Kitty Rogan (104) reflects on a life at the frontline

Former nurse recalls an attack by the Black and Tans and a narrow escape in the Blitz

 Kitty Rogan, who celebrated her 104th birthday in July, pictured at home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Kitty Rogan, who celebrated her 104th birthday in July, pictured at home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

Kitty Rogan will get up this morning at 7.50 as usual, make her porridge and take a shower. Usually, she walks to morning Mass in Dalkey with the help of a walking frame, one she calls “my Mercedes”.

Today, however, the 104-year-old woman, who lives in her own semi-detached bungalow at the Sue Ryder centre in Dalkey, Co Dublin, will travel, instead, by Rolls Royce to Dundrum to open a shop for the charity.

Born in Mount Allen, Co Leitrim, on July 4th, 1912, she remembers the Black and Tans firing shots overhead as she and her siblings walked home from school.

Later, she served as a nurse with the British army in the second World War.

In her cosy bungalow, surrounded by memorabilia, family photographs and an eclectic collection of bone china, she graciously serves coffee, as she chats about her nursing career.

She came late to the vocation, she says, at 26, joking that she had been “bone idle at home until then”.

In 1938, she travelled to Dún Laoghaire with her sister Eileen. The journey from Euston station to the hospital in Kingston-on-Thames is a blur: “I must have been overwhelmed by it all. I trained as a state-registered nurse and midwife. It was a lovely place, we would go on picnics, we all had bicycles.”

Two years later, however, London faced “the Blitz”.

“You could hear the planes flying overhead. We went to the pictures one night – while there, the siren went. They wouldn’t allow us out until the all-clear went. So we had to spend the night in the cinema.

“When we went back to the hospital, hoping for a bit of sympathy, Sister told us to get into uniform and go on duty.”

North Africa nursing

Queen Alexandra

On arrival in Egypt she was stationed in Cairo before being stationed at a military hospital in Alexandria.

“The troops were transferred from ships to the hospital. The ward looked like Waterloo station to me – there were beds up the side, beds in the middle . . . We didn’t have modern equipment. We had a fish kettle in which we sterilised our instruments, boiled them up.”

However, Nurse Rogan loved Alexandria. “We were billeted along the sea front. We sometimes went to the officer’s club for afternoon tea or dances. Apart from the war, we had a lovely time.”

Nearly 80 years on, she remembers the sand storms and cement baths used to treat burns: “It was basic but it worked.”

From there, Nurse Rogan moved on to Italy, serving on an American hospital ship. “We were amazed at how well the American nurses were treated.”

In Italy she worked with nursing units in Genoa and Naples, and was there when King Umberto II was, briefly, returned to power.

Once the war was over, she left the nursing corps and returned to England, where she ended her career as matron at Barnes Hospital in west London.

Coming back to a civilian hospital was the biggest challenge of her career, she says.

Health recipe

Retiring in 1974, she returned to Ireland, living with her sister, Eileen in Eden Park, Sandycove. The two indulged their love of travel.

Sadly, Eileen died in 1996, aged 86, when Kitty moved into the Dalkey complex.

When she was 90 she had a hip replaced and was up and about the day after the operation.

“I’ve always had good health and I look after myself. If anything goes wrong I get it checked out.”

Blessed with good friends and an extended family that keeps in daily contact, she enjoy the measure of independence offered by Sue Ryder: “I go up to the main house for my dinner. Fantastic food and lovely staff – they are absolutely fabulous, I’ve never seen a frown.”

Besides her daily walk to Mass and the shops, she enjoys reading and watching films and television – Midsomer Murders and Fair City are her favourites.

“I have new glasses so I am reading a lot. I love detective novels, especially Ruth Rendell. ”

Comparing nursing today with her time, she is diplomatic towards both eras: “There was a huge emphasis on washing hands. Patients are probably better-off now because they are encouraged to get up and move about. How they didn’t get clots in my time, I’ll never know.

Reflecting on her childhood, she says: “In ways, we were privileged. It was a lovely free kind of time, a simple time. Everyone shared, neighbours would send over butter. When they killed a pig they’d send some part of it.

The reasons for her longevity are simple: keeping fit and active and having a positive outlook.

“I didn’t think that I’d ever live to this age. I’ll have to be taken out and shot,” she jokes.