Interviewee of the Month – March 2021

Interviewee of the Month – March 2021

Every month we highlight an interviewee and their wartime memories from our growing Oral History Collection. This month we are highlighting two interviewees, Joan MacCabe & Maureen O’Kane (W&M40), sisters who were interviewed in November 2019.

Maureen (b. 1928) and Joan (b. 1938) grew up in Belfast and lived on Fitzroy Avenue with their mother, father, and the middle sister Frances. Both remembered the Belfast Blitz, specifically the Easter Tuesday raid. Maureen who was 12 at the time told us On the night of the ‘Big Blitz’, my parents had two visitors. My sisters and I were in bed and I heard the siren. Absolutely terrified I literally jumped the stairs, opened the living room door and I just pointed. I just could not speak. I couldn’t utter a sound. I was so terrified. The visitors who lived nearby went home, my father pulled on his uniform, got on his bike and headed to the barracks. My sisters, Joan & Francis had been playing house earlier in the day and had covered the floors of the ‘under the stairs’ cupboard with large brown velvet cushions. My mother packed us and the family cat in there as waves of aircraft descended on the city. Bombs kept dropping and exploding. The noise was unbelievable and by 1.45am the city was ablaze. History records the siren as sounding at 10:40pm. The noise was absolutely horrendous and despite the blackout, if you opened the door of our hideout, you could see the red glow. Halfway through the night, I could stick the noise and confinement no longer and I absolutely defied my mother and went upstairs to the top of our three-storey house. I looked out the window and the whole city was ablaze. An extraordinary sight and a pungent smell. Next morning, we discovered our neighbours had incendiary bombs. There was no sign of my father. My mother was in a state but concealed it from us. My father arrived home on the third day, his uniform torn and singed, and told us the morgue could not hold all the bodies and the Falls Baths had been drained and St Georges Market also used.’ While Joan was only 3 at the time, she remembered sheltering under the stairs and hearing about the aftermath and her father’s experiences- ‘The stories about the baths and the market area were terrible. I was too young really to know, but you could hear people whispering about things and my father experienced all that. The bodies and going round and checking out for people and maybe trying to find the names you know.’

Strict wartime rationing affected everyone, and many families struggled to make do on rations. Thankfully Maureen and Joan’s mum was a great cook with Maureen recalling ‘my mother baked and she was an expert cook like my sister here and she would do all sorts of things with liver and I can remember, cows heart, they used to sell the hearts! Imagine! She would clean it and I don’t know what she did with it exactly but she would stuff it and roast it. We ate rabbit, roast rabbit, and I can remember there was soft meat along the backbone that was tasty and lovely. We used to always be looking for that bit of the rabbit’. Joan also remembers rationing and of particular interest to her as a small child was the fact sweets were rationed. Describing the tokens in her ration book, Joan stated that ‘Two E’s & One E’s and One D & Two E’s and you would have had hardly enough for a quarter of sweets, and you saved that for the weekend. I can remember getting a book, I was a bookworm and I would have taken the book and got into a lovely wee cosy corner with a bar of Highland Toffee which is now about a third of the size of the bar that we would have bought for three d, three penny’s! There were very very very few sweets really, the choice wasn’t great and you didn’t have the money for them and you didn’t have the coupons’.

In 1942 Maureen was sent to a boarding school in Ballycastle and for the most part this was the end of her war as it didn’t really affect her any longer, saying that ‘we got no news at school about the war. I can remember one girl, her father was an officer in the Navy and I can remember her being called aside and going home, her father had lost his life’. Maureen was still in Ballycastle when VE Day celebrations took place in 1945 and didn’t remember any parties. Joan, who was still in Belfast, remembered a street party but that she was unfortunately too sick to attend; ‘I think I was seven when it ended. I was in bed in the front bedroom in our house with bad tonsillitis which I was tortured with, it was recurring all the time. Some of the ladies in the street decided they would have a street party. Mrs Carlisle and her sister Isabelle… everybody brought out chairs and whatever tables that they had and made a grand dining area in the street and I suppose all the women had baked and all that. I was lying in the bed looking out forlorn and I could see all the girls and the boys on the street, all having a ball and the food! Like things that you’d never seen before, cakes, big cakes and all and I can remember looking out and I can remember Isabelle catching my eye. She was a lady and she wasn’t married and she lived next door to her sister. She looked up and caught my eye and shortly after that, a plate arrived up to the bedroom with a wee selection’.

Do you remember the Easter Tuesday air raid? Or perhaps you attended VE Day celebrations? If you or a family member has memories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War and would like to share your story, please get in touch with our Project Co-Ordinator Michael by emailing projects@niwarmemorial.org or give him a call on 07588634847.

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