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Nurses recall horror of serving on front line in Troubles as class of 1979 reunites

Reunion of ‘angels’ who served on front line in Troubles

The trainee nurses from the 1979 intake
The trainee nurses from the 1979 intake
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Of all the days she spent as a young trainee nurse in Belfast during the Troubles, one sticks out more than any other for Tricia Douglas.

May 7, 1981 - the day IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was buried at Milltown Cemetery.

It's a day Tricia, who was 18 years old when she started out at the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, will never forget.

She was one of 80 who comprised the October 1979 Preliminary Training School (PTS), and over 50 of the former trainees got together recently to celebrate their 40-year reunion with a two-day retreat in Donegal.

"I always remember the day of Bobby Sands' burial," she said.

"We were meant to be on district but we were brought back in because it was too unsafe for us to be around west Belfast.

"There was a lot of rioting and we all witnessed a number of unfortunate cases, but there was one that I remember vividly.

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"A young fellow had been discharged at 11am with a patch over his eye because he'd damaged it in rioting, and then by 1pm he was back in hospital minus his arm, which had been lost during further rioting."

She added: "He was put on police guard and he had a blood transfusion and half an arm and an eye patch and I just wondered what on Earth was going to happen to him."

Tricia recalled how, back then, they had "no choice" but to live together in Musson House, since demolished, in the grounds of the hospital, where the firm friendships they made "have lasted a lifetime".

Some of the nurses at the reunion in Co Donegal
Some of the nurses at the reunion in Co Donegal

While they "laughed a lot" it wasn't all fun and frolics; there was a darker side to their three-year traineeship that included "death and dying, gunshot wounds and bomb blasts".

"We coped with whatever was thrown at us with a big smile and a calmness to manage the situation," said Tricia.

"We were taught how to cope and we all felt when we were reflecting together that we'd definitely gained a resilience that perhaps the generations that are coming through now don't have."

Tricia, who has three children - Luke (31), Clare (30) and Christian (28), and two grandchildren, Eli (8) and Lily (3) - said that although the Troubles were difficult their "youth, enthusiasm and excitement to become nurses is what shone through".

She added: "We were taught how to care for our patients with integrity, patience and respect.

"We learnt resilience for ourselves, compassion for our patients and a lifelong friendship with each other." The security threat meant that police and Army were regulars at the RVH and Tricia told how romance often blossomed between her colleagues and some of the officers, and "one or two married doctors as well".

The uniform they wore
The uniform they wore

Meanwhile, Tricia also revealed that her other half Nick (now aged 59), a medical rep from Belfast, proposed to her in the wards, although they didn't meet through work.

The couple, who have been married for 36 years, tied the knot on August 30, 1983.

Tricia's decision to become a nurse, and later a midwife, saw her following in the footsteps of her mother Nora, who was a nurse and a midwife at Belfast City Hospital.

After working in the Royal for another four years following her training, Tricia went off to become a midwife for five years. She then "became a mummy for a while" before later going into teaching.

But she admitted that travelling down memory lane with all the girls at the recent reunion was "fantastic" because "we all got along so well and it reminded us about how we all relied on each other back then". She added that they were joined by some of their colleagues from the Mater Hospital, who trained alongside them.

Tricia said that a debt of gratitude was owed to their colleague, Brigetta Kerlin, another PTS October 1979 nurse, for organising the reunion and she encouraged other nurses from back then to get in touch.

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