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Column: The small Wexford village forever affected by the deaths of three young women during WWII

Amy Bracken looks at the bombing of Campile on 26 August 1940, one of the less-remembered bombings of Éire during the Second World War.

Amy Bracken

THE RECENT DISCOVERY of an Éire sign at Bray Head brings to mind an important anniversary – one of the lesser-remembered bombings of neutral Éire during World War II.

The large signs were placed across the Irish coastline to warn the huge volume of WWII planes flying over Irish airspace that the 26 counties of Éire were neutral.

But on 26 August 1940, that neutrality was to be called into question and the safety of Irish civilians during the conflict remained uncertain.

The victims of the Campile Bombing

Taoiseach Eamon De Valera had declared that ‘Éire’ (not yet the Republic of Ireland), was neutral on 2 September 1939, one day after World War II was declared. The government set about implementing its policy of neutrality and creating special bodies to manage it.

The ÉIRE signs were created over a number of months between 1942 and 1943 – but alas, they came too late for the residents of the village of Campile in Co Wexford. Seventy eight years ago, on 26 August 1940, sisters Mary and Kitty Kent, and their colleague Kathleen Hurley were killed when German bombs hit the village.

Some of the bombs hit the railway and damaged a house about five miles from Campile Creamery.

Shortly afterwards, a device was dropped on the creamery and sections of the Shelbourne Co-Op that it was part of, killing the three victims. In total, four bombs were dropped on Campile that fateful day.

The bombing certainly took the country by surprise. Blackouts and curfews had been introduced in some areas, and people on the eastern seaboard had occasionally heard the noise of bombs being dropped in England in the early part of 1940. But for just under a year, Ireland’s neutrality had largely been respected by the fighting powers.

The debate over why Éire was being targeted was rife. Was it retaliation for a rumour that butter boxes with Shelbourne Co-Op had been found near Dunkirk earlier that year, suggesting that Éire was supplying food to the Allies? Were the Germans simply lost and thought that they were in England?

Or was it, as historian John Flynn claimed in his 2010 book on the bombing – a warning from Hitler to remain neutral? There are numerous theories as to why the creamery was targeted.

In fact, Éire was to be targeted frequently in the coming months. South Dublin had some bombs dropped on it in December 1940, although it’s believed that the pilots may have simply mistaken Dublin for Liverpool.

From 1 to 3 January 1941, eight bombs were dropped near Duleek, Co Meath. On 2 January, sisters Mary Ellen and Bridget Shannon, along with their niece Kathleen, were killed when their home in Carlow took a direct hit. South Dublin (and Wexford) were to be hit again that week too.

High death toll from the North Strand Road bombing

But the Wexford and Carlow incidents were not the only ones to claim victims. Perhaps the best remembered and certainly the most tragic bombing came on 31 May 1941. Around 30 people were killed and a further 90 injured when a German landmine fell on North Strand Road, leaving the area in ruins.

Over 300 homes were damaged or destroyed. It was to be the most significant activity to happen on Irish neutral soil during the conflict.

In response to the bombings, the Irish Coastal Watch set about painting the signs to place at the Look Out Posts. With fears of future bombings rife, the coastlines were guarded for 24 hours a day until the end of the war. It’s estimated that around 85 ‘EIRE’ signs were painted by volunteers from 1942-1943. Only a handful of these remain today.

In Wexford, the Shelbourne Co-Op was demolished in 2010, 70 years after the fateful and heart-breaking day in which three young women lost their lives to the Luftwaffe, but their memory will always live on in Campile.

Amy Bracken is originally from Co Meath and moved to London in 2012, where she works as a TV producer and journalist. She blogs at history-blogger.com

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Amy Bracken

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