On the night of 15th-16th April 1941, during the Easter Raid of the Belfast Blitz, heavy explosive bombs and parachute mines devastated Hillman Street and the surrounding area. Some residents fled their homes in search of shelter. In others, older family members sang quietly to console fightened children.
As the first bombs fell on Hillman Street, resident Josephine Downey was returning home from a dance at the Paradise Club on Donegall Street. The manager had told patrons to stay for shelter or return home. Josephine opted to go back to her family. She made her way from the city centre to Hillman Street in the north of the city, the path lit by falling flares and searchlights at Victoria Barracks.
An incendiary bomb quietly came through the roof of the Downey’s home. Josephone’s brother and John Duff – a family friend – climbed the stairs and extinguished the bomb. On the way downstairs, John paused to look out the window, and at that moment a parachute mine detonated on Antrim Road between Hillman Street and Duncairn Gardens.
The blast demolished three large houses. The explosion and resulting fire caused damage to St. James’ Church across the road. The mine impacted only 15 feet away from a public air raid shelter. Inside, no one sustained injuries as a result of the bombing. However, the blast caused notable damage to the shelter. The roof and walls cracked. In some parts, the structure hung together by less than a quarter of an inch of foor remaining in touch with the supporting wall. The blast had knocked the shelter around 4 inches from its foundations. The following morning, observers noted the parachute still hanging on overhead cables while authorities condemned the shelter as no longer fit for public use.
The gable wall of the Downey’s home collapsed causing injuries, trapping some beneath falling masonry. John Duff died hours later in the Mater Hospital as a result of his injuries. Josephone sustained broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. Her faher later commented that the blast made him feel as though his heart would burst. Tragically, after A.R.P. Wardens led the family to a nearby shelter, Josephine’s mother went into cardiac arrest. She was a modest Belfast woman and the family declined the help of a doctor – a stranger – who would have had to undo her clothing in view of all assembled in the shelter.
The Downey family returned to the home, along with A.R.P. Wardens. They found John Duff’s body beneath the rubble, his arms raised in a reflex action. In a final act of indignity, a large amount of money he had on him the previous night had apparently been stolen by looters. Josephine had found a green dress in the front garden, blown from the house in the blast. As she lifted it, a stranger snatched it from her hands and ran off. Later in the day, Josephine’s brother, a member of the bar staff at McLaughlin’s on Antrim Road was offered a set of 12 glasses for the bar. He instantly recognised them as belonging to his parents, and the would-be seller fled, leaving the miraculously unsmashed glasses on the bar.