In Portobello Harbour each Friday at midday, there’s a distant wailing that sounds like it might be an air-raid siren.
If you’re there and you hear it, you might feel as if you’re suddenly immersed in a World War II film, and it’s time to go underground to the air-raid shelter and smoke cigarettes in the dark.
The sound comes from the Cathal Brugha Barracks, just across the canal. It has a northside counterpart too, emanating from the McKee Barracks beside the Phoenix Park.
It is not an air-raid siren.
What’s That Sound?
In fact, it is a “test general alarm”, according to Mick Duffy, company quartermaster of Cathal Brugha Barracks.
It’s just for the barracks, not for the rest of us.
If it were for real, and not just an every-Friday test, it would be a call to arms for the soldiers at the barracks to defend them. Barracks across the country have similar alarms.
Soldiers can tell the threat is real if there is no verbal warning before the siren goes off.
If you’re a civilian, there’s nothing you’re supposed to do when you hear the alarm, even if it’s not a test, even if it’s for real, said Duffy.
Why does it have that Blitz-era air-raid sound? Simply because such a siren is “a standard klaxon”, a “piercing sound and it does rattle over a long distance”, which is important because most barracks sprawl over large areas.
It works, so there’s no point in changing it, says Duffy.
These days it is electrical and triggered by a switch. Setting it off on Fridays is one of the tasks of the barracks’ foreman, Jim Halpin, a civilian who has worked there since the late 1970s.
It could also be activated by soldiers keeping watch at the barracks, if something were to happen that they judged a threat to the military installation.
There needs to be a “direct threat” to a barracks for the alarm there to sound, he said.
Are They Necessary?
There have only ever been two instances in Dublin since the creation of the Irish Free State when one of these sirens has been used for real.
The second time was one May Day some years ago following a “reclaim the streets” event, when it was feared people would “run amok” in the barracks, Duffy said. (He was unclear, but it might have been the 2002 riots.)
The limited use begs the question of whether the sirens are really needed.
They definitely are, according to Paul O’Brien, a military historian with the Office of Public Works. “A barracks holds ammunition, guns, tanks, the whole lot”, which all need protection in case of attack, he says.
Mick Duffy, the quartermaster at the Cathal Brugha Barracks, said he isn’t sure how far the sound of the test general alarm carries.
He thinks it can be heard in Portobello and Rathmines, at least. Complaints are few, though, says Duffy.
That’s because it’s “so rare that you wouldn’t even notice it … it kind of probably mixes in with other sounds”, he says. He also says the barracks has a “very good working relationship with our neighbours”, which helps.
Duffy’s right that few in the area notice the siren on Fridays.
On Friday, workers of nearby coffee shop Wall & Keogh, on Richmond Street, said they had never noticed it.
Nor had Adrian Kenny, despite living locally for 36 years, and often being home at noon on Fridays.
Kenny knew the siren existed because of a neighbour, but thought it came from “a factory” or “a campanile inside the Grove Road gate”.
Paul Boland, who has worked in Christy Bird antique shop on Richmond Streeet for 25 years said he thought the siren came from the old “Eveready factory, to do with lunch time”.
He hasn’t thought about it much and it doesn’t bother him, though, he said. If anything, Boland said he finds the sound kind of reassuring.