UN International Day of Older Persons 2020
Today marks the UN International Day of Older Persons 2020 which seeks to highlight the contributions that older people make to society and raise awareness of the opportunities and challenges of ageing in today’s world. Older people obviously play a key part of our work here at the Northern Ireland War Memorial not least as contributors to our Oral History Projects allowing us to record their wartime memories. We tell their stories in our museum and preserve them for future generations.
As of September 2020, we have conducted 130 interviews with 135 individuals mainly across Northern Ireland and well as a number of interviewees in other parts of the UK, Australia, Canada & America. Noting the age of our interviewees at the time of their interview, collectively they have had 11,399 years of life experiences and were on average age of 84 ½ at the time of interview.
We have had five interviewees who were over 100 years of age when they were interviewed, with our oldest interviewee, Mabel Williams (BBP29) at 105, interviewed as part of our Belfast Blitz Project in 2016. Mabel was thirty-one in 1941 and lived off the Cliftonville Road in Belfast, she recalled that during the Easter Tuesday raid ‘mother and I were under the stairs… it was quite spacious under the stairs, we were able to get two stools in and as far as I remember for the first couple of hours, the bombs… the explosions going on didn’t sound too near and then suddenly I think it was about half past one or two the earth shook… the whole front of the house… well there wasn’t a window left! There wasn’t a bit of plaster in the front room, the furniture was just thrown on the floor’. Mabel and her family fortunately escaped uninjured although they did have to move house because of the damage; not everyone was so lucky. Mabel told us about her family friends who moved to Sunningdale off the Cavehill Road ‘just a few years before the war and they had a house, it was the middle house of five and they got hit… father, mother and twenty-year-old son were just killed and that was an awful shame to everybody that knew them’. Mabel sadly passed away in July 2018 just a few months shy of what would have been her 108th birthday.
Our second oldest interviewee, Thomas Herbert Coulter (W&M78) aged 104, was interviewed virtually in August 2020. Herbert told us about his early wartime experiences in Germany & France in 1939/40 and then later in India & Burma where he served with the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Not only did they have to deal with fighting the Japanese forces, but they also had to cope with the hot humid weather and the risk of tropical diseases. Thomas caught Dengue Fever in Calcutta and many of his comrades suffered from Dysentery and Malaria. Unfortunately, Tom passed away on the 23rd August 2020, just days after being interviewed. It was a real privilege to be able to speak to Tom and hear his wartime experiences. The thoughts of the staff and Trustees at the War Memorial are with his two daughters, Hilary & Alison as well as their families at this difficult time.
Listening to the stories of Mabel, Thomas and the many others who have graciously shared their wartime experiences with us emphasises the importance and value of older people to our society. It’s more important than ever to listen and preserve the memories and experiences of the generations that came before us. Do you know someone who remembers the Belfast Blitz and how life changed in NI during the war? Or perhaps they served overseas? If they would like to share their story, please get in touch with our Oral History Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07588 634847 to discuss the possibility of an interview virtually or by telephone.