Around the time of the 2010 IMF/ECB/EC bailout, I remember hearing it described as “the worst day in Irish history.” This struck me as hyperbolic at the time. Obviously, like best of lists, worsts are subjective. Surely however loss of life must count towards “worst days” than economic events. I am not aware of any day in the last hundred years of Irish history with a greater loss of life than April 15th 1941, the Belfast Blitz when over 900 people died.
Much of what I have heard about this focused on the Southern reaction, with fire brigades crossing the border. This is seen as a positive. To some degree, the sheer human cost of 900 lives lost (about a quarter of those lost in the Troubles in a single night) and thousands injured or made homeless is eclipsed by this. More generally, the narrative of the Second World War as “the good war” can blind a little to the suffering involved.
Here are the recollections of novelist Brian Moore (incidentally this piece captures how Moore’s death in 1999 led to near-invisibility in the digital age), who was working in the Mater Hospital at the time:
“In the stink of human excrement, in the acrid smell of disinfectant these dead were heaped, body on body, flung arms, twisted feet, open mouth, staring eyes, old men on top of young women, a child lying on a policeman’s back, a soldier’s hand resting on a woman’s thigh, a carter still wearing his coal-slacks, on top of a pile of arms and legs, his own arm outstretched, finger pointing, as though he warned of some unseen horror. Forbidding and clumsy, the dead cluttered the morgue room from floor to ceiling”.
One thing I didn’t know was that Theodore Flynn, father of Errol Flynn (and grandfather of Sean Flynn) was based in the Mater Hospital and “head of the casualty service” for Belfast:
“The rescue service felt the want of heavy jacks; in one case the leg and arm of a child had to be amputated before it could be extricated … [But] the greatest want appeared to be the lack of hospital facilities … At 2pm, on the afternoon of the 16th (9 hours after the termination of the raid) it was reported that the street leading to the Mater Hospital was filled with ambulances waiting to set down their casualties … Professor Flynn, [father of his more famous son, Errol], head of the casualty service for the city, informed me that the greater number of casualties was due to shock, blast and secondary missiles, such as glass, stones, pieces of piping, etc … There were many terrible mutilations among both living and dead—heads crushed, ghastly abdominal and face wounds, penetration by beams, mangled and crushed limbs, etc. … In the heavily “blitzed” areas people ran panic-stricken into the streets and made for the open country. As many were caught in the open by blast and secondary missiles, the enormous number of casualties can be readily accounted for. It is perhaps true that many saved their lives running but I am afraid a much greater number lost them or became casualties…During the day, loosened slates and pieces of piping were falling in the streets and as pedestrians were numerous many casualties must have occurred.”
It is evident from Theodore Flynn’s biography he was a zoologist rather than a medical doctor. It would be interesting to know how common this sort of thing was on the Home Front in wartime.