Bonfires, effigies and gramophones, parades, bunting and fairy lights: How Lisburn celebrated VE Day on 8 May 1945
By the end of April 1945 it was clear that World War 2 was coming to an end. The German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler had taken his own life on the last day of April. His successor, Admiral Donitz authorised the military surrender of Germany which took place on 7th May 1945. The British Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill declared the following day to be known as VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). A public holiday of two days was declared.
Life in Lisburn was the same as in any other place in Northern Ireland. Among the advertisements in the weekly Lisburn Standard were the following: Girls Training Corps holding a parade and display; Wallace High School entry requirements; Welcome & Christian Workers’ Union Mission Sunday School and Lisburn Variety Theatre with its Saturday Night Show. The annual RVH ‘house to house’ collection went on as normal.
The Lisburn Standard was a weekly paper and the news relating to VE Day was written and published on Friday 11th May 1945. The paper described the events from Monday 7th May – a radio broadcast warned the nation to ‘stand by’ for an important announcement to be broadcast at 4pm. The locals listened to their radio sets at home and at work but no announcement came.
The local Urban District Council meeting took place that night. At 7.45pm, the meeting was disturbed by a telephone call to Mr T H McConnell the Town Clerk. The caller said that the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill would announce VE Day at 3pm the following day, Tuesday. In addition, both Tuesday and Wednesday would be observed as general holidays. The local ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Officer, Mr R H Gibson soon broadcast the news over loud-speakers in Market Square, where it was then spread by pedestrians all over the town. Members of nursing, domestic and outdoor staff who were to work on the public holidays would be given two days double pay or two days holiday at a later date.
Although the official celebrations were to start the next day, the townspeople showed their relief and pleasure in no uncertain manner. At 3pm, Mr Churchill’s broadcast was relayed around Market Square to an attentive crowd who cheered when it was finished. An open-air religious service was held after the King made his speech. Streets were packed and crowds paraded up and down until the wee hours of Tuesday morning. A squad of Belgian soldiers billeted in Lisburn marched to Dunmurry and then back to Knockmore, singing ‘Tipperary’ and other songs made popular in wartime. They lighted an impromptu bonfire in Seymour Street, brought out a melodion and danced for hours.
By the next day, the town had been plentifully decorated and looked really well. There were flags, bunting and decorations making the streets a riot of colour. At night, fairy lights and the glow of bonfires added to the gaiety of the scene. A few shop fronts were boarded up, but not many, with most shops displaying patriotic colours. Messrs J C Patterson’s premises in Bow Street and the Picture House looked well with their fairy lights. Other grounds and buildings attracted considerable attention and the effect was impressive. Once again the celebrations lasted into the wee small hours.
After a break of a few hours, the celebrations continued into Wednesday evening. Everyone was out, young and old, in gay attire. The girls were in their light summer dresses for it was an ideal, warm summer day. (The paper emphasised that it was now at liberty to describe the weather without regard to security). Parties were numerous and animated. In the streets, the people forgot their habitual reserve and sang, danced and made merry with one another as though they were all acquainted. Bonfires burned. Effigies of Adolf Hitler were burnt with zest. Gramophone records were relayed over improvised loud-speaker systems. Children were entertained by street groups. There was no thought of bed in most people’s mind. Anyone who tried got no sleep at all. Wednesday was more subdued, until the night came. By then, most folk were thoroughly tired out. There was talk of just having the task of ‘knocking-out Japan’. No one could tell when VA Day (Victory in Asia Day) would come.
Celebrations weren’t just for Lisburn; Dunmurry went wild with joy. Impromptu bands paraded on the Monday night through to Wednesday. Mr Robert Green and a large team of local boys worked on a huge bonfire. It was lit on the Tuesday night by Mrs Beattie J.P. Again, an effigy of Hitler and his detested and discredited swastika perished in the flames. Finaghy too, had its bonfire and a Hitler effigy burnt.
Following the declaration of peace, advertising changed in the following week’s Lisburn Standard. The Belfast Savings Bank told of the ‘Dove of Peace’ spreading its wings. A ‘Victory Queen’ contest was announced. Christ Church was to hold a ‘Thanksgiving for Victory’ service and Railway Street Presbyterian Church would hold a ‘Thanksgiving and Dedication’ service.
Research – Gavin Bamford, Member, History Hub Ulster
Thanks also to Catherine Burrell, member History Hub Ulster and Lisburn Museum.