How a Belfast prisoner of war used Irish language to defy Japanese captors

Irishman’s Diary: Belfast GP Frank Murray’s diary used Irish to hide sensitive material

Frank Murray: kept a diary of his experiences as a   prisoner of war

Frank Murray: kept a diary of his experiences as a prisoner of war

 

The handwriting of doctors is proverbially illegible, at least to their patients. But when the Belfast GP Frank Murray kept a daily diary for a time in the 1940s, he had to take extra precautions to avoid it being understood by the wrong people. 

He was a Japanese prisoner of war and, among other things, had secret access to one of his captors’ radios, keeping inmates informed of developments in Europe. When his diary referred to such events as D-Day, therefore, he needed to disguise it with code.

Luckily, as a teenager, he had studied Irish in Donegal. He was also adept in Gaelic script, by then falling into disuse, even in Ireland (although, ironically, The Irish Times had just invested in the special typesetting equipment required for its new Irish-language columnist, Myles na gCopaleen, who before the war was over, would repay the investment by writing in English only).

Whenever Murray’s diary touched on sensitive subjects, it slipped into Irish, and old Gaelic characters. Hence the entry for June 8th, 1944: (as translated back into Roman script): “An 2adh araidh [the second front] must be a terrific affair”. Or for May 1st, 1945: “[T]á na gearoids buailte! [“The Jerries are beaten!”].

Murray writes of the Japanese: 'The ordinary people are good; the peasants are simple, kindly folk'

Or August 7th, 1945, when, emboldened by the war’s approaching end, Murray made a bilingual confession: “Oidhche indé chuaigh mé isteach insan seómra agus stole an radio” [“Last night I went into the room and stole the radio”].

The Irish code language is just one of many fascinating aspects of a website called thebelfastdoctor.info, on which the doctor’s son – astronomer Carl Murray – has archived the wartime writings.

They are on one level a love story. The diary was written in the form of daily letters to Frank’s fiancée, Eileen O’Kane, who he had met at a Gaeltacht dance. He was so besotted with her in his first year at Queen’s University that he neglected his studies and failed every exam.

She later broke it off, thinking him immature. But having enlisted as a British army lieutenant in 1939, posted first to India, he won her back with his early letters. They became engaged in 1941 before his appointment to command an ambulance unit in Malaya, and the fall of Singapore, made him a prisoner.

The diary is also a record of his deep Catholic faith. He sometimes attended three Masses a day, was depressed when deprived of religious rites, and once, taking part in a court martial, refused to swear on a “Protestant Bible”.

In other ways too, he made an unusual British soldier. He was a GAA enthusiast. He also secured a green-and-white-hooped kit for his unit’s soccer team, so they would look like his beloved Belfast Celtic.

And in general, he was “so very proud of being Irish” that he had a second front of his own at times, fighting for Ireland’s honour.

At a Christmas party in 1942, he noticed that the display of flags did not include an Irish Tricolour, so improvised one and hung it prominently: “There were many catcalls etc, but nobody dared touch my flag! […]. Somebody superimposed a small Red Hand to annoy me but I was charmed and wrote: ‘An lámh dearg uachtar’ [‘Up the Red Hand’, the ancient battle cry of the O’Neills] under it.”

Later, when English soldiers tried to remove the Tricolour, he “collared” them: “We had a wild melée over tables and chairs and I ended up with an Englishman tucked under each arm – it was a famous victory […] All in fun! Then I climbed up and removed the Union Jack!”

None of which was held against him at war’s end. In a joint British-American testimonial presented 75 years ago this week, the 350 POWs he had commanded praised his “quiet and indomitable struggle for our health and welfare in the face of obstructive and often vicious Japanese inhumanity”. It added: “Many of us would not be alive at this happy moment but for your care.”

There is relatively little in the diary about the harshness of his captors. But in a separate reflection, Murray writes of the Japanese: “The ordinary people are good; the peasants are simple, kindly folk, yet when they are taken in tow by the military clique they become vicious and cruel […] They accept [tyranny] because it is disguised as patriotism”.

The diary-letters had one of their desired effects. When Eileen read them after the war, it helped convince her to marry him, which she did in 1946.

He worked as a GP in Belfast until his surgery burned down in 1972. Thereafter, the couple lived Newcastle, Co Down, where Frank died in 1993.

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