOF: Well my father was dead so I was living with my mother and brother. I don’t remember them saying that they were up or anything, no. They didn’t hear it as far as I know. They probably would have woken me had they heard it. (laughs)
EM: And so then the next day
GOF: The next day of course there was panic as it were. As far as I know, now I didn’t look up anything, I decided not to have false memories (laughs). As far as I know it was a bank holiday weekend, as far as I know, because the one thing I remember was I should have had a day off in school, and I did. But I think, I’m not sure now, but I think, newspapers came out on the bank holiday, which was unusual I think. I’m not sure
EM: The Irish Times actually reported that thousands of people went down to view the bombsite.
GOF: Oh they did yes but I didn’t go down to view the bombsite, because I went to O’Connell’s schools, and it was too near the school. In those days one didn’t like going to school, so the further I kept away from it the better (laughs). My real memory of it was that on the Tuesday when I went back to school, I was disgusted to see that a bomb had fallen right across the road from the school and flattened about two buildings on the North Circular road, right opposite North Richmond Street. And I had hoped of course standing there looking at it only another twenty yards and the school would have been blown into smithereens (laughs). But no and not alone that I thought at least the school would close, we’d get a day off, nothing at all that, Christian brothers didn’t believe in closing schools. So it was treated as a day like any other day.
EM: And would you have had classmates from the North Strand?
GOF: There were none in my class, the strange thing about O’Connell’s was that they tended to come from distance places, rather than locals, I think you’d appreciate that more than anything else [looks at AOB]. I mean the fellow who sat beside me came from Naas. And a lot came from Swords and that sort of place
EM: And did you play on the bombsite or go exploring?
GOF: Oh, oh we were not allowed. I mean it was definitely off limits, and the nearest thing that it affected the school was that the local church, when we were confirmed say, we went to North William Street, and if there was a retreat or if we had to go to mass or something like that we always went to North William Street. So that way was the only way it really impinged on us
EM: And do you remember any of the brothers having a particular reaction?
GOF: Well the brothers were ambiguous, in so far as, Christian Brothers weren’t ever pro-British. I mean one of the things they quoted without assigning the quote was ‘Burn everything British except their coal’. And while they would have liked to blame it on Britain but of course the overwhelming evidence was that it was Germans who dropped the bombs. So they were ambiguous in so far as more or less saying, well they made a mistake or something like that. Whereas in the class with me, I would say what 60, 70% of the boys there had a relative of some sort in Britain, either in the British armed forces or working in the munitions factories. So the brothers were out of kilter in that respect with the opinion that was in the class. They were all for say Gaelic and hurling, and Irish language, whereas the boys followed soccer and did not, did not have great interest in the Irish language, I’m afraid. That was the general situation here in Ireland, as far as I remember. Most people were pro-British, because they had relatives in Britain, working there, and the natural affiliation was there. You must remember that 1939 was only, what 17 years after independence, so there was a lot of hard feelings there. There was still a hard-core of die-hard republicans. A lot of other people would have subscribed to the notion, your enemy’s enemy is my friend- in so far as they wouldn’t have been pro-German, but they would have been (laughs) anti-British. But that changed over the war, because as you must remember in 1941, Germany was winning all before them, but as I say so many people had relatives in England.
EM: And what was it like during the Emergency in Ireland, do you remember food shortages?
GOF: Oh yes, well most things were rationed. I remember one time we got a ½ ounce of tea which was a week; bread was black, well not black but very brown, in so far as the husks were still in the bread. It gave us diarrhoea when we ate it first. Sugar was rationed; butter was rationed as far as I remember, clothes were rationed, shoes were rationed, and that rationing continued after the war. I think the main reason for this was we were exporting so much to Britain. So there were a lot of shortages, and of course there were blackouts as well.
EM: Do you remember doing any air raid drills or any of the A.R.P [Air Raid Precaution] officers?
