The Falls Road Public Baths gained notoriety on 16th April 1941 as the site of a temporary morgue following the Belfast Blitz.
For the duration of the Second World War, the baths in District B was a fire watching centre. An attendance book lists the names of hundreds of men between the outbreak of war and 11th September 1944. Among those volunteering for ten hour Fire Prevention shifts were:
- James Dowling
- Thomas McCarthy
- Patrick Gaffney
- Samuel Purdy
- Joseph Tipping
- Joseph McCann
- John McMullan
- James O’Toole
It is the events of 16th April 1941 that live longest in the memory of those from the Falls Road.
Aftermath of the Belfast Blitz
Much of North Belfast and West Belfast came under heavy bombing from the Luftwaffe. Casualties were higher than anticipated and mortuary services overwhelmed. The Town Clerk asked that people brought bodies to public baths across the city for holding and identification.
The staff at the Falls Road baths drained the pool. One such attendant and warden was eighteen-year-old Joseph McCann. He remembered hearses arriving from early in the day with bodies in coffins on 16th April.
Air Raid Precaution Wardens such as Jimmy Doherty were also on hand even though they had been out all night. No one could have predicted the scenes that would greet those working at the baths.
Those volunteering at the Falls Road made preparations for 30-40 bodies but the final count was to be much higher. Once the Falls Road baths filled, bodies were taken to St. George’s Market.
Dealing With The Dead
The volunteers worked in six-hour shifts. With the heat, the stress, the smell, few could stick it for much longer.
As the day went on, the casualty count rose and all kinds of transport arrived with the dead wrapped in sheets and blankets. Vans, lorries, and carts all carried a stream of fatalities to the makeshift morgues. Those claimed or identified were placed in cardboard coffins – sometimes two or three people together. Jimmy Doherty remembered laying out a mother and her two young daughters in a single coffin.
I remember lifting the head of a fourteen-year-old girl and then searching for the rest of her body.
Joseph McCann in A History Of The Falls Road Baths.
Some would suggest that use of pools, baths, and the markets allowed the fire service to hose down bodies. Unconfirmed reports point to this idea coming from an ambulance man named Lagan from Leeson Street off the Falls Road.
Around 150 bodies remained at the pool on the Falls Road for three days after the air raid. A further 250 laid at St George’s Market in the city centre. Many were never identified and bodies were still dug from the rubble a week later.
Bodies In The Baths
Unidentified and unclaimed bodies piled up. Volunteers checked through personal effects to gauge whether victims were protestant or catholic. Burials then took place in mass graves in Milltown Cemetery and Belfast City Cemetery on 21st April 1941.
The next day Harry and I went into town but everywhere you went to go was closed. Every street was closed. So, we went up to the Falls Baths and the lorries were arriving with the dead bodies. They were carrying the bodies on stretchers and boards, anything you could carry a body on.
Leo Wilson interviewed by the Somme Association and the Belfast Telegraph, aged 89, in 2011.
A book entitled ‘A History Of The Falls Road Baths’ written by Michael McCann contains much more information on the baths’ history. It has never been published.