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Voices From The Void

Derry women's World War One letters

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

My World War One letters were an unexpected treasure, brought to me from council vaults where I suspect they had lain undisturbed for more than half a century. Few people knew they existed. Including me. I’d been working closely with the Derry Museums department for the best part of a year, writing a piece of youth theatre based on the young men from the area who fought on the battlefields of Europe in British uniform. One aim was to create a safe space to have frank and badly needed dialogue on the issues that remained contentious a century later — identity, nationality, the hopelessness of young working-class men in areas where work is barely an aspiration, never mind a reality.

As the teenage actors in ill-fitting costumes and boots breathed life into these voices I had spirited from the void, they captured hearts and consciences across the country. On we went to the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines. They deservedly won the top UK Heritage Lottery award, this young troupe of soldiers and stretcher bearers, nurses and nuns, and wonderful singers.

But the nurses and nuns were small parts and always, the refrain that I felt as much as anyone, was — What about the women? The War Memorial in the Diamond in Derry city centre proclaims itself a tribute to the ‘men and women’ who died, though, in fact, only one woman’s name is included on its roll of honour — that of VAD nurse Laura Gailey.

My commission had been to tell the story of young men from two very different traditions in Northern Ireland fighting and dying side by side without knowing why. Now, with the box of letters, I was about to find the war stories of Derry’s women.

Around four thousand men from the Derry city area had volunteered. When they came home, physically and mentally damaged – if they came home at all – it must have been another burden on the already heavy shoulders of the women left to raise their families in a postwar recession. Many ex-soldiers, their health irreparably damaged, would die prematurely in the years after the war leaving their next of kin to fight for a war pension, challenging the time limits set for everything from inclusion on a public memorial to the erection of a military gravestone.

It is in the myriad of civic correspondence that these individual women’s stories come to life. They present a society in the grip of seismic change, where the enormity of war on such an unimaginable scale has been subsumed by pettiness of administration and parsimonious bureaucracy. There’s a sense of a total lack of cohesive leadership. The City Fathers of the UK are communicating furiously with each other to find out what best to do to publicly commemorate their dead. There are enquiries about the cost of materials. Debates about the appropriateness of design. Soldiers with bayonets, or guardian angels, like the gothic bronze St Michael proposed for soldier-poet Wilfred Owen’s home village? (‘We think it will suffice,’ they wrote to their Londonderry counterparts.) Demands, and final demands, from commissioned artists, alleging overdue payments.

Bereaved families can easily be drawn into the economics of morality. There are allusions to ‘donations’ of ten pounds, a huge sum for a fatherless family, though officially, no names were excluded on economic grounds. There was also, perhaps, an understandable reluctance to invest heavily in any public edifice, given the political instability of Ireland in the 1920s. One memo of May/June 1923 urges financial restraint: ‘Owing to the disturbed state of the country the committee would not risk erecting a Memorial which might be blown to pieces at any moment.’ Nonetheless, the War Memorial Committee took out newspaper advertisements calling for the submission of names for inclusion. Next came the official form, with its crisp instruction to write on the right-hand-side column only. A double line-space, double-column width is allocated for additional information about the dead. Many forms are completed in the most beautiful copperplate hand; other widows, and mothers, deprived of even the most elementary education, made a cross that an official labelled simply ‘her mark.’

I had never fully understood the symbolic analogy of the ‘purple pencil’ of the censor until I’d seen batches of these forms returned to the next of kin, with a curt ‘NO’ in purple capitals defacing the details of a life condensed into short sentences. The ‘no’ is inevitably accompanied by the query: ‘Has a pension been paid?’ Thankfully, it usually had.

TB, and influenza, claimed the life of many veterans. Annie Williamson’s application shows she had no doubt that her brother Lewis ‘died of heart failure due to wounds and shell shock.’ Similarly, Lousia (sp) Parkinson attributes her husband John’s death in 1919 to ‘gas poisoning in the stomach.’ I can only imagine, too, the pain of Catherine McGinley and Maggie Moore whose husbands survived the war only to die, mentally destroyed, behind the walls of Derry’s asylum in the 1920s. Shellshock was not yet a recognised medical condition.

Some letters are simpler and all the more poignant for it: a wavering hand that writes from a rural address, ‘I wish to let you have the names of our dear dead sons…’. It’s filed alongside polite and painstaking correspondence from Miss McCutcheon who is trying to get through to the bureaucrats that while they are recording one young man’s death, from her area, there were in fact three — two brothers, and their cousin who had a variation of the same combination of first names and the same surname. Not unusual at the time. Yet only one name appears on the cenotaph.

I sense a steely determination in the correspondence of Georgina Russell. As a woman who had spent four years nursing the wounded and the dying she is not about to be ignored when the Derry memorial is unveiled in 1923:

I was in England when war broke out. At Southampton I joined Queen Alexandra’s Nursing service and served with the forces as staff nurse and sister from April 1915 until August 1919. In memory of the many men and boys whom I saw lay down their lives for their country, I would like to be present…I appeal to you…for a place where I can see the unveiling...

But, no. Bureaucracy did not allow a space for a professional woman who had first-hand experience of the carnage. Were there simply too many self-styled and official VIPs? Or was Georgina Russell, like the wounded themselves, a living testament to the slaughter of thousands? The reply reads: ‘It has not been possible, to reserve a place for unattached women, and men who served.’ They did offer to send her a copy of the programme.

There was little joy, either, for Miss Houston of Derry who was working with the disabled and the destitute in the ‘oldest Sailor’s society’ at Dock Street in Belfast in 1927 — not a job for the faint-hearted. She is contacting the authorities, trying to get corroborative evidence for the life stories and service records of the men seeking refuge there. Nor was there any assistance for Miss McAdams who wanted to ensure that wreaths laid at the unveiling ceremony in Derry included one in memory of ex-service women. She was prepared to do this herself. She was refused permission. Why? ‘The British Legion token will necessarily include women, and men.’ Another woman correspondent who had asked that a wreath be laid, at her expense, was told that ‘we spent three pounds on one, which is enough for a wreath nowadays, as the big ones are a terrible nuisance.’

That’s the true wealth of these letters. Their writers’ voices travel through time, down the generations.

Lily O’Hagan now lives just a few streets away from the terrace house in Derry’s Rosemount where Lance Sergeant Thomas Young of the Royal Irish Rifles met and married her granny, Elizabeth Mooney, more than a century ago. Thomas loved the army. He drilled the local lads in the fields behind the estate, shared enthralling tales of his travels abroad. When World War One broke out, many of them enlisted. Not one came back. Nor did Thomas. Elizabeth, left with six children under eight, was ostracised by her community. She walked miles each day to find menial work, shops that would serve her. Lily’s mother left school for good on her eighth birthday to look after the family. But she was proud of her father’s legacy. His medals were handed on to his son and namesake, Thomas.

In January 1972, on Bloody Sunday, soldiers from the army his father had loved would shoot dead Thomas’s son John, and twelve other innocents. How does Lily come to terms with that?

‘It’s so ironic, so cruel…so sad. There’s the war memorial up in the Diamond with my grandfather’s name on it, and I’m standing there, and I’m looking down towards the Bogside and down there, there’s a memorial with John Young’s name on it. They’re facing each other. I often think of the two of them. Life lost. Young life. For nothing. At the end of the day’, she muses, ‘it’s about the people, isn’t it? Maybe the next generations will be able to make sense of it. For I can’t.’

Felicity McCall was a BBC radio and television news journalist covering twenty years of the Conflict in the north of Ireland. She is the author of more than twenty books, twelve plays for professional stage, and four screenplays.

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