Like most young people in the forties, my heroine, Sarah Gillespie, in Her Secret War, is obsessed with cinema and spends all of her hard-earned, but meagre wages, on film tickets and cinema magazines such as Picturegoer Weekly. The world she sees on the silver screen is very different to her life and feeds her dreams. For someone like Sarah, growing up in a working-class part of Dublin, the regular trip to the picture house was pure escapism. During WW2, a third of most Britons went to the cinema at least once a week and it is likely the statistics were similar here in Ireland. My father often spoke of his weekly trips as a child to ‘the flicks’ with his friends, and could tell you all about the various cinemas in Dublin and the types of films they showed. Sadly, most of those cinemas are long gone now.
And then of course, there was the Hollywood glamour filling the pages of the fan magazines, which transported readers far away from the realities of war. Much like the social media influencers of today, the movie stars’ lives influenced popular culture, fashion and music.
In Britain, the fictional trails and tribulations of favourite movie stars on the screen resonated with a public reeling from the Blitz. For a couple of hours, you could forget about the bombs dropping on your neighbourhood, the discomfort of nights spent in an Anderson Shelter or your next bombing run.
It is often the children who are most affected by war and WW2 was no exception. A poignant example of the terror experienced by a child is a quote from a young girl who survived the Southampton Blitzkrieg.
“There must have been some sort of warning before the sirens and when the barrage balloons went up, I knew it meant danger. I was very frightened. I used to rush down the garden to go headfirst into the shelter.”
Being within easy reach of German airfields in France, Southampton was an easy target for the Luftwaffe and a strategic one. Over the course of the war, 57 raids were carried out with approximately 2,300 bombs dropped. Six hundred and thirty one citizens were killed and 898 were seriously wounded. The damage was extensive with 45,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Eighty years ago, a German pilot dropped four bombs on neutral Dublin City
Ireland was still recovering from the War of Independence from Britain and the Irish Civil War, when WW2 broke out in Europe. The government at the time, led by Eamonn de Valera, declared Ireland was a neutral country. Ireland had neither the manpower nor the resources to become involved in the conflict. Relations with Britain were already strained and Ireland’s stance made Churchill furious.
Ireland’s neutrality, however, was tilted slightly in favour of the Allies. Downed RAF pilots were quietly escorted to the border with Northern Ireland, while their German counterparts were interned at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the conflict. Perhaps more significantly, the Irish government sent fire crews to Belfast, during the Blitz in April 1941, to help put out the raging fires and dig out the bodies. Immediately after, many Northern Irish refugees made their way to Dublin where they were warmly welcomed.
I grew up a few kilometres from the suburb of North Strand on the north side of Dublin City. As a teenager, I was astonished to discover I lived so close to the spot where a Luftwaffe pilot dropped bombs in the early hours of 31st May 1941. The events of that Whit weekend, echoed the Blitz of Belfast only weeks before, and the bombing of cities such as Liverpool and London, and indeed, many other cities throughout Europe. A taste of the Blitz must have shaken Ireland to its core.
Today in the Library we have Hannah Byron, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into her life as an author.
A little bit about Hannah:
Hannah Byron (penname of Hannah Ferguson) was born in 1956 in Paris, France. She is of British/Irish/Dutch descent and lives in The Netherlands. Next to writing historical fiction, she is a part-time translator for a Dutch university.