She was a nurse during the Troubles and spearheaded Aids awareness here, now Norah Humphreys has written her first novel at 79
After a life packed with drama, Lisburn grandmother Norah Humphreys has fulfilled a childhood ambition to pen an action-packed tale. By Stephanie Bell
Norah Humphreys is proof that it is never too late to follow your dreams. Now in her 80th year, the inspirational Lisburn woman has just become a published author.
Ever since she was a little girl Norah had wanted to write a book, but it wasn't until three years ago with retirement and the luxury of time on her hands that she finally got the chance to fulfil her lifelong ambition.
Now, her first novel No Greater Love has just been published, with a sequel already finished and a third book in the planning.
Drawing on her own rich life experiences of living through the Blitz and nursing during the Troubles, Norah's novel follows the life of a young boy from the age of nine through 60 years of violence, death and incredible human courage during the terrors of World War II and the Northern Ireland conflict.
It is a powerful story of love, betrayal and tragedy, yet one of hope and the ultimate power of forgiveness.
The unassuming grandmother only ever wanted to write a book and has been taken unawares by the celebrity that comes with being a published author.
A naturally private person who was brought up in a generation when it was not the done thing to push yourself forward, Norah is struggling to get through the inevitable media interviews and book signings.
Given the choice she'd much rather be locked in her study working on her third novel.
"That's probably my main regret about not writing when I was younger," she admits. "My advice to anyone who wants to write a book is not to leave it as long as I have as I am finding all the marketing quite tough.
"I'd no idea about the promotion involved and I think if I'd been younger I might have coped with this side of it better."
It was just last month when Norah had her book in her hands for the first time. Having waited so long to become an author she is still a little stunned that it has actually happened.
She says: "People keep saying to me you must be excited but strangely I'm not. It feels a bit unreal. Maybe if I see it on the shelf in the bookshop then it will finally hit me."
Norah has enjoyed a varied and interesting life. Married to Ian (77), a retired civil servant, she has two grown-up children, Malcolm (53), who runs a guest-house, and Jane (47), who has her own customer care services business. Norah also has six grandchildren.
She worked as a nurse during the Troubles and later trained as a nursing tutor who was given the responsibility of pioneering Aids awareness in the health service.
She has also battled serious illness herself, including tuberculosis and spinal surgery, as well as thyroid cancer when she was 59. Today she feels fortunate to be enjoying good health in her retirement.
Born in 1935, she was the second youngest in a family of seven who grew up in Banbridge.
The family moved to the outskirts of Lisburn in 1939 and Norah has lived there ever since. Her mum Ellen Jane, who lived until she was 97, instilled in Norah a love of reading and the desire to become a novelist.
She recalls: "Because of my mother you were sure to get a book for Christmas and your birthday. She was an avid reader all of her life and bought us all the classics – Charles Dickens, the Brontes and George Eliot.
"From I was very young I wanted to write a book but as with most people, life gets in the way. You have to work to make a living, and then there's raising a family too. You just don't have time.
"My mum did try to get us educated well and she did the best she could for us but money was tight and I left school when I was 14."
Norah went to Lisburn Technical College at night to study secretarial skills and worked for a time as a bookkeeper and shorthand typist.
As well as writing a book, Norah had always nurtured a dream of becoming a nurse and at 21 went back to college to retrain. She says: "In those days there wasn't much choice of careers for girls – it was either teaching or nursing and I didn't fancy teaching."
She trained in Lurgan and Portadown hospitals and worked as a staff nurse in the Lagan Valley Hospital at Lisburn for many years before going to the University of Ulster at Magee in Londonderry to train as a nurse tutor.
After qualifying she worked in the Belfast Southern Group School of Nursing which was responsible for nurse education in Belfast City Hospital, Musgrave Park and Lagan Valley Hospital.
With the onset of the Aids epidemic in the Eighties, there was a great need for education to prevent its spread and Norah was appointed Aids co-coordinator for both the Eastern Health and Social Services Board and the Southern Health and Social Services Board.
Looking back of her career, she says: "Lisburn suffered quite a bit with bombs during the Troubles and when I worked in the Lagan Valley Hospital we had some dreadful casualties.
"I really enjoyed nursing and it was my manager who asked me if I'd be interested in going to Magee to become a tutor.
"I was 38 and shortly afterwards I was given the job of Aids co-coordinator.
"I loved those years. I was educating senior medical staff. My background wasn't their background, I had been just a nurse, but they were so very receptive to me, without exception.
"I also went to grammar schools to educate teachers on Aids awareness."
In the early years of the Aids scare many public misconceptions about how the disease could be spread was the main challenge facing Norah as an educator.
Princess Diana famously made the task easier when she held the hand of an Aids sufferer – a single act that went a long way to shattering the myth that the disease could be spread simply by touching someone.
Norah says: "I was battling those misconceptions and my message was that it was only through unsafe sex and blood that it could be transmitted."
Amazingly, alongside her demanding career in nursing, Norah and her husband ran a successful guest house in Lisburn. Overdale House is now run by her son Malcolm and his wife.
Norah finally retired at the age of 68 – still holding on to that ambition to write a novel. In 2011, she finally decided to give it a go. And talking to her brother about their memories of the Belfast Blitz during the Second World War proved the inspiration.
She says: "I got to the point that I felt I was wasting my days doing crosswords and reading newspapers. I thought I could be doing something more constructive with my time. I'd talked to my brother about our memories of the past and I just started from there. I remember the war well. I was eight when a Polish pilot crashed into a field beside us. My two brothers ran over to try and help him but the Spitfire went on fire and he lost his life.
"I remember during the Blitz my father wakening me and bringing me outside. You could see the Germans dropping flares over Belfast and it just lit up the night-time city skyline like daylight. It was mesmerising. It wasn't until you heard the drone of the aircraft and the sound of the bombs dropping that you felt fear."
Norah found that her story flowed from her pen. She disciplined herself to write two chapters a week, writing every night for four hours.
Her granddaughter Sasha then converted her work from paper onto computer at the weekends and in just nine months she had her first manuscript.
Then, she faced the challenge of getting her work accepted by a publisher, but unusually she didn't have long to wait. After approaching a local publisher who refused it on the grounds that it wasn't the style of book they specialised in, she sent her manuscript to Austin McAuley in London.
"I was sure they wouldn't be interested but then six weeks later I got a letter saying that they'd enjoyed the story and were offering me a contract," says Norah.
"I still feel a bit overawed by it all. When I got the book I was very pleased with it. It looks lovely – my grandson Tim helped me design the cover. My family are very pleased and my husband is proud and very supportive; they're more excited than me.
"I'd advise anyone not to leave it as long as I have. My granddaughter is 16 and says she would like to write and my advice is just to do it. If I can inspire even one person to do it before they reach 80 like me, then I'll have achieved something. Maybe if I'd started writing when I was young I could have published more books but I've no regrets.
"Maybe when I start to sign some books and sell a few it will finally feel real to me after all these years."
Norah adds: "I feel blessed to have good health and my husband values his health and we both know things could be so different."
No Greater Love by Norah Humphreys, published by Austin Macauley, £9.99