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Belfast honours nurses: 'This is the first time I have felt safe walking in Belfast' says woman who fled Troubles

Nurse who left NI over Troubles back for ceremony honouring profession

By Rebecca Black

Published 26/05/2016

Lord Mayor Arder Carson with nurses at the Freedom of the City ceremony held in Belfast City Hall last night
Lord Mayor Arder Carson with nurses at the Freedom of the City ceremony held in Belfast City Hall last night

A former nurse has travelled all the way from the west coast of Canada to take part in a ceremony at Belfast City Hall to honour her profession.

Sheila Simpson, originally from Ballyheather in Co Tyrone, worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital during some of the worst days of the Troubles.

The horror of the loyalist bombing of McGurk's bar in Belfast in which 17 people - including two children - were killed, prompted her emigration.

"I started my training in Omagh and then moved to Belfast in 1970 when I was 19 to work at the Royal Victoria Hospital," Ms Simpson said.

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Nurses awarded Freedom of Belfast at City Hall

'I don't think we knew what we were taking on'

"I lived on the Antrim Road and cycled through all sorts across the city every day to get to work. I particularly remember the smell of the tyres on the army vehicles travelling around everywhere.

"I remember hearing the sounds of explosions going off across the city all the time. I remember the sound making patients go hysterical. One time I had to almost lie across a patient to keep him in bed, and I just kept telling him to rest, get himself better first before trying to help anyone, but it was after the McGurk's bar when I thought I cannot do this anymore, that was it. I went up to the Sister and said that is it."

Ms Simpson said visiting Belfast has been a revelation.

Lord Mayor Arder Carson pictured with Belfast Nurses at the Freedom of the City ceremony held in Belfast City Hall tonight (Wed 25 May)
He is pictured with Nurses Kathleen Robb (centre) and Fiona Devlin with framed scrolls marking the Freedom of the City being granted to Belfast nurses
Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Lord Mayor Arder Carson pictured with Belfast Nurses at the Freedom of the City ceremony held in Belfast City Hall tonight (Wed 25 May) He is pictured with Nurses Kathleen Robb (centre) and Fiona Devlin with framed scrolls marking the Freedom of the City being granted to Belfast nurses Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Lord Mayor Arder Carson signs the Honorary Burgess Book at the Freedom of the City of Belfast ceremony in Belfast City Hall. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Lord Mayor Arder Carson pictured with Belfast Nurses at the Freedom of the City ceremony held in Belfast City Hall on Wednesday night. Pictured left to right are: Shereena Donnley, Janet Taylor, Lord Mayor Arder Carson, Bernie McCrea, Joleen McKee, Emmeline Jude Kinglsey-Grace, Kathleen Robb, Fiona Devlin and Catherine Heart and Rosario Abello with framed scrolls marking the Freedom of the City being granted to Belfast nurses. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

"It is amazing walking the same streets and feeling safe. This is the first time I have felt safe in Belfast."

She said she believes she suffers PTSD from her experiences nursing in Belfast during the Troubles. "I now live on a little island off the coast of British Columbia, it is very peaceful. I moved here after first moving to New York," she said.

However, her memories came with her and she revealed one day as workmen carried out drilling on a road nearby, she panicked thinking it was a bomb and even alerted her neighbours. "I think back in the 1970s we were all in a sort of collective shock, and it was only years later people began to suffer the symptoms of PTSD," she said.

"It was constant back then, a sort of constant nightmare and you couldn't shut down at the end of the day because you were also living in it." Belfast City Council voted last December to award the freedom of Belfast to nurses.

Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh proposed the motion to "honour the contribution of our nurses to the lives of the citizens of Belfast".

"During the most difficult days of our conflict, our nurses cared for every citizen, regardless of circumstances or of religion or of political belief," he said then.

An exhibition has also opened at Belfast City Hall highlighting the work carried out by the nursing profession across the city down through the years.

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