My mother died earlier this year, so while her stories of growing up and making her way her in Ireland are still fresh, I thought I would write a few down. I hope you enjoy them.
We all know that the last 40 years or so have been a time of massive change throughout the world, not least because of technological change. The transformation of Ireland from insular island to outgoing European state has been no less spectacular in that time. Go back another 40 or 50 years beyond that, a time still in the living memory of many of our older citizens, equally great influences like the great depression, world war and the birth pains of the Free State itself were making their mark. Into this maelstrom, in 1929, my mother was born on a small farm in the Ox Mountains of Co. Sligo, right on the border with Mayo.
The middle child of three, they seem to have had an idyllic upbringing. My grandfather was obviously in love, for at some point the family moved to a farm near Coolaney, Co. Sligo, and family stories say that this was to be nearer to my grandmothers’ parents. Mum told stories of her father bringing back treats of penny sweets from market, then if there was a spare sweet left over after their division amongst the three of them, how he would make a big show of taking the remaining one for himself, only to slip it into the hand of that week’s favoured child later on. Of tall tales told by the adults gathered by the fire in the evening, bareback horse riding, of chasing corncrakes from the path of reaping machines and a host of others; some of which may make it to these pages in the future.
She told me that she found her vocation early in life when there was sickness in the household. I can’t remember which family member was ill, but it must have been serious for she described closed doors covered in blankets that were soaked in carbolic to stop the infection spreading. It was during this sickness that the care provided by the district nurse’s daily calls inspired her to become a nurse. Of course to do this, she needed qualifications, and since schooling stopped at a much earlier age than now, she had to work hard to get a scholarship for further education. This meant daily trips to Sligo town, by bus, train or cycling when possible. She tried hard to look put out when telling of the attentions given to her by a road mending crew every morning when she cycled to college, although secretly I think she was rather pleased to get their attention. They sang an old music hall song while she cycled past; Sweet Rosie O’Grady, but suitably modified to match her surname (Greer). Google tells me that this song was popularised by a 1943 movie that starred Betty Grable, so would have been current at the time. Community spirit was strong in the area, (it still is now), and in an era of post war rationing neighbours, family and friends were all involved in gathering together the long list of items, from the correct shoes to a rug for her bed, that were required on her enrolment for nurses training.
Mum (right) with her sister and brother
So, aged 17 she left home by pony and trap, making what must have been the longest journey of her life to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to start her training. I am constantly amazed at the journeys made by this generation. Their knowledge of what they were letting themselves into must have been minimal by comparison with that available to our globally connected world, and communication with home would have been by letter only. In addition to any fears she had about leaving her home, my mother’s inaugural trip to Belfast was made yet more exciting when, somewhere in the Clogher valley, the train derailed, fortunately at low speed, and with no injuries. I suppose that the war years had starved the track of resources and labour so maintenance had been minimal for far too long. A more superstitious person might have fled for home right there, but Mum seems only to have been preoccupied by the attentions of a couple of American soldiers on furlough to the home country after the war, who rescued her and her luggage as far the nearest road. Judging by the old pictures you should see hereabouts she was a pretty girl, but you may also sense a theme developing here. ;-)
Qualification portrait (Aged 21)
Nursing at Crawfordsburn
Belfast too was a whole new world, full of girls who were much more worldly wise than Mum. She was introduced to drink and smoking, and seems to have managed to date a good selection of the eligible young doctors of the time while working and studying for her exams. Her training coinsided with the birth of the NHS, and she worked with many of the consultants that helped set up the system here, and who’s pioneering work helped develop the treatments of today. People like Dr. Withers whose orthopaedic work had been so important to war casualties, and others whose names I have forgotten, like the doctor who walked to patients with his heavy lead box of radioactive materials, which he would apply directly to cancers. There were doctors who returned from Japanese POW camps, and places like the Ulster Hospital, which was just a cottage hospital when she first went there. Stories too of Belfast’s first ‘iron lung’, which no one knew how to operate on first installation. Above all, she made many friends among the nurses she worked with; friendships that lasted a lifetime, despite their practical jokes.
Not long after starting her training Mum was asked to retrieve some personal possessions for an elderly patient. You have to remember that back then many, many houses did not have indoor plumbing, so to deal with hygiene problems patients went to the wards via a bath house where they left everything in a locker. It had been week or so since this patient’s admission. On swinging the locker open Mum was engulfed in a visible swarm of fleas that had been starved of their regular blood supply. After decontamination, the bites were the subject of mirth for weeks.
On her first leave, armed with her first pay, she bought a Swiss watch at a jewellers in Sligo town which is now in the care of my niece. In Belfast, with rationing and a national drive to ‘export or die’, such things were unobtainable. On her return with this treasure, she soon found herself carrying contraband watches north after every visit home. By 26, she had passed her ward sisters exams; a very young age for this I am told. She specialised in child care and found herself working at Crawfordsburn house (now very grand appartments).
The Crawford family had moved out during the war to allow the big house to become a hospital, but were still living in one of the courtyard cottages and the estate still functioned as a farm. It seems that Mrs Crawford assumed the position of matchmaker for the young nurses, trying to pair them off with any eligible bachelors in the area. Luckily my father, who worked for an agricultural supplies firm made deliveries here. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.