A Look Back At The North Strand Bombings of 1941
“We resolve that the aim of our policy is to keep our people out of the war. With our history, and with a part of our country unjustly severed from us, we feel that no other decision or policy is possible”
With these words, Taoiseach Eamon De Valera, announced his decision to keep Ireland neutral in the great conflict unfolding in Europe that was soon to engulf the world. Since coming to power in 1932, De Valera had been steadily dismantling the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. The 1937 constitution had established Ireland as a republic in all but name, and in skillful negotiations in 1938, he succeeded in having the ports of Cobh, Bearheaven and Lough Swilly returned to Irish control. De Valera knew that the return of the ports would enable Ireland to remain neutral, but neutrality was no guarantee a small country would not be invaded, as Denmark, Holland and Belgium soon discovered.
After the debacle of Dunkirk and the Fall of France in May 1940, Ireland prepared for the worst. The regular Irish army was increased to a wartime strength of 40,000 with up to 200,000 volunteers joining the newly formed LDF. By late July 1940, the Luftwaffe was subjecting southern Britain to a sustained bombing campaign; the Blitz had begun. Despite Irish neutrality, German bombs destroyed a creamery at Campile, Co. Wexford, killing three women on August 26th 1940. Other German bombs fell on a number of locations in Carlow, Kildare, Louth, Meath, and Wicklow, but without any loss of life. On the nights of January 2nd and 3rd 1941, the Luftwaffe offloaded a number of bombs in the vicinity of the South Circular Road and Terenure. In most cases the German aircraft were offloading extra weight before flying back to their bases in occupied France. However, suspicions were aroused about the Campile bombing. Was Ireland being warned about maintaining her neutral stance?
On the night of April 15th 1941, the Dublin Fire Brigade was sent to Belfast on the personal instruction of Eamon de Valera, to assist in the aftermath of German bombing of that city. The Daily Telegraph reported: “A wave of gratitude for Ireland’s errand of mercy has swept the city of Belfast overnight, establishing a bond of sympathy between North and South Ireland which no British or Irish statesman has been able to establish in a generation”. Little did the firemen returning to Dublin realise that within a few weeks a part of Dublin’s north inner city would be devastated by German bombers.
The North Strand bombings occurred in the early hours of May 31st 1941. The first high-explosive device fell on the North Circular Road, near to O’Connell’s Schools. Within an hour and a half, three more bombs had fallen. At first, there was much confusion followed by an intense burst of anti-aircraft fire. Unlike previous bombings, terrible damage was done to a number of buildings in the area, with 300 houses damaged or totally destroyed. One explosion blew a huge crater in the road near the tramline and broke the gas main. Roofs were torn off a number of houses and doors and windows were blown out. In all, some 34 people were killed and a further 90 badly injured. A total of eleven houses were totally demolished, including two butchers shops, a jewellers, a green grocers shop, an undertakers, a public house and the local post office. Amazingly, an old woman and a young girl were rescued from the rubble. A second bomb landed in the Phoenix Park breaking a number of windows in Arás An Uachtaráin and in the American Legation. By daybreak, the North Strand Road was a mass of debris, filled with lorries, uniformed men and road workers with drills. Everywhere, demolition squads were busy claring away bricks, broken rafters and furniture from levelled buildings.
Reports in Saturday’s Irish Press described the initial damage to a number of houses in Summerhill Parade after the first bomb fell. Several eye-witnesses claimed that the bombs did not explode immediately, but a few minutes after they fell. Dr. J.C Waugh who attended many of the injured described the scene as follows; “There were many children crying for their mothers, who couldn’t be found. Many were seriously injured by falling debris and these were taken to the Richmond Hospital for treatment.” Near Newcommen Bridge, one family was completely buried in the debris of their own house. All were later found to be dead. Fires that broke out were soon brought under control by Dublin Fire Brigade and Auxilliary Fire Service. Gardaí, ARP men and rescue workers were quickly on the scene, assisted by the LDF. In the ruins of one house, rescue workers formed a human chain to pull out four people from underneath fallen masonry. One pregnant woman taken by ambulance from the North Strand gave birth on the way to hospital. Throughout the night, a continuous stream of cars, taxis, trucks and ambulances ferried the injured to local hospitals. By 3.30am, over 100 people had been treated in Jervis Street Hospital, with another 50 or so treated in the Mater Hospital. The greatest damage was recorded at 153-156 North Strand.
By Monday June 2nd, the death toll had reached 30. Two whole families had been killed, the Brownes and the Fitzpatricks. The eldest fatality was Annie Malone, of Summerhill Parade, aged 75, and the youngest was three month old Michael James Fitzpatrick, of 156 North Strand Road. The Irish Chargé d’Affairs William Warnock lodged an official protest from the Irish government with the German Reich’s Foreign Ministry in Berlin about the bombings and another bomb that was dropped near Arklow. A compensation claim was also made with the German government. Some British politicians lost no time in pointing out that ‘Neutral Éire’ was at last paying the price for ‘sitting on the fence’ during the war against Germany! Taoiseach Eamon De Valera visited the scene along with Defence Minister Oscar Traynor, Finance Minister Sean T. O’Kelly, and Post & Telegraphs Minister P.J. Little. He expressed the sympathy of the whole nation with the bereaved and paid tribute to the splendid work of the emergency services involved in the rescue work. The Archbishop of Dublin Dr. John Charles McQuaid also visted the North Strand, and made an appeal for funds for the bereaved, injured and homeless. The following day, the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance Brigade launched a joint appeal for funds for the bombing victims and their families.
The inquest, held on Wednesday June 4th, concluded that a total of 34 persons had been killed by high explosive bombs of German origin, on the night of May 31st between the hours of 1.28 and 2.50 am. A huge public funeral took place on Thursday June 5th, with many hundreds lining the streets on route to Glasnevin Cemetery. No further bombs were dropped on Ireland thereafter. After the Second World War had ended, the West German government paid substantial compensation to the bomb victims. Questions persisted in relation to the North Strand bombings; in all, neutral Ireland was bombed a total of 16 times. If the bombings were accidental, why were there no further incidents after May 31st 1941? Had RAF experts deliberately steered German aircraft towards Dublin by bending the Luftwaffe’s direction-finding radio beams? After the war, it was claimed that the RAF could not ‘bend’ these radio beams, which were sent out from occupied France and Norway. However, they could interfere with radio signals and often forced enemy aircraft to lose their way. A series of reports from Irish Army intelligence suggested that this also happened on May 28th 1941, just two days before the North Strand bombings. Then, a squadron of German aircraft flew along the east coast of Ireland, but became confused when they reached Dublin. Realising that they were not flying over Britain, the pilots offloaded their bombs in the Irish Sea between Balbriggan and Dundalk.