War Memorial out of shadows after 50 years

Catherine Charley with her book which tells the story of the War memorial building in Belfast.
Catherine Charley with her book which tells the story of the War memorial building in Belfast.
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A memorial which was forced to remain low-key during the Troubles is now being commemorated with a history detailing its 50 years in existence.

The Northern Ireland War Memorial was opened by the Queen Mother on October 29, 1963, as a permanent reminder of the bloodshed endured during the two world wars and the German Blitz.

Launched yesterday, the book describes the history behind the unorthodox memorial, as well as details of how the Second World War affected the Province.

It was authored by Belfast-born Catherine Charley, now living in Newtownards.

She said in the wake of the Second World War, the Royal British Legion and the government agreed that Belfast should have some kind of permanent commemoration, but that it would not be simply a statue or a sculpture.

Instead, it was decided it would take the form of a new building on council land at 9 to 13 Waring Street, at the southern edge of what is now the Cathedral Quarter.

The previous commercial premises at the site had been flattened by the Luftwaffe, and the new five-storey building included, among other things, office space for charities and organisations linked to the Armed Forces as well as a social hall for former soldiers to congregate.

But within years of opening, a different kind of conflict had engulfed the Province.

“Unfortunately because of the Troubles, starting in the late 1960s, it never really got used properly for that social club purpose,” said Catherine. “Because obviously it wouldn’t have been wise to have met in the middle of Belfast, all of these ex-services people.”

Asked if it was ever attacked, she said: “Not that I’m aware of. It was quite low-key during the Troubles.”

Its existence had been something of a “secret” she said, and although it had become better-known since the start of the peace process part of the reason for the book was that it would simply “let people know it’s there”.

In 2007, the old building itself was sold and the memorial moved to much smaller premises in Talbot Street, where it is today.

The building also houses Armed Forces organisations including the Legion, and has a gallery and exhibits.

Inside, there are artefacts such as ration books and gas masks, as well as statues, friezes and a record of those who died in the Belfast Blitz – a list she put at roughly 1,000.

The memorial got accredited museum status only last month from the Arts Council of England, meaning it can now borrow exhibits from other official museums. The certificate of accreditation was also handed over yesterday.

The 110-page history, titled Lest We Forget, can be purchased from the memorial itself for £10.