Buried alive: Blitz survivor Marion recalls moment ‘the world stopped’

Marion at her home in Belfast
Marion at her home in Belfast

The first thing you notice as you walk into Marion Kirkpatrick’s living room in her home on Belfast’s West Circular Road are her family photographs, all fastened to the wall around her fireplace.

Some black and white, some colour, some small, some large, this variety of prints of the people closest to her is the most touching of tributes to her life.

She is 90 years old (“91 on the 25th of June if God spares me”), and whilst her beloved husband George died from cancer almost two years ago, she still enjoys the companionship of the family they created together; their two children Colin and Helen, three grandchildren, and three great grand-daughters.

But none of these people would be here today if Marion had not survived the Easter Tuesday raid in the Belfast Blitz in 1941, a terrifying attack which saw great loss of life and left Marion herself and five of her neighbours trapped in the rubble of a demolished house for an incomprehensible five hours.

And after she was finally pulled to safety, it was her childhood friend and future husband George who rushed to get an ambulance for the soot-covered 15-year-old who was Marion Adair.

“I was wearing a fine woollen dress, and as George said, when I was brought out I was covered in soot, and so I was,” recalls Marion with amazing clarity.

“They had a heck of a job getting that out of my hair. My leg was bleeding, and I remember lying back on a stretcher and someone asking me where I hurt. I said, ‘all over’. If I had been older, I would have lost that leg.”

The Easter Tuesday raid was the second of four attacks by the Germans on the city in April and May of 1941, during the Second World War.

Some 740 civilians lost their lives in this attack, and 1,500 were injured, after 200 Luftwaffe bombers attacked Belfast’s military and manufacturing targets. This bleakest of nights is known for having resulted in the greatest loss of life in any night raid apart from London during the Blitz.

A teenager at the time, Marion Janet Adair remembers clearly the “drone of the German planes” in the skies above Belfast that evening, and along with the rest of her neighbours from Hopeton Street in the Lower Shankill, she rushed outside to see what was going on.

Setting the scene for that terrible night, she says: “My father was originally from Bushmills, and his mum was from Edinburgh, so I am an Ulster Scot!

“We always went to Bushmills for all our holidays, and we were just home. It was the evening time and we all decided to have a wee cup of tea. And all of a sudden the siren went.

“We all went out to see what was happening. This was the first raid that I can remember in my life.

“The German planes gave off a completely different noise to the planes of the RAF. The next thing, they all started dropping incendiaries.”

Marion and her family - her father, her cousin Bertie, who was home from the army and staying with them, and her other cousin Liz, who had come to keep the house, as Marion’s mother had passed away the previous year - ran into their terraced house and took shelter below the stairs.

“The house shook,” she recalls. “When we came out my dad noticed that the piano had moved, and he said, ‘I’ll fix that when we come back.’ And we all went outside and started putting the fires out.”

It was wartime, it was a Belfast community, and Dunkirk spirit, typically, prevailed.

Marion relates: “When I look back on it now, I see that nobody panicked. Everybody just put their hands to the pump.

“If you were able to hold a bucket of water, you queued up and passed the bucket around. The community spirit in those days was unbelievable. People were very neighbourly, neighbour helped neighbour.”

However, there was worse to come.

“Mrs Kielty, the neighbour who lived two doors down from us, said to me, ‘come on in, I’m making a wee cup of tea, and I’ll get your dad’s and Liz and Bert’s. So I went in, and I was sitting there by the open fire in the kitchen.

“Then all of a sudden, it was as if the world had stopped. There was just ...nothing.”

A parachute mine, which is designed to detonate at roof level, had landed in the chimney of Marion’s and her father’s house, just two doors down from the home of their neighbours, where Marion was at the moment of explosion.

The blast completely decimated not only the Adair family home, but also the Kielty’s. Marion, Mr and Mrs Kielty, and their three children, William, Jean and John, were basically buried alive as the building collapsed around them.

“When I came to, the first thing I noticed was the smell of gas and the sound of water running. I was on my back with my hand up by my face.

“I remember the Kieltys’ eldest son John, saying that the cupboard must have come down around him because all he could taste was sugar. People hoarded sugar back then.

“I was just lying there, and I think it was the shock that kept me lying there. We were all able to talk to each other. All I could think about was, please, God, save me for my wee daddy.”

Her father was out of the property when the bomb landed, helping in the aftermath of the incendiary attacks.

“He was only 41 at the time, but George said that my father aged 10 years that night, not because he was worried about his home, but he said that he had lost one (my mother) and now he had lost the other (me).”

Because Marion had been so close to the open fire when the parachute mine exploded, a piece of cinder burnt her leg.

After what seemed like an eternity, she heard the sound of digging above her.

She was rescued, along with the Kielty family. They all survived.

“I put my hand up, like that, and suddenly someone grabbed it. It was like being born again. They took me to the Falls Road Baths where a temporary morgue had been set up.

“They had some very serious cases there. They were separating the living from the dead. My dad brought me up to Bushmills to my aunt Mariah and she took over and looked after me, and I owe her my leg.”

Marion says of the lasting impact of the attack: “What happened also left me claustrophobic, and it took a long time to get over it.”

After the rescue, George went on to join the RAF and served his time in Egypt, before coming home to marry his lifelong friend, neighbour, and sweetheart, and start their family.

“We had a very happy life together, with happy memories,” she smiles.

Marion adds: “What happened to me was an experience, and I am sure there are lots more stories out there, and people my age who remember the Blitz.”