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The angels of mercy who faced horrors on the wards during Northern Ireland's Troubles

By Ivan Little

They're the unsung heroes of Northern Ireland's Troubles. For the unstinting and selfless dedication of countless nurses who without fear or favour tended tens of thousands of casualties - Protestants, Catholics, security forces members and terrorists - throughout decades of almost daily bombings and shootings is invariably forgotten in the narrative of the past.

Yet the nurses were often the ones whose skills meant the difference between life and death for victims of the conflict as they worked tirelessly to help medics through long hours of the day and night to cope with some of the worst injuries ever seen in civilian hospitals in supposedly civilised parts of the world.

But now a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary has recorded the experiences of the nurses at the sharp end, allowing them to talk about the nightmares they encountered after infamous atrocities like Omagh, Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday and the Abercorn, just a few of the names which are writ large in the annals of Ulster's agony.

The hour-long programme, Nurses on the Frontline, underlines how young teenage girls almost straight out of school in the Sixties and Seventies were thrown into sickening scenarios of slaughter for which their training hadn't prepared them.

And because more experienced nurses were needed elsewhere, the new recruits would regularly be given the harrowing job of maintaining vigils by the bedsides of patients who were dying.

Some of the nurses' stories in the documentary are not for the faint-hearted and for some, the revisiting of the past is clearly too much to bear.

The memories of the victims are still deeply engrained in the consciousness of a number of nurses. One still carries pictures of two policemen who died after a bombing in Londonderry and in the programme several nurses are reunited with the people they helped.

There's also talk of the horrific sights and smells of the aftermath of terrorist attacks and one nurse recalls how she collected body parts after a bombing and put them on a trolley thinking, "That is someone there".

Nurses also relate how injured perpetrators of violence and their victims would sometimes be in beds opposite each other as a result of "a war which was the width of a brick away" in the Royal Victoria Hospital, where republican paramilitaries would hold sway at the front door and loyalists at the back.

One nurse says that six people were killed within the precincts of the Royal, four by the IRA and two by the Army, while at the Mater Hospital, nurses tell the documentary-makers of the chaos and fear that followed the 1976 murder by loyalists of republican leader Maire Drumm, one of the few victims mentioned by name in the programme.

In the corridors outside the wards and operating theatres of major hospitals, it wasn't uncommon for paramilitaries to stand guard as the medical teams treated their terrorist allies inside.

And police and soldiers who provided protection for their wounded colleagues became targets themselves.

But away from the hospitals, too, community nurses often had to talk their way through barricades in order to see patients they were treating in their homes, diplomatic roles which weren't in any medical manuals.

Yet it wasn't until the Troubles were almost over that any nurses were ever offered counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which hadn't previously entered the glossary of the Troubles.

By then, many of the more seasoned veterans had developed their own ways of dealing with the stresses of what they'd seen and what they'd had to do.

And it usually amounted to no more than a coffee and a chat with colleagues in their nurses' homes after their shifts had ended.

But the programme also reveals how nurses, like doctors, became experts in dealing with trauma, making unprecedented advances in medical care, largely because of the almost infinite range of injuries which they saw in their casualty units. The nurses who talk in the documentary are among more than 100 men and women who wrote their stories for a book produced by the Royal College of Nursing last year.

The introduction to Nurses' Voices from the Northern Ireland Troubles said the worst of times had brought out the best in people, who showed patience, determination, fortitude and courage in their jobs.

'I whispered to a soldier as he died...and also tended to dying terrorist'

Jean Garland looks back at her early days as a student nurse in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital with a mixture of incredulity and pride.

The "normality" of life inside the hospital was helping a constant succession of patients who'd been injured in bombings and shootings, the noise of which were the soundtrack of her life outside as well because she lived in a nurses' home in the area with soldiers on the roof.

There were times she couldn't sleep because of all the commotion. At other times, sleep simply wasn't an option as she and her colleagues had to work round the clock to save lives.

But there were other times that she and the rest of the medical teams could do nothing, like the time a young black soldier was brought into her recovery room in 1972.

"I was told that he wasn't going to live and that I should stay with him until he died. I tried to make him as comfortable as possible and I cleaned the dust from his eyes and his face. I talked to him and whispered in his ear until he died to make him feel he wasn't alone."

