VE Day in Northern Ireland

7th March 2018

At 1500hrs on 8th May 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced an end to hostilities in Europe with Germany. This day would become known as VE Day.

VE Day or Victory in Europe Day marks the moment that six years of war in Europe came to an end on 8th May 1945. Nazi Germany was defeated.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made the announcement at 1500hrs that Tuesday afternoon. His distinctive tones came through on wireless sets in houses across the entire UK. From the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street, London, he announced the German ceasefire. It had been signed at 0241hrs on 7th May at General Eisenhower’s Supreme Allied Command in Reims, France. Hostilities would end at one minute after midnight on 9th May 1945.

Churchill announces VE Day

Imperial War Museum Photo: H 41843 (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection). The Prime Minister Winston Churchill at a BBC microphone about to broadcast to the nation on the afternoon of VE Day. Photo taken on 8th May 1945. Copyright Mr Egalton – Official War Office Photographer.

Northern Ireland celebrates VE Day

The population of Northern Ireland, like the rest of Britain, had waited six years for this moment. They had watched young men lose lives in foreign fields and suffered through the Blitz of 1941. They had stood defiant against Hitler’s oppression.

Following VE Day, the King and Queen, accompanied by Princess Elizabeth, visited Ulster. Their visit was part of the Royal Victory Tour and they met with war-wounded veterans.

On Monday 7th May 1945, a radio broadcast instructed the nation to stand by for an important announcement at 1600hrs. No announcement came that day.

That evening at 1945hrs, an Urban District Council meeting in Lisburn was disturbed by a phone call. Mr TH McConnell, the Town Clerk received the news that Churchill would announce Victory in Europe at 1500hrs the following day. RH Gibson, the local ARP Officer announced the news over a loudspeaker in Market Square.

“Belfast is letting itself go…”

Similar scenes played out across the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The following two days would be public holidays.

Belfast is letting itself go, that’s plain fact. Below me the population of this city, laughing cheering and dancing is surging past in great waves of colour and sound in brilliant sunshine.

Harry McMullan – BBC – Royal Avenue, Belfast – 8th May 1945

A wave of joy spread throughout Northern Ireland. Banners and flags flew from buildings and bunting hung from houses and in the street. What scarce alcohol there was, was cracked open at street parties.

VE Day on Medway Street, Belfast

A street party for family and friends on East Belfast’s Medway Street. This street in the Sydenham area was in the heart of the Belfast Blitz on 1941. They had much to celebrate. Copyright Belfast Telegraph.

For the first time in six years, friends and families celebrated together and feasted on cakes and special treats. The people of Northern Ireland partied in the streets until the early hours when bonfires were lit.

A day of bittersweet celebration

For many, the day was one of bittersweet celebration. Many families already knew their loved ones would never return. Others remained worried about family still fighting in the Pacific theatre.

People were happy but I was sad, Robert was still away at sea.

Betty Porter – Gilnahirk, Co. Down (2015)

Betty Porter remembered VE Day in great detail. The night before Churchill’s announcement, her church fellowship group had been hiking on Cave Hill. As they made their way back to Glengormley on the tram, they could see bonfires being lit. On some, effigies of Adolf Hitler burned.

People rushed to Belfast’s City Hall to celebrate. Young ladies sat on windowsills looking out on the crowd as soldiers arrived to dance in the streets.

Suddenly a boy hugged and kissed me… I’d met my future husband.

Susan Neilly – Belfast, Co. Antrim (2015)

City Hall, Belfast on VE Day

Belfast Telegraph Photo: The city newspaper captured the scenes as thousands of people descended on City Hall to mark VE Day on 8th May 1945. Copyright Belfast Telegraph.

Thousands of people filled the city. A weight had been lifted and for many, it was a first time to really enjoy themselves. Cecil Kennedy recounted his memories to the BBC.

Although I was almost eighteen years of age I had never been in a public bar, my friends, however, appeared to have had some experience in frequenting such premises, so I followed them into the Castle bar beside the Classic cinema. My inexperience quickly revealed itself as I had not the slightest idea what type of drink to ask for.

Cecil Kennedy – Belfast, Co. Antrim

VE Day across Northern Ireland

In towns outside of Belfast, parties went on until the early hours of the morning. In Lisburn, Belgian soldiers paraded to Dunmurry and back to Knockmore singing popular wartime songs. A bonfire was lit at Seymour Street and melodion music had crowds dancing for hours. In other places, gramophones played the popular hits of the day through loudspeakers.

Irish and Northern Irish abroad on VE Day

On VE Day in 1945, the Irish regiments were spread far and wide throughout the world.

  • 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – Dehra Dun, India.
  • 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – Udine, Italy.
  • 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – Lancaster, England.
  • Depot Company Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – Omagh, Northern Ireland.
  • 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles – Niendorf, Germany.
  • 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles – Bremen and Delmenhorst, Germany.
  • Depot Company Royal Ulster Rifles – Omagh, Northern Ireland.
  • 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers – Cividale, Italy.
  • 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers – Swansea, Wales.
  • 5th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers – Kilkeel, Northern Ireland.
  • Depot Company Royal Irish Fusiliers – Omagh, Northern Ireland.
  • 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles – Doberdo, Italy.
  • 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles – Udine and Plezzo, Italy.

70th-anniversary celebrations

In May 2015, the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum on Talbot Street marked the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Visitors shared stories and memories. Children from Braidside Integrated Primary School took part in the 8th May event. It included a two-minute silence at 1500hrs and was streamed live by the BBC. Live entertainment from the Bellehoppers rounded off a full weekend of events.

Throughout the rest of the UK, crowds fell silent at 1500hrs and a service of remembrance took place at London’s Cenotaph. More than 200 v-shaped beacons of light illuminated across the nation and cathedral bells rang out. The Royal Family held a service for veterans and members of the armed forces in Westminster Cathedral.

The ringing of bells was significant. During World War Two, church bells were only to be rung to signal an enemy invasion. The bells of St. Macartin’s Cathedral, Enniskillen were some of many ringing out on VE Day. Their chimes signalled a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

For the 70th anniversary in Northern Ireland, beacons lit the skies over Belfast’s City Hall, Bangor’s Eisenhower Pier, the Knockagh Monument in Newtownabbey, Lagan Valley Island in Lisburn, Craigavon Civic Centre, and Castle Island, Enniskillen. At Hillborough Castle, 206 (Ulster) Battery fired a salute to mark the 1500hrs two-minute silence.

RAF commemorations at Castle Archdale

At the Enniskillen event, tales of VE Day came from Rita Hamilton and Frances Hornby who were drivers in the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force at Castle Archdale on the shores of Lough Erne. On 8th May 1945, they celebrated with nine or ten other female drivers on a Royal Air Force motorboat on the lough.

After the commemorations in Co. Fermanagh, Ballyreagh Silver Band entertained the crowds. Playing a set of 1940s hits, it echoed the celebrations of 70 years earlier when the same band played in Tempo.

Back in Belfast, the Northern Ireland War Memorial’s guest of honour was Betty Porter. She had donated a unique scrapbook to the museum with her memories of VE Day. Betty had worked at City Hall during the war.

We’re very, very lucky. As a museum curator, when something arrives in a brown paper package, you’re never quite sure what it is. We opened this with sheer delight because it’s so beautifully written and presented. It’s a diary of press cuttings, personal comments, little anecdotes and just things that are every curator’s dream. It’s remarkable.

Ciaran Elizabeth Doran – Curator NI War Memorial Museum (2015)

While the war may have been over, hardships of austerity and rationing would continue for many years. VE Day was the beginning of an end.

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