Murphy. Sullivan. Ryan. Reilly. Gallagher.
Chances are you have worked with a nurse with one of these very common Irish surnames, or perhaps you’ve worked with a Nora, Maeve, Kennedy, Reagan, or even a Kelly. Names like these generally don’t stand out from the crowd nowadays, but it wasn’t always so. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a name like Laoise (Lee-sha) O’Brien could have prevented an Irish woman from obtaining suitable employment in America as the NINA (No Irish Need Apply) sentiment was in full effect and helped to ignite long-standing discrimination against Irish immigrants in the United States.
My own name is wholly Irish, and I fit the stereotypical prototype of someone of Irish heritage with pale skin, red hair, and green eyes. Even my husband bears a wholly Irish name and stands among Irish descendants covered in freckles. Nevertheless, we’re very proud of our heritage and the struggles our ancestors overcame to not only get to America but to stay in America and make lives for themselves and their children. While our ancestries bear no notoriety among the many Irish that made their marks in the annals of American history, we always feel a sense of pride when we hear the music of our ancestral land or hoist the Irish flag beside that of the American flag at our home. Recently I found even more reason to be proud of my heritage and profession when I stumbled across a fascinating piece of Irish history that barely gets any recognition while researching topics for an article on World War I.
Officially, World War I started on July 28th, 1914, but the call to war came when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated on June 28th, 1914, in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia. Powerful fingers of blame were pointed at the leaders of many different countries, and eventually, the world became engulfed in what is known as The Great War. Many claim nothing was “great” about it other than the losses and devastation it caused. However, I see it from another angle and definition. I see the greatness that erupted through the relentless courage of those who fought, died, and cared for those on the front lines.
As Great Britain began to mobilize for war, so did Ireland, as the entire country was a part of the British empire at that time. As a result, men marched off to war to fight in the trenches in France and Belgium, on the high seas of the Atlantic, and in the unforgiving terrain of the Mediterranean, leaving their women to not only assume their positions in factories but also as caretakers of the ill and dying at home and on the frontlines.
Many Irish women, whether bound by patriotism or duty to their loved ones serving in the military, became nurses. Some served in QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service) or the Territorial Nursing Service as professional nurses, while others volunteered with the British Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance Service. Other organizations, such as the Women’s Legion, the Women’s Royal Air Force, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, all had Irish nurses within their ranks.
Among these institutions, approximately 2,000 women became a part of Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which nursed the wounded and dying in hospitals around the UK, Ireland, and even at the front. Many had hardly enough training to be considered nurses and frequently had inadequate supplies to perform their nursing duties. They were also directly put in harm’s way when traveling to their dispatches in the Mediterranean, as the threat of their ship being torpedoed by a German U-boat was omnipresent. If the thought of drowning in the ocean after being torpedoed wasn’t frightening enough, catching a disease like malaria or dysentery that ran rampant among those fighting, coupled with possible death from the near-constant shelling from enemy artillery, instilled even more fear.
The horrors they witnessed were some of the worst atrocities inflicted upon human beings that had ever been seen during war. Men were brought into field hospitals with bleeding and missing limbs, exposed brain matter, burns, bullet wounds, bayonet injuries, or the aftereffects of a mustard gas attack. Many suffered from “shell shock,” known today as PTSD, and were on the verge of, or had suffered a complete nervous collapse.
World War I was excruciating for the men who fought, but it was just as difficult for the nurses who cared for them after they were injured. It was commonplace for the women to hold their patients down on a makeshift operating table- sometimes a kitchen table taken from a home near the front- while doctors amputated infected and festering limbs of patients with little or no anesthetic. At times, the number of men who died on the wards exceeded the limits of the makeshift morgues, so the deceased were stacked atop one another outside of the hospitals to await burial in a land far from their homes. Yet, through it all, the nurses persevered as they walked through rivers of blood, tissue, and excrement while enduring nightmarish screams of pain and agony from their patients and lived in the vilest conditions without breaks or adequate rest until the war ended in 1918.
Approximately 43 Irish nurses perished during World War I, and another 13 died in 1919, the year after the war ended. Unfortunately, some of the decedent’s bodies were never recovered or sent home for a proper burial.
So today, if you lift a pint in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, raise it to the memory of all the Irish nurses who served during The Great War, as they deserve recognition for their contributions to the war effort after being forgotten for so long.
(Good health to you.)