An Irishman’s Diary on an Irish nurse in wartime
A Galway woman at the Battle of Normandy
“Throughout the war, Mary Morris kept a diary. It is a remarkable work. It was collected by the Imperial War Museum in London, which realised its significance but it lay in its vaults until now. “
Mary Morris’s desire to be a nurse led in only one direction – to Britain. At the age of 18 she passed the examination to train at Guy’s Hospital in London as a nurse probationer. The time of her arrival could hardly have been more ominous. It was August 1939. Within a few weeks, Britain was at war.
Her brother Michael emigrated to the United States, joined the US army and landed in Normandy on D-Day. He was among the US soldiers who liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Throughout the war, Mary Morris kept a diary. It is a remarkable work. It was collected by the Imperial War Museum in London, which realised its significance but it lay in its vaults until now.
Those on active duties in the services are not supposed to keep diaries lest they give vital information to the enemy if apprehended, but Mary Morris inherited her father’s rebellious streak and kept one anyway. She was a lucid observer of some of the most cataclysmic events in history.
A Very Private Diary – An Irish Nurse in Wartime is published this month to coincide with the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the start of the Battle of Normandy.
Mary Morris landed in Normandy on a troopship on June 18th, 12 days after D-Day.
She joined active service by enrolling in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserves, known as the QAs. She did so despite the strenuous objections of her matron, who wanted her to remain in civilian service, and her republican father, who had fought in the War of Independence against the British.
At one stage when she is home on leave, he rails against partition. Pithily, she recounts how her own experiences give her a sense of perspective. “I pointed out that HM Government have enough to worry about at present”.
On reaching the coastline of Normandy, she was confronted with an “astonishing sight. The girls squealed with amazement and terror. It was like Guy Fawkes night. There was the noise of aircraft and brilliant multi-coloured flares which the sailors call ‘flaming onions’ dropping from the sky.”
Tragically another hospital ship which sailed with them hit a mine and sank.
Morris had already lived through the terror of war before arriving in Normandy. One of her first assignments was to nurse soldiers returning from the beaches of Dunkirk. She even fell for one of them, Pierre, a handsome French officer and her brazen courtship almost cost her fledging career. During the Blitz, she narrowly escaped death when a German bomb fell on the Alexandra Hotel in London where she had been dining with Pierre.
Her diary cover the years between 1940 and 1946 from her time as a teenage ingénue to marriage, motherhood and the worldly wisdom that came from observing the worst of war’s horrors.
Having witnessed so much, she writes: “I feel quite ancient at times, have seen too much suffering yet would not want to have missed any of the life I have lived so far.”
Amidst the serious business of war, there is much levity too. Mary Morris loved to party and does not seem to lack for male admirers. Her diary entry for Christmas Day, 1944, reveals: “We danced and drank champagne until 5am. It was great fun.” She writes after two months in Normandy. “Met a crazy Irishman from Roscommon, a bomber pilot with the RAF. Paddy is a most unconventional character, a wild man of the bogs. He has all the traditional dislike of the Irish for the British yet like thousands of other Irishmen he has joined them in this fight against Hitler.”
Her diary contain insights into the Ireland of the time and the attitude of Allied soldiers to Irish neutrality. “There is remarkable little resentment or even comment on Ireland’s neutrality during this war . . . anyway there are so many Irishmen in the British services that most people have forgotten that they are volunteers and this is not their fight.”
Mary Morris married an officer four years her junior and settled down in England after the war. She had four children.
Mary Morris died in 1997, but her memory lives on in this diary skilfully edited by Carol Acton. The contribution of Irishmen from neutral Ireland to the Allied war effort remains under-reported; even more so the Irish women who served. This is a welcome addition to redressing that balance.