War is over - how Belfast 'let itself go' for VE day

By Mervyn Jess

image captionHarry McMullan broadcasts for the BBC in Belfast on VE Day, 70 years ago

"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."

These were the words of BBC radio commentator Harry McMullan as he broadcast from a second-floor window on Royal Avenue on 8 May 1945 - Victory in Europe (VE) Day.

Seventy years ago, excited crowds took to the streets of Belfast and towns and villages across Northern Ireland after Prime Minister Winston Churchill's official announcement that the war in Europe was at an end following the Nazi surrender.

image captionBetty saved the newspaper recording the momentous events of that day

The celebrations were marked by outbursts of patriotism, joy and huge relief.

Street parties were arranged in local communities, home-made bunting was strung between street lamps and Union flags were hung from homes as people began looking to the future with renewed hope after six long years of war.

image captionIt was a day that Betty Porter will never forget

Archive newsreel of the VE celebrations in London contain colourful images familiar to many, however no film of events in Northern Ireland has so far been discovered.

Nevertheless, this momentous occasion was well documented in words and photographs by the Belfast press at the time and on BBC Radio.

But more recently, a rather unique VE day scrap-book, which was kept by a member of staff at Belfast's city hall has come to light.

It was gifted to the Northern Ireland War Memorial project in Talbot Street. Curator Ciaran Elizabeth Doran said it is an important item.

"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."

The person who compiled the scrap-book is 93-year-old Betty Porter from Gilnahirk, Belfast.

image captionBetty and Bob Porter have very different memories of that day

She and her husband Bob, 92, have very different memories of VE day. While Betty worked at city hall for the Belfast Corporation, Bob was on the high seas as a sailor on the Atlantic convoys.

image copyrightRCM Media Partnership
image captionChildren celebrate with their own victory parades: Courtesy of RCM Media Partnership

"We just heard it on the radio that the war was finished and a bit of a cheer went round everybody on board. We realised that the time of danger had passed and we could start to enjoy cruising while being paid for it!" said Bob who was 19 at the time.

image copyrightother
image captionA photograph from the Northern Whig newspaper of people celebrating in Northern Ireland

Betty had been out walking on the hills around Belfast with a group of friends from her local church when they heard about VE day. She wrote the following inscription in her scrapbook about that day.

"The fellowship were out by Glengormley hiking and so the news came to us in the heart of the countryside... as we returned home bonfires were lit, the town was crammed and the whole world had gone mad with joy."

Betty recalls the short return journey into Belfast.

"When we got back down into Glengormley, the place was wild. Everybody was at their front door, the war was over. And as we travelled down into the city on the tram some of the streets already had bonfires lit."

image copyrightALAMY
image captionA BBC reporter at work on VE day

But the party was just beginning for Betty, as thousands of people poured out onto the streets around Belfast city centre.

"We joined in. I don't think we were home until midnight that night. It was all so exciting. That's what I remember about VE day."

As a teenager, Marion Kirkpatrick from the Shankill area had survived being buried alive in the rubble of her own home during the Belfast blitz but she was in Bristol in southern England when VE day was declared.

image captionMarion Kirkpatrick was a young woman when the war ended

"Just like in Belfast, everybody came out onto the streets. People hugged each other that wouldn't normally bid each other the time of day" said Marion.

"Then the tables came out and the food came out and there were street parties and games for the children.

"It was as if you had come in out of the cold and somebody had wrapped a nice warm blanket round you."

While it was called VE Day, Marion said the word "victory" did not really matter on that particular day, as far as she was concerned.

"It was over, it was done. It wasn't like 'We've won!' - that came after. 'It's over', came first. That's how most of us felt that day."

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