Last year I wrote a piece for ‘Sidelines’ in History Ireland magazine covering a temporary exhibition in Belfast’s City Hall to mark the 70th anniversary of Dublin firefighters coming to the assistance of Belfast during the bombing of that city in World War II. Much of that report is below, along with new images and information.
The decision of Éamon de Valera’s government to send emergency assistance to Belfast following the bombing of that city in April and early May of 1941 is a landmark moment in cross-border diplomatic relations. The response of the Dublin government to the urgent message from the War Room at Stormont was a remarkable moment owing to the historically tense relations between the two states. While hundreds of firemen from both Glasgow and Liverpool were dispatched, they could not reach Belfast until much later in the day on April 16th following the bombings of April 15th. Dublin’s assistance was required urgently.
Immediately upon the Ministry of Public Security requesting the assistance of the Dublin Fire Brigade, men from the south would make the journey to the blitzed city of Belfast. From Dublin alone, 3 regular and 3 auxiliary engines would be sent. Dun Laoghaire, Drogheda and Dundalk each contributed an engine to the cross-border effort.
Writing in 1960, Dublin Fire Brigade District Officer Michael Rodgers recalled that while the war had been raging for two years, “it all seemed very remote to me. I looked on it as a deadly game being played in different fields and followed it with a fascinated curiosity.” No doubt such an attitude to the conflict was common. The Irish Sea, he noted, was his protecting moat. With the bombing of Belfast, all changed dramatically. “Life had been lost and property damaged. My moat had been crossed.” Tragedy, District Officer Rodgers noted, knows no border.
The Dublin Fire Brigade would make two cross-border journeys, the first on April 16th and again on May 5th. Following the first cross-border trip, the matter was debated at Dublin Corporation with Jim Larkin asking “by whose authority had the fire brigade left the jurisdiction of Éire and proceed to the Six-Counties.” Another councillor responded to Larkin by enquiring that “supposing Galway had been bombed, would any questions have arisen had the Fire Brigade gone down there?” Larkin insisted it would, and noted his enquires were in relation to payment of the men and also in relation to where liability would rest had one of the men been injured or died in the course of the cross-border assistance.
Fire Brigade historian Tom Geraghty noted in his study of the Dublin Fire Brigade that the response to the appeal for assistance within the job had been extremely positive. He noted that within a half hour of the message from the Ministry of Public Security being received, the Chief Officer of the Dublin brigade, Major Comerford, “was addressing the Dublin firemen gathered from all stations at a meeting in Tara Street station.”
The first engine on the road to Belfast came from Dorset Street station, which was under Station Officer Edward Blake and 3rd Officer Richard Gorman. The Dublin Fire Brigade had first been contacted at 5.10am by the Ministry of Public Security, and by 7.30am three pumps with crews had already left the city. District Officer Rodgers noted that “Balbriggan, Drogheda and Dundalk slept peacefully as we sped northwards” and the men were greeted by customs officers on the border who waved them onwards.
The men were warmly welcomed to the city, with the Irish Independent of April 18th noting that “the fire brigades which attended from Éire have been greatly praised for their work, and as they passed through the city’s streets homeward bound after their errand of mercy they were heartily cheered by a grateful people.”
The first men from the Dublin Fire Brigade had arrived in the city just before 10am, and the first engines departed the city before nightfall. While in Belfast, they had been exposed to a situation alien to Dubliners. District Officer Rodgers recalled hearing an air raid siren during the course of the day, and recalled that “I will never forget that wailing sound. From the roof top where I was standing the city looked so scarred and vulnerable.”
In the South, The Irish Times editorial of the following day noted that “Yesterday for once the people of Ireland were united under the shadow of a national blow. Has it taken bursting bombs to remind the people of this little country that they have a common tradition, a common genius and a common home?” The Sunday Independent recorded on April 20th that Belfast was still burying her dead, and that praise for the southern fire brigades was unstinted in all corners of Belfast.
Men from the Irish capital would return to Belfast on May 5th, with even more men making the journey across the border. That time, 6 pumps and an ambulance from the capital would be among the southern appliances to cross the border. This assistance was not forgotten by the Belfast Fire Brigade, and when bombs rained down on Dublin itself in late May, it was reported by the Irish Independent that Belfast Fire Brigade approached Dublin to offer assistance if required. The Dublin Fire Brigade responded and thanked the Northern Irish firefighters for their kind offer.
Interestingly, for many years following the events, southern and northern Irish firefighters would take each other on in a friendly challenge match. Below is the cover for the programme for the June 1945 encounter at Tolka Park.