On 8th May 1945, Europe celebrated the surrender of Nazi forces. After 6 years of war across the continent, VE Day or Victory in Europe Day marked a day of national celebration. Across Northern Ireland, people took to the streets, joining family and friends in jubilant parties.
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. At 1500hrs on Tuesday 8th May 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s distinctive tones came through on the wireless. He announced the Nazi surrender to thousands gathered around their sets across the United Kingdom. Word came from the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street, London that hostilities would end at 0001hrs on 9th May 1945. General Eisenhower’s Supreme Allied Command in Reims, France was where the Nazis signed at 0241hrs on 7th May 1945.
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 Belfast 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.
Lisburn, Co. Antrim
On 7th May 1945 evening at 1945hrs, an Urban District Council meeting in Lisburn stopped to receive 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 Air Raid Precautions Officer announced the news over a loudspeaker in Market Square, Lisburn, Co. Antrim.
Belgian soldiers paraded to Dunmurry, Co. Antrim and back to Knockmore, Co. Antrim 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 from the day through loudspeakers.
Similar scenes played out across the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The following two days would be public holidays.
Belfast, Co. Antrim
In Northern Ireland’s capital city, thousands of people gathered outside Belfast City Hall. In East Belfast and North Belfast, communities hit hardest by the Belfast Blitz took to the streets to celebrate.
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
In the city centre, young women sat on windowsills looking out over the crowds. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen 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)
Bangor, Co. Down
In Bangor, Co. Down, residents celebrated Victory in Europe. It was from here that Eisenhower claimed the long march to victory would begin. Locals decorated an air raid shelter on Main Street, Bangor, Co. Down with a hanging effigy of Adolf Hitler.
Dungannon, Co. Tyrone
In many towns and villages, armed forces and other organisations paraded in the streets. Lord Northland watched from the sidelines as the parade passed by crowds lining the streets in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone.
For the first time in 6 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. For many though, 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)
Thousands of people filled towns and cities across the country. A weight had been lifted and for many, it was the 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
Irish Regiments mark Victory in Europe
By VE Day in 1945, the Irish regiments had 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 2015
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 streamed live by the BBC. 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, Co. Fermanagh 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 City Hall, Belfast, Co. Antrim, Eisenhower Pier, Bangor, Co. Down, Knockagh Monument, Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim, Lagan Valley Island, Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Craigavon Civic Centre, Craigavon, Co. Armagh, and Castle Island, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. At Hillsborough Castle, 206 (Ulster) Battery fired a salute to mark the 1500hrs two-minute silence.
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 had celebrated with nine or ten other female drivers on a Royal Air Force motorboat on the lough. After the commemorations, 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, Co. Fermanagh.
Back in Belfast, Co. Antrim, 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 Belfast City Hall, Belfast, Co. Antrim 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 in Europe may have been over, the hardships of austerity and rationing would continue for many years. VE Day was the beginning of an end.