A remarkable love story emerges from the attic

Rosheen Finnigan knew little of her father until she found her parents’ revealing love letters

In May 1938 a young Irish woman, Mary Moss, went to a party at a friend’s flat in north London and ended up meeting the man who would change her life. The party didn’t have enough glasses, and Moss went to the upstairs flat to borrow more. The door was opened by a young accountant, David Francis, who agreed to lend her the glasses on one condition: that he join the party too. She agreed.

What followed was a romance of such intensity that, more than 70 years later, it still takes the breath away. A month after their first meeting, 21-year-old Moss wrote to tell Francis that she “woke up this morning thinking about you. Last night had such lovely moments to add to the pattern you are making for me. I shall remember you with the melodramatic cigarette and an uncertain expression always, when more tangible moments are forgotten.”

In July 1939 they were married; their daughter, Rosheen, was born the following August.

The war that broke out just a few weeks after they married separated the couple, but their love for each other remained as passionate as ever until Francis's tragic death in 1943, aged just 25. Over the five years of their relationship, they wrote hundreds of letters to each other. These letters have now been gathered by their daughter, Rosheen Finnigan, and her husband, Cal, and published in a fascinating and deeply moving new book, Letters from the Suitcase: A Wartime Love Story. They reveal a part of Moss's life that she never mentioned to her family or many friends.


The letters show that the relationship was, from the start, physically as well as emotionally passionate

In fact, Finnigan only discovered the letters existed shortly before her mother’s death in Dublin in 2002. “I think she’d been going through her papers. She was in a reflective mood,” she says. “She gave me one with very little comment. She wouldn’t let me take any away, but then she did give me a couple.”

Moss, who married the Irish writer and academic Flann Campbell in 1947 and moved back to Ireland with him in the 1980s, never told her daughter much about her father or her tragically brief first marriage. But after her death, the suitcase full of letters shed new light on an extraordinary young couple.

From Dublin to London

Moss, born in Dublin to an Irish mother and an English father, moved to London when she was six. “My mother was very romantic about her Irish background,” says Finnigan. “She told me [her mother’s family] the Hartigans had been a racing family and at times they’d had money. But I think in my grandmother’s lifetime there wasn’t much money.” Moss wasn’t immune to exaggeration. “I remember her saying ‘I was conceived in Dublin during the 1916 rebellion,’ ” says her Irish nephew Rory Campbell, who spent a lot of time with Moss in her later years. Mary, however, was born in June 1917, over a year after the Rising. “This was a myth that suited her.”

Moss, a bright girl who won a scholarship to secondary school, seemed destined for Oxbridge but had to earn a living instead. She was passionately interested in politics. “The Spanish civil war influenced Mary very much, she told me,” says Rory. “She was very much involved in supporting the republican side ... I think she would have loved to go to Spain. She’d have loved to be on a barricade. But she was very young and she had these strong ties to home.”

She and Francis were both involved with the Communist Party, and their early letters, written when both were living in London, are full of references to selling the party's paper, the Daily Worker.

But politics wasn't the only thing that bonded the two strong-willed young people. They both loved films, and shared their views on everything from Pride and Prejudice (Laurence Olivier was "divine," according to Moss) to Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, although in April 1940, Moss complains that Francis's recent too-short letters "seem to have degenerated into film reviews".

“Their politics are there all the time and yet they do love the red lipstick and glamour of the films too,” says Finnigan.

And the letters show that the relationship was, from the start, physically as well as emotionally passionate. There was at least one pregnancy scare before their marriage, during which Moss kept Francis updated via letter (“I suppose you will be expecting a note from me giving the latest bulletin. Unfortunately thumbs still point down.”) They couldn’t marry without parental consent until Francis was 21, although both dismissed marriage as a bourgeois institution. Moss was unwilling, however, to go along with his suggestion of living together outside the bonds of matrimony, saying it would upset her parents too much.

The momentary disappointment about the sex disappeared completely when I saw its grumpy indignant face and perfectly shaped head and body"

Bletchley Park

In early 1939 Moss, who was working as a secretary in the Passport Office, was transferred to Bletchley Park. The place is now celebrated as the centre of wartime code-breaking, but to Mary it was a dull posting. “It’s all so terribly far from anything I consider important, and so overpopulated with quacking female and pompous male, that I can hardly breathe,” she wrote to Francis. She left the job six months later. “She never told anybody about [working at] Bletchley,” says Finnigan, who only discovered this when she read the letters. “My brother [the writer Christy Campbell] did military history at Oxford and she never told him.”

After war broke out Francis joined the navy and was posted to various coastal training centres and bases. The letters continued – both were naturally witty, evocative writers, as adept at conjuring up the coldness of a Skegness hut or a coveted Russian-red coat. The London Blitz began when she was pregnant, and the letters are full of references to the much-anticipated “Junior”, whom both were convinced would be a boy. Two days after Andrea Rosheen Francis arrived on August 31st, 1940, her father wrote, “The baby is beautiful too. The momentary disappointment about the sex disappeared completely when I saw its grumpy indignant face and perfectly shaped head and body. It’s certainly going to be some child.”

