The Great Hill of Down, a holy place since time of the Druid,overlooks the town of Downpatrick, Co Down, Northern Ireland. The centre of worship for Celt and Christian. Preached on by St Patrick himself, indeed he is buried here. Sacked by the Norman conquerors and restored, A place of great history. John Wesley preached here on his Methodist misson.
Just a few hundred yards down the hill in the shadow of the cathedral is Downpatrick museum. Foreboding stone facade of a wall with a large gate as an entrance, it’s not untill one steps inside that you realise…. It was once a gaol!
A hell hole of deprivation and cruelty! Many sad tales are lost in the stone walls to be remembered in tribute by growing the little Fairy Foxglove or Irish Alpine ….as it is known ….in the walls.
The gaol, thankfully long since, ceased as a place of incarceration, but for the five years of the second world war it was used as military barracks by the many American serviceman who had arrived in Brittain and the North of Ireland to help free the world of the Nazi tyranny.
In May 1942, the First Armored Division of the US army arrived in County Down and made Castlewellan Castle its headquarters, under the command of Major General Orlando Ward. They had sailed from New York on the Queen Mary on 10th May, and arrived in County Down, via Greenock and Belfast, a short time later.
Over the weeks that followed their tanks, jeeps and half-tracks were scattered all over County Down as they prepared for combat. They were also introducing the people of Northern Ireland to chewing gum, American coffee and Glenn Miller’s Big Band sound.
And it wasn’t just GI’s
The first officers had arrived in Belfast on 23 January, 1942, followed by 3,900 troops on 26 January. By May of that year 37,000 American servicemen were billeted here. US airmen were stationed across the province – at Eglinton, Maydown and Mullachmore, County Londonderry, Toome and Maghaberry, County Antrim, Cluntoe, County Tyrone and Greencastle, County Down. Eventually there were 120,000 USA service men in Northern Ireland, getting ready for the big day that was about to come.