When the Third Reich took on Phoenix … and lost!
It was seventy-five years ago on Tuesday when one of Ireland’s leading cricket clubs was inadvertently dragged into the deadliest war the world has ever seen.
Ireland was lucky that the World Wars of the 20th century never impinged on Irish soil. While plenty of Irishmen fought and died in Europe, not a single enemy boot deliberately stepped onto the island, despite Hitler’s plans to invade in ‘Operation Green’.
However, the vital dockyards of Belfast and Liverpool were a regular target for the Luftwaffe, meaning the Irish Sea was a regular target for the Luftwaffe. And that meant that, whether by accident or deliberately, German bombs did fall on the neutral Irish Free State too, killing dozens of people.
The biggest incident came just before 2am on Saturday 31 May, when four explosive bombs rained down on the north of Dublin city over a period of 37 minutes, at Ballybough, Summerhill, North Strand and Phoenix Park.
The only loss of life came in North Strand, just to the north of Amiens Street Station (now Connolly). It was a densely populated area, with many tenement houses where several families lived under one roof, so when a bomb landed at the intersection with North William Street the casualties were high and 28 people lost their lives.
According to the Irish Independent, “A fourth bomb fell in the vicinity of the Dog Pond, Phoenix Park. Windows in Árus an Uachtaráin, residence of President Hyde, were blown out but there were no casualties.”
For days – and years – following there was speculation on who dropped the bombs, and why, but the Luftwaffe was quickly blamed and the government demanded an apology and compensation.
One theory had it that it was a warning to Mr De Valera’s government because Dublin ambulances and fire brigades had gone to the aid of Belfast which had been bombed two days before – 1,000 died there that month in what was known as the Belfast Blitz – another that the British air defences ‘bent’ radio beams to send the German planes off course.
Three weeks after the bombing the Germans apologised, and more than £300,000 was paid in compensation by the West German government after the war.
The bomb that fell on the Phoenix Park landed close to the Dog Pond, which lies among the trees between the Civil Service and Phoenix cricket clubs, two of the oldest in Dublin. Less than 30 years before there were as many as 19 cricket grounds in the Park, including what is now the President’s back garden, but these two are all that remain.
The bomb blew a crater twenty feet deep, uprooting trees and blowing in most of the Phoenix club house windows. Several large rocks crashed through the roof but the groundsman and his family survived, although Mrs Margaret Foley was treated for her injuries in the Rotunda Hospital.
Serious damage was done to the playing area, which was given a complete top dressing of soil and stones, some of which were deeply embedded. That afternoon’s senior league game against YMCA was postponed, even with a 2.30pm start!
No damage was done to Civil Service. According to Tom Pryal’s Phoenix club history, “for the next week dozens of members set about the back-breaking job of clearing the ground so that on the following Saturday the second team was able to play (and win) its scheduled league match against Monkstown.”
The club’s neighbours in Dublin Zoo also suffered, and the staff there were prepared for radical measures had the fences on the animal pens been demolished.
According to the Irish Independent, “Elaborate preparations were made to shoot the animals in the Zoological Gardens should the necessity arise, and firing squads with various types of weapons were in readiness. It is believed that only the blast of the explosion prevented a dangerous bull bison from escaping. He had actually broken down the iron railing around him when he collapsed.”
A picture taken some weeks later shows the roof of the cricket club had been repaired, mostly with cardboard and broken slates – new ones were scarce in wartime.
The club was unable to get the glass to repair the windows until the season was over. Some years after the war ended the government of West Germany sent Phoenix a cheque for £219.