When Francis is far away, Moss keeps him constantly updated about the baby’s progress. For Finnigan, reading the tender, funny correspondence about her baby self “was the most wonderful thing”.


In 1940 Francis was transferred to Swansea. There he was joined by his wife and daughter, and they lived together as a family for nearly a year – the longest time they would all spend together – before a new posting in naval intelligence sent him first to Scotland and then out of the country to Madagascar and India. The letters continued to flow back and forth, although some now took weeks to arrive.

Throughout the years, unsurprisingly, there was sometimes tension between the couple. According to her family, Moss had a strong personality and, as her daughter says, “she lived on her emotions”. “She could be moody and fiery,” says Rory. “But she was also humorous. She could be very, very sweet.”

It’s clear from the letters that Francis was more than up to the challenge. “The great sadness is that my mother did have these black moods but my father could charm her out of those moods,” says Finnigan. “I think in the letters he’s so confident about himself that she can’t emotionally blackmail him.”

Instead they sparred with each other on paper, waiting for the end of the war when they and their daughter could be together.

Everybody wishes they'd asked their parents more. And that's the amazing thing about the letters"

That life never happened. Moss was still reeling from the death of her beloved brother Tom, whose ship was torpedoed in November 1942, when she received the terrible news that her husband had died in India. His mother, a Christian Scientist, had never vaccinated him against smallpox; he contracted the disease and died on May 28th, 1943. He was just 25.

“The one thing she did tell me was that when she heard the news of his death, she immediately went to a cinema and watched a film [in an attempt to] blot out the pain,” says Rory. She didn’t tell anyone about his death for several days. And for the rest of her life, she said very little about the young man whom she had loved, and who had loved her, with such intensity for five years.

Another life

After that shattering blow, Moss kept going. “She had a route out of blackness,” says Finnigan. She met a man who, she wrote to her sister-in-law, “seems to think that working in documentary films is what I was born for”. She went on to write and direct documentaries for the Central Office of Information under the Atlee government. “She was very successful in the 40s. She was one of only a handful of women directors,” says her daughter. She stopped making documentaries when her son was born in 1951, but she didn’t stop writing – she moved into advertising, where her friends and colleagues included Len Deighton. Later she would contribute to this newspaper and write a biography of the 19th-century novelist Lady Morgan.

And she had a happy second marriage. She and her second husband, Flann, retained a strong connection with Ireland. Rory remembers their London house as being "like walking into Ireland again: Irish books, The Irish Times on the table." But Moss saw herself as a Londoner.

“She said her nation was London,” says Rory. The move back to Dublin in the 1980s was Flann’s idea. Finnigan remembers her saying that the difference between her and Flann was that “he was the exile, but she was the immigrant who loved her new country.” She didn’t want to leave, but Flann won her over, and the couple enjoyed a lively social life in Dublin, where their friends included Anthony Cronin and Garrett FitzGerald.

After her second husband’s death in 1994, Moss stayed on in their house in Blackrock; although mentally sharp, she became physically frail. The suitcase full of vivid, funny letters, which had been taken across the Irish Sea, remained in the attic, until finally it opened and allowed Finnigan to see her parents properly for the first time. “Everybody wishes they’d asked their parents more,” says Finnigan. “And that’s the amazing thing about the letters. In a way I really wish there was a writer’s heaven and she was there and could look down and be pleased with me. I hope she would be pleased with me. I think she would be.”


David to Mary
January 22nd,1940

Mary, my darling,
It was so lovely getting a letter from you to hear that all was well, and that this temporary separation was not making you too unhappy. I'm glad Junior is behaving himself, the little bastard! ... My darling, all my waking hours contain some thought, some reflection back to you, wondering what you're doing, where you are, whether you're feeling happy or not. It's really miraculous how much one can be in love and it's even more wonderful to think we found each other so early and so young, so that the rest of our lives will be spent together in complete understanding and in the knowledge that we love each other dearly.

When this bleeding war’s over we’ll finish with separation and be together … Write to me quickly, because the receiving of letters is a thrilling thing, and when it’s from you it’s ecstasy.

Goodnight, my sweet darling Mary.
Your own,

Mary to David
October 22nd,1940

My darling,
No letter from you yet, but I suppose a batch will arrive together (I hope) … I have the whole house to myself now and have been doing the washing. The nights are still noisy and the Caledonian school has been hit again. Monotonous aim the Germans have. I will take the baby out in her carriage to post this letter and maybe walk around a bit as it is a lovely Autumn day, blue, brown and gold, with enough wind to excite, but benevolently warm.

I am knitting the baby a pair of socks; that’s apropos of nothing, but just to let you know.

I hope there will be a letter from you, before the day ends, to make it a good day.

Will all my stored up love, sweet David,


  • Letters from the Suitcase: A Wartime Love Story is published by Tinder Press