James Connolly’s secretary and her UVF husband

The unlikely love story of Winnie Carney, founder member of Cumann na mBan in Belfast, and Somme veteran George McBride

 

When I opened the writing box that warm June evening, I found two pieces of paper inside. One was a brown envelope on which was written in shaky cursive script: George McBride, 3 Whitewell Parade, Whitewell Road, Belfast. My mother-in-law explained that it was her favourite old gentleman’s address. He had lived there for more than 50 years and spent the happiest 15 years of his life in that house with his wife. He had wanted my mother-in-law to have a record of where the box came from.

The second piece of paper was a cutting from an unidentifiable newspaper that had the headline, “UVF pioneer and Somme veteran dies”. The opening paragraph stated: “Somme veteran, George McBride, a member of the old UVF, who married James Connolly’s secretary, has died in the UVF Hospital, Belfast, aged 92”.

While I was struck by the incongruity of a UVF soldier marrying Connolly’s secretary, my mother-in-law was horrified that her friend’s age was incorrectly reported. “He was only 90!” was her response as I read aloud. I should point out that my mother-in-law had no knowledge of history and, in fact, studiously avoided discussing anything related to the past. I was sure she had never heard of James Connolly and the fact that the article stated that George’s wife had been Connolly’s secretary would have been of no relevance to her.

The obituary continued by describing Mr McBride’s war record and his wife’s role in the Easter Rising of 1916. It included the following paragraph: “Speaking from Dublin, Mr McBride’s niece, Mrs Mabel Farrell, said the marriage was a strange alliance for the time and although they argued politics incessantly, they loved each other very much.” My mother-in-law asked me if, when I had the time, I would try to write about George’s life. She wanted him to be remembered by more than an address on an old brown envelope. She knew only that he loved his wife very much, although he told her that many thought it was an unusual marriage. She was emphatic that the story should be told for the general public – people like her – to read.

In 1912 in Belfast lived 24-year-old Winifred Carney and 14-year-old George McBride; she of a Catholic, republican background, he of the Protestant, unionist tradition. Belfast was a regional industrial city much like those in the north of England, but it differed in that it was, at times, polarised by politics and religion. While Belfast prospered, sectarian tensions simmered below the surface and, at times, erupted into bloody conflict. Workers had flocked into the city during the prosperous times, changing the demographics and leading to Catholics becoming one-third of the population.

At the same time, the political scene was changing, as unionism, once led by landed southern Irish unionists, came to be dominated by the industrial leaders and workers of the Ulster region. When it became clear that Home Rule may become a reality, such unionists directed their energies into keeping Ireland in the union with Great Britain and ensuring that power over the industrialised north remained with Westminster.

In the same period, nationalism in Ireland was also becoming more uncompromising, and movements to strengthen cultural nationalism were growing. In March 1912, on the eve of the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill to parliament, the Protestant-dominated Belfast Corporation was emphasising the link between prosperity and the union with Great Britain. Despite economic vitality and industrial prowess, these ominous political developments led to an increasing anxiety pervading the streets of the city.

From this time forward Winnie and George found themselves intimately involved in all the dramatic major events of the decade: the formation of Cumann na mBan and the Young Citizen Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, the War of Independence and the partition of Ireland, the formation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

Despite these divisive events, Winnie and George met, fell in love and married. This is their story. In 2016 their medals were placed together in Belfast City Hall as a message of reconciliation. They belonged to Shankill Road man George McBride, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and a soldier in the 15th Battalion of the 36th Ulster Division which fought at the Somme; and Winifred Carney, a founding member of Belfast’s Cumann na mBan, secretary to James Connolly and his adjutant in the GPO during every minute of the Easter Rising.

Winnie and George: An Unlikely Union (Mercier Press) tells the story of their lives and their love.

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