Northern Ireland in the Second World War conference at PRONI

As I have a huge interest in 20th century Northern Ireland, and the Second World War in particular I was really excited to be able to attend this PRONI conference.  I’d previously been to the Holocaust Memorial Day conference and found it really interesting, it’s great that these events are free and anyone can attend.  As well as hearing about new research there’s always a piece about some of the archival material, in this case the photographic collection of Shorts, held by PRONI.  After an introduction by Dr Timothy Bowman from University of Kent there was a talk from Brian Barton on the Belfast Blitz.   I’d studied the Blitz as part of my Modern History degree from both a British and Irish perspective, but learned more about how inadequate the provisions made for Belfast were in the event of a bombing raid.  Brian told us how there were only enough bomb shelters for a quarter of the population of the city, and even these were not built to the same standards as in the rest of the UK, with no supporting walls inside they often collapsed.  Belfast had no searchlights and only one anti-barrage balloon.  When Brian said this it reminded me of glass negatives I’ve been cataloguing in North Down Museum and seeing an anti-barrage balloon flying over Bangor harbour, as well as warships anchored there, so maybe the situation wasn’t quite as dire if the coast of Northern Ireland also had protection?  The lack of anti-aircraft measures was also attributed to key war decisions being made in London, where they considered Belfast too remote, even after the occupation of France.  Brian also suggested the British government possibly assumed that Hitler would respect the neutrality of Irish airspace, which doesn’t seem like a sensible assumption as he had invaded several European countries by this point!                                                                        index                                                                         Photo courtesy of the PRONI website

As I volunteer at the NI War Memorial I’d already seen a copy of one of the German maps of Belfast with potential targets marked on it, although as Brian pointed out it was a little odd that the Germans thought the waterworks in north Belfast supplied water for the whole of Belfast, when this hadn’t been the case since the 1840’s.  Brian then spoke about the devastation that the Easter raid caused to Belfast, as there was so much cloud cover it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to see their targets as clearly as expected so a lot of residential areas were hit , especially the lower Antrim Road, York Road and the Shankill Road.  Even with all this damage Belfast was lucky, large numbers of the parachute mines didn’t explode because they landed in the mud of the docks and the fires were quickly extinguished.  Brian also drew our attention to the fact that there weren’t many serious injuries from the Blitz, people either died as their houses collapsed or were unharmed. images

                             Ulster Home Guard Image courtesy of the Northern Ireland War Memorial

The next talk was from William Butler of University of Kent, who had researched the Ulster Home Guard as part of his PhD thesis on Irish involvement in the British army.  William outlined the differences between the Home Guard in Britain, typically portrayed as ‘Dad’s Army’ and the Home Guard in Northern Ireland, which was part of the B Specials and had political connotations.  From the start of the Ulster Home Guard in May 1940 it had little Catholic representation, which William attributed more to apathy than to any direct discrimination.  Maybe if the Catholic population of Northern Ireland identified more with de Valera’s Ireland then they preferred to maintain a neutral stance on their input into the war?  There’s also the issue of the long tradition of Protestant volunteering, from the Orange Order and the Yeomanry, that could account for the higher percentage of the population being involved in the Ulster Home Guard than across the water.  In my opinion it probably had a lot to do with conscription not being extended to Northern Ireland, there were a large number of younger men who did not go to war but felt that they had a duty to protect their country and local area.  Around 75% of the Newtownards branch were aged under 25, obviously in the rest of the UK men of this age would have been conscripted.  The Ulster Home Guard also differed from the mainland in the organisational structure as well, constitutionally the Northern Ireland government was only responsible for law and order rather than defence.  This meant that the Ulster Home Guard fell under civilian control, rather than military, and caused a controversy that the British Army and government did their best to keep out of the public eye.  The majority of the Home Guarders were business leaders and former serviceman from the First World War, and membership declined steadily each year until disbanding in 1944.  In total just over 36,000 men were members of the Ulster Home Guard, although this was 5.8% of the total male population of Northern Ireland it was also 9.5% of the Protestant male population, which shows the Protestant dominance.doris

                                         ‘Machining and Inspecting Parachutes for flares and towing targets’

                                                                         by Doris Blair courtesy of NMNI

Last talk of the day was by Phillip Ollerenshaw of the University of the West of England on ‘Politics, economic mobilisation and society in Northern Ireland 1939-1945’.  Phillip spoke about how during the war period Northern Ireland was consistently under-employed in the British war effort.  Despite the Northern Irish government trying to win contracts, the distance from London and the issues with conflict in the region meant the province lost out.  People in Northern Ireland felt distanced from events in Europe, and the positive economic impact of war in Britain did not reach across the Irish Sea.  Even by 1941 unemployment still stood at 10.7%, and the economic uncertainty meant that there was industrial unrest in the shipbuilding and engineering industries.  The traditional linen industry was vulnerable during the war because of it reliance on raw materials being shipped in, and farming was becoming increasingly mechanised.  Phillip mentioned Mackies, one of the bigger employers in Belfast, by 1943 they had 10,000 workers and 60% of them were women.  I was particularly interested in hearing about how conditions during the war years inspired massive social change in the post war period, like the Ministry of Health and Local Government started in 1944.

I thought the afternoon was very informative about how the Second World War impacted Northern Ireland, and covered a hue range of material in a very short space of time.  The conferences and lectures at PRONI always seem to attract a lot of academics and older adults, so it was great to see a few younger people at this event.  I’m keeping an eye on the PRONI website for the next event !

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