Belfast Telegraph

Incredible exploits of defiant Tyrone nurse during First World War to be told at last

By Brett Campbell

The remarkable story of a Co Tyrone nurse who tended wounded soldiers in France during the First World War, after setting up a hospital in defiance of British military chiefs, is finally set to be told by her proud granddaughter.

Genealogy and local history enthusiast Claire McElhinney (65) was inspired to put pen to paper after stumbling upon the extraordinary accomplishments of her late grandmother Edith Harkness.

"I spent five years researching my father's genealogy and when I exhausted that I started exploring my mother's family tree," said Claire, who lives in Omagh with her husband Jack. "I came across the most extraordinary things."

Edith was among the many medics who trained with the Ulster Volunteer Medical and Nursing Corps in preparation for possible civil war in Ireland, as a result of political crisis after the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912.

But when war broke out two years later, her offer to volunteer for active service was rejected by British military chiefs who didn't see a need for extra nurses.

Edith and other determined women chose instead to serve with the French and went on to found the Ulster Volunteer Hospital in south-western city of Pau. Edith was only 19 when she left her home in Plumbridge to nurse wounded allies.

The revelation led to her granddaughter Claire chronicling the discoveries she gleaned from public records and family heirlooms in the hope of rescuing the women from obscurity.

"I felt that she had been forgotten - I feel like that about all the women who nursed the war wounded," Claire said. "They all just returned home and faded back into society. Their story has never been told because nobody knows about what they did."

The team of dedicated medics set up a 50-bed ward in the Villa Beaupre. "The hospital moved to Lyon in 1916 where they had room for more than 80 beds and eventually closed within a year of the war ending due to lack of funding," Claire explained.

"My grandmother was moved to a large military hospital in Yorkshire where she served for another two years after the war - she came home, married and had eight children before she died in 1954.

"Her obituary never even mentioned the fact that she spent six years caring for injured and dying soldiers."

Mrs McElhinney believes the shock of her grandmother's sudden death from a brain haemorrhage may have prevented family members from talking about her. "She was only 61 when that happened," the mother-of-two said.

Tell Them of Us was produced in partnership with the Ulster-Scots Agency and is the latest in a series of projects focusing on Ulster and the Great War.

The agency's chief executive Ian Crozier expressed his pride in being able to help shine a light on the women who did "extraordinary things in extraordinary times".

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