Roamer: Second world war was bread and butter for some locals

Danny Cunningham was an 80-year-old care home resident when he chatted to retired lecturer Una Walls 16 years ago about his childhood memories of WWII in Greencastle, County Down.
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The conversation was being recorded for the archives of the NI War Memorial Museum (NIWM) in partnership with National Museums NI, which didn’t disrupt the former fisherman’s flow in the slightest!

But when he recalled returning home one day from the shore of Carlingford Lough his words slowed, almost to a whisper.

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“I was coming from gathering winkles when I met a brother of mine, he was working for a farmer. He says to me ‘Did you hear the news?’ I says, ‘How could I hear the news, me at the shore!’ He says, ‘War has broke out this morning’. And he started to cry.”

After the Blitz: Belfast,1941After the Blitz: Belfast,1941
After the Blitz: Belfast,1941

That’s just one short snippet from the Una Walls collection of 28 conversations with care home residents from around Kilkeel, Newcastle and Belfast that are now available in the NIWM in Belfast’s Talbot Street.

They’re part of the ongoing oral history archive, currently totalling over 300 recordings.

“We keep collecting more and more wartime memories from across Northern Ireland”, Research Officer Michael Burns told me this week.

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Most of today’s interviewees were children during WWII “whereas the people Una interviewed in 2008 were teenagers,” Michael explained, adding, “they were growing up, leaving school and going to work, and it’s a different perspective of how the war affected them.”

Ulster Home Guard training,1943. IWM PhotoUlster Home Guard training,1943. IWM Photo
Ulster Home Guard training,1943. IWM Photo

Danny Cunningham became a lobster fisherman and shared a host of colourful stories about the smuggling that went on, in both directions, across Carlingford Lough.

“There was brown bread here and white bread over there. You took the brown bread from here and swapped it with them. That's how it was done!”

There’s an extraordinary variety of memories in the Walls recordings - about the Home Guard and the NAAFI; the RAF bomber that was modified to rescue the Norwegian Royal family from Nazi occupation; the wartime exploits of a professional ballroom dancer and the wreckage of a German aircraft in the Mournes.

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I wondered if there are there any particularly historic snippets?

Ballykinlar Camp, 1941. IWM PhotoBallykinlar Camp, 1941. IWM Photo
Ballykinlar Camp, 1941. IWM Photo

“In each interview there’s always a moment that stands out,” Michael told me, “from people who were at D-Day and men who served overseas to a child who was evacuated from Belfast, or a child who lost family members.”

The latter features very tragically in an interview with Mary Coyle who was five years old when Belfast was blitzed.

“She lived in a very badly hit area,” Michael recounted, “and she explains in the recording, when her house was hit, she remembers waking up.”

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Her mum was under some rubble “and Mary could hear her sister calling out to her,” Michael continued, “and she could hear her father talking and saying that he wasn’t going to get out and she explains how her mother led them in the act of contrition, and they prayed together, and then Mary simply says - ‘and then the boys died’. So that was her experience of losing her sister, her two brothers and her father all in one fell swoop.”

As well as being available in print (recently transcribed by Ulster University PhD student Sorcha Clarke) some of the Walls collection can be heard online, but because the Mary Coyle interview, and some others, are “upsetting for anyone to listen to”, Michael explained, “it would have to be in the museum setting where someone comes in and listens to them.”

And there’s plenty of light relief and humour too, like the man with smuggled butter in his artificial leg getting off the train too near the steam engine.

“That’s just hilarious,” Michael laughed, “how the butter melted out of the leg!”

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And the former WWII bus conductor reminiscing about the black-out who was asked, “What was Belfast like?” and he answered “Well, it was really dark.”

And the young NAAFI girl working in the café in the wonderfully named ‘World's End Camp’ in Ballykinlar Army Camp who described the American GIs as “totally different from our own soldiers. They were more sloppy and more more more (three mores!) talkative!”

These first-hand WWII recordings, and NIWM’s whole oral history collection, are packed with sadness and smiles, fun and fear, colour and courage, pain and poignancy.

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