GOF: Oh yes I remember later in the war, there were what are, now farcically described as air raid shelters, which were built again, were built outside the school on the North Circular road. They were just bunkers, reinforced concrete oblongs and with a door at each end, and that was about it. If it got a direct hit, it was gone. I mean it might if a bomb fell in the vicinity, it might help, but it wouldn’t help very much.
Gas masks were I remember were issued and we were fitted with them. Other than that, a lot of young people joined the Irish army. Now I’ve fallen into that trap, something that I later remarked, because at the time if someone said he’s joined the army- it was automatically assumed that he had joined the British army. And if he had joined our national army people actually said, he’d joined the Irish army. So I find that rather strange, that we should make that differentiation.
EM: Do you have any questions Andrew?
Andrew O’Brien (AOB): Yes just getting back to the North Strand what was the atmosphere like at home in terms of giving kids like yourselves a plausible explanation from, we say from parents and relatives and from the Brothers, and say the people who would be responsible for reassuring children, and in addition to that, in your own world, maybe in summer Holidays you might have been playing little army games with the ‘nasty Germans’, just dealing with the first thing first, adult explanations to children
GOF: Well as I say, my father was dead, so the main breadwinner was my uncle who was unmarried but he was living in London, and he spent the war years in London, and went through the blitz. So he used to send British newspapers through the post to us. British Newspapers were censored here; some of them were banned, as far as I remember. So I got a very pro-British angle on things. I had never any doubt who the good fellows were. I even believed that the British justice system was the best in the world that has since disappeared. But as I say, the main idea, the main attitude was pro-British, even if it was just passively pro-British. I think the words were benignly neutral
AOB: Did the atmosphere at home or in your world on the street change in terms as the war has come to your front door?
GOF: Yes it did. It bought reality to a lot of things, I mean we had been reading about blitz in Britain, and just as later, we hadn’t any appreciation as to what was happening in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s in relation to the bombs, we didn’t really appreciate what it meant to have bombs drop on you in the middle of the night and this was a reality check if anything. And of course when it came out that it was Germans, then there was a reaction against Germans.
AOB: Even in games in the school yard or whatever would you be casting the fellow, who was not in your gang as the German?
GOF: Yes of course because we were brainwashed in so far as we read the Beano, the Dandy, the Champion, the Rover, the Wizard. All of these were comics, and all of them were propaganda machines. I mean there were comic characters with little Hitler moustaches, doing this [Hitler salute] and speaking with this awful English German, Der Das, sort of thing and being portrayed as really being ridiculous and of course there were flying aces.
AOB: What about the charity side of things? Was any of your family or friends called upon to help out victims of the North strand?
GOF: No we were not. No, no I’m afraid the transpontine type of attitude still prevailed. I mean northsiders versus southsiders.
GOF: I think so. Yes it had happened on the northside
AOB: Was that the attitude?
GOF: No it wasn’t generally but the thing was that it was removed from us. I’m always surprised that people didn’t- I was lucky in so far as with the skin of my teeth lived on the South side right beside the Olympia; how many people didn’t know the North side? You know. As I say ordinary working class people, certainly didn’t follow Gaelic. Heffo’s army and the 1950’s was the emergence of Gaelic football in Dublin but before that it was Shamrock Rovers and Miltown, maybe they went to Daylier as they called it but that’s as far as they went.
AOB: And so then during the Summer time, you’d be playing your games, mock war games and so on.
GOF: That was more cowboys and Indians, we didn’t have British or German sort of things. We were influenced again by films and none of these war films would have been allowed in because it would have been propaganda, they would have said. They were paranoid about propaganda. I mean you couldn’t mention anything. I think some in the Irish Times said a member of staff was sunk in a British destroyer off Shanghai, and they weren’t allowed to say that. What they had to say was that Mr. so and so was drowned as a result of a boating accident off Shanghai.
AOB: As an eight year old, did you discern any change in the atmosphere in your world after the bombings?
