by ehistoryadmin on June 1, 2016

Edenderry family dies in North Strand bombing

Liam Kenny

There are few places as peaceful as the old cemetery on Drumcooley Hill, two miles south east of Edenderry. With vistas over the flat terrain on the Offaly-Kildare boundary where grassy fields yield to the brown peats of the Bog of Allen, Drumcooley cemetery is a place of tranquillity. The names on its headstones such as Bourke, Corrigan, O’Brien, Mangan, Slevin and Tyrrell make an intimate roll call to anybody familiar with the communities living on the fringe of the peatlands. The headstones depict the cycle of life in its normal generations – grand-parents, parents, adult children, spaced out with thirty years or more between each set of inscriptions. However one headstone, a simple Celtic-type cross, easily passed, tells a different story. The inscription was standard enough in memoriam to a husband-and-wife, their children, and a grandmother. But what stood out was that far from the normal range of dates on the memorial inscription – there was just one: 31 May 1941. How could all the members of the family have died on the same date? What tragedy befell this household that took away three generations in one blow?

And that easily missed inscription links the tranquillity of Drumcooley to the story of Ireland in the early 1940s against the background of a world war, and specifically, brings us to the Whit weekend of May 1941.

The night of 30/31 May 1941 was a warm one in Dublin town. The city was in a holiday mood despite the travails of wartime austerity. In city communities such as the North Strand – a mile north of Amiens Street (Connolly) station – people were out on their doorsteps chatting to neighbours. War was a topic of conversation but not in any serious way. While there had been isolated bombing incidents in the south of Ireland, and terrible destruction in Belfast the previous month, there had been no serious breach of Ireland’s neutral status.

On the terraces of the North Strand, the scene was typical of a summer’s evening. Children were playing in the mild evening air and young couples were passing by, all done up, to go to cinema or dances. Among those living in the North Strand was an Edenderry couple — Harry Brown and his wife Molly (née Corrigan) both with deep roots in the Co Offaly town.

Harry had followed his father into the coachbuilding trade at the Edenderry factory of Aylesbury’s but when the firm closed there was nothing in that line locally and in 1937 the family moved to the Dublin where he secured a good position in a railway company workshop. He and Molly, and their three children, Maureen (7), Ann (5) and Edward (3), and with the addition of baby Angela, made what by all accounts was a happy adjustment to city life in their new home at No 25 North Strand and found a ready welcome in the friendly community of north-siders. They were joined by Harry’s mother, Mary.

However a menacing shadow was about to darken this happy picture. After midnight on 30 May, Irish coast watchers tracked German bomber planes entering the airspace over the Irish Sea and hugging the coastlines of Wexford and Wicklow as they droned north. There was nothing surprising about this as the Irish Sea had been used since 1940 by German pilots as a route from their bases in France on attacking missions to Liverpool and onwards to the shipyards at Glasgow and Belfast.

However on this occasion there was a change to the pattern as instead of continuing north at least one aircraft and possibly more began to manoeuvre chaotically in the environs of Dublin city. For perhaps 30 minutes Dubliners watched this display in the balmy night sky with little concern. But the innocuous mood turned to apprehension when about 1.30am a number of blasts were heard – two from the north city and one near the Zoo. But these were minor shocks compared to the near-earthquake detonation which rocked the city just after 2am in the morning of the 31st of May when a massive bomb fell impacted on the street of the North Strand, a mile north of Amiens Street (Connolly) station. The explosion burst outwards devouring the tightly-spaced houses which lined the street. Dozens of houses were blown to pieces, over 2,000 were damaged to some degree. Many residents were killed in their beds asleep in the early hours of the Sunday morning. Others were awake disturbed by the sound of aircraft engines. But none stood a chance. And within yards of the detonation point was No. 25 the home of the Brown family.

As dawn broke the chilling extent of the death and destruction became apparent. A big part of Dublin’s north side had been turned into a vision of Armageddon. Where once a thriving community lived all that was left was the shattered ruins of houses and shops. Over the following days the Dublin newspapers carried a grim roll call as the authorities completed the near-impossible task of retrieval and identification. Popular interest centred on the stories of the families whose homes were near the epicentre of which the Brown’s were among the best known. As the investigators pieced the forensic finds together the story emerged that Harry Brown who had been out that evening on security duty with the volunteer Local Defence Force had just reached his home in a frantic dash to save his family as the German plane began its bomb run. It was said that his body was found with his hand gripping the door-knob of the house. Among the rubble were found the remains of Harry’s mother, and the children, and his wife Molly with the youngest in her arms.

At least 28 people died in the bombing, with the deaths of the seven members of the Brown family in particular capturing the attention of a grieving nation. It was the following Tuesday evening before the Brown family’s remains could be removed to Edenderry for burial in their home town. The town of Edenderry was transfixed, shocked that a young family who had left the locality only a few years before was now returning in death. The cortege with the seven coffins – three white coffins for the children – slowly made its way along J.K.L. Street where it paused outside the Browne family home. Eventually it completed its journey through the silent streets to St Mary’s Church where it was received by the Parish Priest, Fr Tierney who presided over the requiem Mass where a packed congregation came from far and wide on the Wednesday morning. After the Mass the cortege moved along St Mary’s road and up the winding lane to the cemetery on Drumcooley Hill where today the Brown family lie at rest on the tranquil slopes aired by the heather-scented breezes off Allen’s gentle bogs, a world away from that terrible May night in 1941. Leinster Leader 24 May 2016, Looking Back Series no: 487.

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