The Ulster People:48 – The Belfast Blitz

During the Second World War, though their country was neutral, more than 80,000 Southern Irishmen fought with great valour under the British flag. There were also 38,000 volunteers from Northern Ireland and some 4,500 were killed. Ireland also produced some of the finest military captains of the War, most of them from Ulster. During 1940, when the United Kingdom stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill committed the leadership of the British Army to the great Ulster generals Sir John Dill, Alan Brooke, Claude Auchinleck, Bernard Montgomery and Harold Alexander, who proved to be among the best soldiers of all time.

In April and May, 1941, as the price of its loyalty to the Allied cause, Belfast suffered four air raids by German bombers. There was a heavy loss of life — almost 1,000 people perished — and 2,500 were injured, many of them seriously. In one particular raid no other city in the United Kingdom, save London, suffered such a high death toll. The success of this mission, from the German point of view, was due to the exemplary preparatory methods of the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, as well as excellent aerial reconnaissance. Their special agent, working through Queen’s University, Belfast, was Jopp Hoven of the German Academic Exchange, later designated as a member of the Bataillon Brandenburg (Brandenburg Battalion), roughly equivalent to the British SAS . He was controlled by the Dublin-based Nazi Spy-master and propagandist, a professional archaeologist and “serious scholar”, Adolph Mahr, Director of the National Museum of Ireland, who was actually planning a Nazi invasion of Ireland. The lack of preparations by the mediocre Unionist administration was also a significant factor.

In his victory broadcast of 13 May, 1945, Churchill affirmed that “if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters or perish for ever from the earth.” And while he deprecated the actions of the Dublin government in denying the Allies Irish ports and airfields, he was full of praise for the “temper and instinct of thousands of Southern Irishmen who hastened to the battle-front to prove their ancient valour.” He could “only pray that the shame will be forgotten and the glories will endure, and that the peoples of the British Isles, as of the Commonwealth of Nations, will walk together in mutual comprehension and forgiveness.”

Following the war, Southern Ireland left the British Commonwealth and a ‘Republic of Ireland’ was formally constituted on Easter Monday 1949. However, emigration to England continued on a large scale, so that a sizeable proportion of its inhabitants are today of Irish descent, maintaining a bias against the existence of Northern Ireland, especially among those who claimed to represent the socialist vanguard. Thus the reluctance of the “British” Labour Party to establish itself in Northern Ireland, while later allying itself with the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The Republic of Ireland became known by the Gaelic name of ‘Eire’ (from the Old Gaelic ‘Eriu’). Northern Ireland continued to be colloquially called ‘Ulster’, though Irish nationalists disapproved of the six counties contained within the State being so labelled. Ironically, the Nationalists’ nine-county ‘Historic Ulster’, was in reality an Elizabethan invention, and didn’t correspond with the area traditionally accredited to Ulster in the ancient sagas, or the old tribal federation of Ulaidh (Ulidia) which consisted mainly of Antrim and Down, or even with the Gaelic Kingdom of the 14th to 16th centuries. Nevertheless this was the “Ulster” of the 36th (Ulster) Division.

On both sides of the ‘border’ narrow political outlooks and uncompromising attitudes predominated, and inevitably intruded into the sphere of religion. The Protestants who remained in Eire after 1920 were soon to see a great reduction in their numbers. No one could be employed in any Civil Service unless she or he could speak Gaelic. Eire Governmental discriminatory measures included opposition to birth control and divorce and the banning of ‘anti-Catholic’ literature. ‘Mixed-marriages’ regulations which bordered on overt racialism were enforced by the Irish Roman Catholic Church. Dr Noël Browne’s ‘Mother and Child’ scheme of 1951, proposing an element of State subsidisation of health care for pregnant mothers and their children, was opposed by the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy. Browne was a member of the radical republican party Clann na Poblachta (Republican Family) whose leader, the ex-chief of staff of the IRA, Sean MacBride, called on him to resign.

In the Parliamentary debate following Brown’s resignation MacBride spoke for most in the Dáil when he said: “Those of us in the House, who are Catholics are, as such, bound to give obedience to the rulings of our church and our hierarchy.” Such sentiments, allied with other forms of cultural and religious domination, were an important contributory factor in reducing the substantial Protestant population in the Republic of Ireland by at least one half. Indeed, on another defeat in the Eire Parliament, this time on his divorce bill, Noël Browne professed that he “would like to introduce a second motion, that the name of the State be changed to the Irish Holy Roman and Apostolic Republic.”

In Northern Ireland a similarily inward-looking and culturally defensive process had been well entrenched. From Northern Ireland’s founding in 1921 a great sense of insecurity had enveloped the Unionist community, an insecurity highlighted by fears that a Boundary Commission would whittle away parts of the new state, and by the ‘non-recognition’ policies of Roman Catholic political and civic leaders. These policies included a boycott of the new parliament at Stormont, and other practices such as Roman Catholic teachers refusing their salaries from the Northern Ireland government and being paid direct from Dublin for almost a year. Even worse, an IRA campaign launched within the six counties heightened communal tensions and there was an outbreak of vicious sectarian violence in 1921 and 1922.

To be continued

This entry was posted in Article. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.