Published in Artefacts, Issue 6 (November/December 2022), Volume 30

By Lar Joye

Above: Bás Beatha—the booklet issued to every Irish home in 1965 on how to survive a nuclear war.

Seventy-seven years ago, on 6 and 9 August 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, killing over 200,000 people. An Irish doctor, Aidan MacCarthy from Castletownbere, who had been captured while serving in the British Army and was in Nagasaki in a Mitsubishi POW camp, described the aftermath of the explosion: ‘There then followed a blue flash accompanied by a very bright magnesium type flare … Then came a frighteningly loud but rather flat explosion which was followed by a blast of hot air … All this was followed by an eerie silence.’ Over the last 77 years the risk of nuclear war has escalated to dangerous levels four times: during the Korean War in 1951; the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962; in the mid-1980s; and this year, 2022, as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

In the light of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Irish government responded to the threat by issuing a booklet to each household in 1965—Bás Beatha (‘Death of life’), subtitled on the back cover, ‘Survival in a Nuclear War. Advice on Protection in the Home and on the Farm’. This suggested that, owing to radioactive dust, it was essential to stay indoors, preferably in a prepared refuge room, for two days and to expect not to leave the house for fourteen days. The booklet advised on how to build such a room, to prepare storage for food and water and to deal with radiation sickness. It also focused on the responsibilities of the farmer, who had to think of the hazards not only to ‘his family, but also to his livestock and crops’. While the booklet gave an outline of what to expect, it continuously recommended listening to RTÉ radio for updates from the authorities. Since the 1950s Irish governments had developed plans to survive a nuclear attack, with the creation of the Civil Defence, the Observer Corps in the Irish Defence Forces and even the building of a nuclear bunker in Athlone to hold 100 people. As Michael Kennedy has commented, however, ‘In the age of four-minute warnings, Ireland’s emergency planning remained hopelessly inadequate’.

By the 1960s nuclear weapons had become more powerful than the fifteen-kiloton bombs dropped on Japan; a ten-megaton hydrogen bomb detonating in O’Connell Street would have destroyed six kilometres of the city in all directions. In 1945 nuclear weapons were seen as a new wonder weapon to end wars quickly, but that changed dramatically when American journalist John Hersey wrote a 30,000-word article in 1946 about the impact of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, based on the lives of six survivors. Readers were introduced to the horrors of nuclear weapons, vapourised people, fire-storms and, of course, nuclear radiation.

Lar Joye is Heritage Officer of Dublin Port.


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