GOF: Well there was less sympathy for Germany. You know. As I say we had achieved independence in 1922, De Valera came to power in was it ’32. And shortly after that he had stopped paying the annuities. This was greatly courted to the farmers. Again there was a great urban- country divide in the country then. And then the economic war came and that reduced the country to penury. So that would have been anti-British feeling. Although the farmers got rather a shock when they found they mightn’t be paying the annuities to be Britain, they certainly were going to pay them again to the Irish government. But that would have fuelled people to be pro-German but the bombing changed a lot of that, things changed.
AOB: Literally over night?
GOF: Yes I think so and then of course, later on, when the reversals started coming- in North Africa I think was the first- and then up through Germany, and as I said, so many people have been in the British forces- all of the these things combined to make us pro-British.
AOB: Thank You
EM; Do you have any further comment? Have your opinions and attitudes changed as an older person looking back at these events?
GOF: Oh well my attitude of course changed. I mean we are not static. I came to recognise the validity of many of the things the Christian Brothers said about nationalism. I certainly changed my mind about Britain being fair and being you know just and all the rest, and being above everything, don’t you know to look after its citizens. That certainly changed. What later changed me in relation to Germany. I mean what we didn’t know really what was going on. And I remember going into school, my uncle sent me a RAF badge he was in [__] and I got a hiding for having it in there -coming in with these things. Later I remember a fellow coming with a swastika on his coat and got away with it (laughs). These were things that stick in your mind. But as I say I changed my mind about the value of the Irish language. I learnt it and spoke it later on. So everything evolves. In say Britain and other places, when I went abroad, say when I was in my late teens in 1950’s, when I started going abroad, we were constantly attacked for being neutral, and didn’t we know about the concentration camps. We knew nothing about the concentration camps. We knew that Germans were being mistreated but we thought they were going to forced labour camps. We had no idea that there was any where like Dachau or Auschwitz or that these atrocities were going on. And no one did- because if you read Denis Johnston’s ‘Nine Rivers from Jordan’, he’s an Irish Play right, and he became British war correspondent and he was one of the first into one of these camps and he was amazed. No one, no one was ready for this. So that was terrible.
AOB: Did the immediate aftermath of the bomb ratchet up the possibility of a German invasion?
GOF: Oh it was, well we all thought, everyone thought there was going to be an imminent German invasion. And I would say that the number of people who joined the army as a result of it went up and we were on alert, and we didn’t take anti-aircraft installations, few though they were as a joke, which we did before.
AOB: As a chiseller you seem to have taken it on the chin?
GOF: Well the thing was that we had a wireless. BBC was always on. Rarely did we listen to Radio Eireann. BBC was the source of information. And of course we had a map on the wall with flags (laughs) in it to show us what was happening. That was from a very early age. And it was good; we learnt geography from it (laughs) maybe if nothing else. As I say having an Uncle in London made it difficult…
AOB: You were quite sanguine?
GOF: There was nothing you could do about it. We were afraid if the Germans came we would be second-class citizens. Although those die-hard IRA men were welcoming, would have been out to welcome the Germans. But that was in every country. I mean France basically co-operated with the German occupation, as did Belgium and Holland. I remember I worked in Holland for six months, and, we were bought to visit a battle ship that they had, and the captain signalled me out, to say was I not ashamed to be Irish. And my only reaction to that was, he said you stayed neutral, and I said when did you, when did Holland declare war? I had looked it up before I went (laughs). Holland did not declare war on Germany. Germany invaded Holland and the big thing was with this captain ‘you knew what was going on’. We didn’t know what was going on.
AOB: You knew after 31 May 1941?
GOF: Well we knew bombs but we didn’t know the atrocities that were going on, the awfulness of Germany I mean. I mean even in Britain the Mosley and his [__] set were there, and they were pro-German. I mean you must remember the awful unemployment was here, and people went to Germany came back saying they have autobahns, the trains go on time, -that was the great phrase- and the peoples car was coming out. All of this. We didn’t see any of the black side at it all. And of course like everything else like Russia, if we went there after the war, we got guided tours and we saw only the good side, and if you are to believe that, then that was fine. As I say later on, I said maybe one side was as bad as the other. (laughs)… not quite
EM: Thank you
— Interview Ends —