Not long afterwards, Jean had to go to the assistance of a dying bomber. He was severely burnt by his own device.

"The smelling of his burning flesh stayed with me for a very long time. I still get flashbacks, even now over 40 years later," says Jean, who takes pride in the care that was delivered to everyone in the Royal.

"We were quite proud of ourselves in that we were all in it together. We were almost like a student army."

‘There was nothing I could do for this dying girl except sit with her to the end’

Horace Reid is still haunted by the pretty face of the young woman who lay on the hospital trolley in front of him 42 years ago - he says she looked like she was asleep. But, in fact, the teenage girl was dying - the victim of a sectarian shooting in south Belfast.

"A doctor told me there was nothing that could be done for her and that I should just stay with her," says Horace

"It wasn't a nurse-patient relationship. It was a human being to human being relationship.

"There were just the two of us and we were on a journey which was going to be a short journey for one of us.

"I know that four or five nurses in the documentary had the same experiences and I tell you, you don't forget that.

"I had a girlfriend of the same age and standing there thinking that someone had decided to blow this young girl away was appalling. It was a terrible waste."

It's an all-too-clear personal memory but Horace has built up a permanent physical archive about the impact of the Troubles on the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, too.

Three weeks after starting work in 1971 as a nurse in the Royal, Horace started to put newspaper cuttings, photographs and recordings in a shoebox.

His collection is in big demand nowadays and he was credited as an archivist on the BBC documentary during which he is re-united with one man to whom he tended during the Troubles.

Most of Horace's memories of the really bad times at the Royal are from his early days.

"I saw some gruesome things and there was nothing to prepare us for them.

"It was a quick learning curve but after the initial shocks, I think we got a pretty thick skin."

'Some people think all the pain and distress is over'

Mental health nurse Sean Collins was keeping goals for his hospital football team in a game in his hometown of Omagh when he heard the bomb going off and saw the smoke rising above Lower Market Street in August 1998.

Initially he and his colleagues thought the area around the bomb would have been cleared and everything would have been fine.

But it wasn't long before word filtered through that there were major casualties and the game was abandoned with Sean and a number of his team-mates heading to the hospital to offer their assistance.

"I became what I could only describe as a traffic warden," says Sean. "I tried to keep a corridor clear for trollies which were bringing patients from A&E to the theatres and to the wards or to helicopters to fly them to other hospitals."

But what Sean remembers most about that frightening day is how a member of the domestic staff mopped up the floors of the hospital for hours and hours on end, fighting an almost impossible battle to keep the area clean from the obvious aftermath of the bloody attack.

Sean, who began nursing in 1981, worked in a trauma team in Omagh after the bombing. But he believes the legacy of the Troubles will be long lasting.

"Unfortunately, some people seem to think that the Troubles are over and so all the pain and distress should be finished. But sometimes people only get worse.

"If I could devise a system to remove bad memories I would be rich beyond compare. All you can help people with is to learn to live with their memories in the hope that the memories will not cause as much distress.

"When people talk about it all, they get upset so they think it's better not to talk. But the more you try to avoid something the opposite happens and you think even more about it."

'I covered the corpses with sheets ripped off a bed'

Theatre nurse Ursula Clifford used her elderly aunt as a human shield on Bloody Sunday so that she could help the casualties of the Parachute Regiment's bullets.

"I put her in front of me because I figured the soldiers wouldn't shoot an old lady," says 74-year-old Ursula who started work in Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry on the day it opened in 1960.

"So I went out behind her from her flat in the Bogside with blankets and sheets I'd ripped off a bed to cover the corpses."

Ursula who gave evidence to the Saville Inquiry, says: "The old nursing philosophy of preserving people's dignity had hit me and I wanted to put something over the bodies."

As she attended to the injured, Ursula repeatedly shouted at the soldiers about why they'd opened fire on the Civil Rights march, but she says they just looked at her in silence.

However her major priority was to get the wounded to hospital. "I got into the front of an ambulance because there were so many people in the back even on the floor. I worked all night," says Ursula who went on to become the theatre manager at Altnagelvin.

She says that the lessons learnt through other terrorist incidents like Ballykelly and Greysteel in the Troubles helped the hospital become a world leader in coping with major traumas.

  • Nurses on the Frontline will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday at 9pm

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