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Dudgeon calls for permanent memorial to victms of Belfast Blitz

The following platform piece by Belfast City Councillor Jeff Dudgeon, appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday 6th December 2018.  

On Monday night (3 December), I proposed a motion at City Council’s monthly meeting calling for a significant memorial in the city centre to the 1,000 victims of the Belfast Blitz. It was seconded by Alderman Pat Convery of Castle DEA in North Belfast, the area which suffered most.

I am determined that we should have a memorial in place for the 80th anniversary in 2021 which is effectively the last time anyone who remembered those terrible events in 1941 can be with us.

In the hours since I spoke in council, I have been reminded of just how close to the surface people’s losses still are. Two people, separately, told me of how a grandparent had been killed, one in Donegore Street and another in Torrens Road while a third told me of their mother going up to Hannahstown at night for safety in the following weeks.

There were two major Luftwaffe raids over the city. The first was on Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, when 750 people were killed mostly by high explosive bombs. The second was on 4 May when some 200 died. It was more of an incendiaries air raid. Whole families of seven or eight were extinguished.

Some 15,000 people were rendered homeless in the raids and large swathes of the city centre, particularly around High Street, Bridge Street, Donegall Street and York Street were destroyed. The Great Hall in the east wing of City Hall was gutted.

Belfast was never the same again. Rebuilding took decades.

Alone of heavily blitzed cities there is no commemorative site for this most devastating event in our history. We have a patchwork of indicators at various locations, one even on this newspaper’s former office in Royal Avenue. It reads “The scars on this stone were caused in the German air raids of the Second World War. Despite severe damage to the building, the Belfast Telegraph was published without interruption.”

To mark the 75th anniversary in 2016, Council erected plaques around the city at some 25 of the worst affected places: for example, in the north, at Hogarth Street (80 dead), Annadale Street (18 dead), and Lincoln Avenue (14 dead); in the south, Blythe Street (13 dead); in the west, Ohio and Heather Streets (80 dead) and the Percy Street shelter (30 dead); in the east, Thorndyke Street (20 dead); also at Campbell College where there were twenty military hospital victims.

There are mass graves with stone markers in the City Cemetery and in Milltown (restored in 2012) for those several hundred people who had to be buried without identification, as well as dozens of graves of those who were named, both civilians and service personnel.

The Belfast Civil Defence Services dead, who numbered 34 over two nights, are listed on a plaque just outside the council chamber.

But there is no central memorial with the names of all those who died in the Blitz; no single site for remembrance and understanding.

The location proposed for a memorial is Cathedral Gardens which is at the junction of Royal Avenue and Donegall Street. It is a council-owned site and only exists in this form as it was bombed in 1941 when all its buildings, including the International Hotel, were obliterated. They were in part replaced by the College of Art.

Currently the gardens need a purpose. The Buoys are on the move to Laganside and all that is left is the recently unveiled statue to Rinty Monaghan.

Re-animation is the modern name. A focus for visitors and tourists at the other end of our city’s main street is required. It is recognised that a substantial memorial will have this effect.

It is also close by Talbot Street and the Northern Ireland War Memorial museum which has agreed to help fund the Blitz memorial and have made a generous offer constituting a high proportion of the cost.

Some interesting early designs have been drawn up by council staff. The memorial may indeed be large enough to incorporate the victims’ and the street names, as well as an aerial representation.

For completeness, we should also add the names of the smaller number of victims in Bangor (5 dead), Newtownards (13 young soldiers from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) and Londonderry’s Messines Park (13 dead).

Like most Belfast people I was born after the war but was told by my parents of their experiences. An incendiary landed on our roof but luckily was able to be put out, while for weeks, citizens, including my mother, like many thousands, trekked out to the Castlereagh hills and others around the city to avoid further raids.

To learn more about the Belfast Blitz and other aspects of the 1939-45 war there is no better place than Andy Glenfield’s exemplary website. Amongst hundreds of photographs he has taken, are many of blitzed streets, then and now, as well as military gravestones and the ghostly remains of wartime buildings like air raid shelters.

There have been half a dozen major works written on the Blitz. The authors of the various histories are in full support of the proposal. They include Elaine Crozier (‘Bombs in our Backyard’), Stephen Douds (‘Belfast Blitz: The People’s Story’), my party colleague Chris McGimpsey (‘Bombs on Belfast’) and the doyen of them all, Brian Barton, who has written the definitive work, ‘The Belfast Blitz – the City in the War Years’. It was enhanced and republished in 2015 as a 600-page illustrated volume.

Brian Moore, Belfast’s best and most readable novelist, wrote ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ about the Blitz. He was actually an air raid warden, so his coming-of-age story reflects the reality of war-time Belfast, its tragedies, conflicts, and comedy and also its opportunities for a vigorous and questioning young man. It needs dramatised.

The motion’s timing is linked to the need to get a budget line for perhaps £50,000 into council’s emerging projects for the next financial year. They would normally need to be agreed by the New Year so the motion will be discussed and decided at the Strategic Policy and Resources committee (in public) on 14 December.

A two-year lead in for a memorial, so as to be able to be in place by April 2021, is reasonable although some might say optimistic, given other issues in and around the proposed location of Cathedral Gardens. It explains the urgency.

Related aspects include the ‘Tribeca’ development which impacts the Donegall Street edge and the public realm improvements proposed by the Department for Communities in its ‘Streets Ahead 3’ public realm project for the top of Royal Avenue, the Art College, and the Ulster University’s new buildings. ‘Streets Ahead 3’, I am given to understand, should come back to life shortly, presenting a great opportunity for the project to progress in a new improved setting, given that part of Royal Avenue is seriously decayed at present.

I recognise there are some who wish for this matter to be included in the City Hall grounds statues review but the memorial project has lingered for two years in that cul-de-sac, despite now being disconnected. That issue relates to the council’s 2012 equality impact assessment.

It is obvious, but needs repeated, the Blitz victims came from all communities and all sections of the city. There is no dispute about that and no suggestion of discrimination.

A decision to progress the Blitz memorial would be entirely without prejudice to the other discussion, and I, for one, will not be found wanting when it comes to making an agreement later about the City Hall grounds. I therefore make a plea for no party to make equality a reason to block the funding proposal at committee on Friday week.

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