Belfast Telegraph

50 years on, first generation of Troubles nurses recall bullets, bombs and a lifetime of caring

By Rebecca Black

Dodging the deadly sniper on the roof, shimmying up drainpipes to avoid matron, and ensuring their tights were bright white were just some of the memories chuckled over by the Royal Victoria Hospital's nursing class of 1968 at their 50th anniversary reunion yesterday.

On December 28, 1967, 42 wide-eyed teenagers arrived at the hospital from across Ireland to become one of the first generations of Troubles nurses.

They immediately moved into The Beeches, a home for trainee nurses attached to the Royal, where they were under a strict curfew of 10pm, and only allowed one late pass per month.

The group started with the most basic of tasks, the sluice - emptying metal bedpans every morning. It had to be done in strict silence as the doctors did their rounds.

And they had to be pristinely turned out, as Jane Scott (68) from Portrush and Francis Dowds (68) from Belfast recalled.

"Matron inspected uniform every morning. She checked the length of the skirts and how white the tights were," they laughed.

"Some people used to dye them with tea, but if they were not white enough, we would be sent back to change."

Philippa Begley (68) from Portstewart added: "That was nursing in the good old days. There was great cameraderie, basic needs were really cared for, patients were washed and dressed properly, that personal hygiene was down to us."

Margaret Anderson (68), who moved to Belfast from Cavan to become a nurse, admitted climbing up the drainpipe to get back into The Beeches after missing the strictly enforced 10pm curfew.

"It was like a convent," she laughed.

Hazel Wright (68) from Ballyclare and Margaret Allen (68) from Ballymoney recalled wards stretching out to a long veranda that overlooked a swimming pool and tennis courts, where they took patients while they were recuperating.

Of the 42 who started, around a quarter did not finish the course, either pursuing a different career or leaving if they intended to wed - married women were not allowed to be student nurses at that time.

Olive Ashfields (68) from Clogher said she was lucky to be one of the first diabetics to be accepted for training.

"I was only accepted after I was assessed by a consultant. I knew of other hospitals who turned girls away for having diabetes," she said. "Back in those days diabetes management was more rigid, the insulin was not as flexible and you had to have three set mealtimes, that didn't lend itself to a career in nursing.

"You had to be very disciplined in terms of diet, and not smoking. I felt very privileged that they accepted me.

"One of the sisters was very supportive and got me disposable needles and syringes, whereas before I was having to boil mine every night. That made a big difference."

Barbara Clyde (68) from Garvagh remained at the Royal and ended up becoming one of the first MacMillan cancer care nurses at the hospital in the late 1990s.

"It made a big difference to help support the staff in caring for the patients. There have been a lot of advances since then," she said.

"People now talk about having cancer.

"Back then it was all hush, hush. People are much more open now."

But it was not all positive, and the reality of Belfast in the early Troubles led some of the group to emigrate.

Marilyn Lowe (67) from Belfast moved to Melbourne in 1972 after running in front of a gunman the year before. She recalled being a third year student working for 72 hours straight.

"As I ran across from the nurses station to the theatre, there was sniper fire," she said.

"A policeman was helping another policeman in through the doors and shouted: 'Get down'. That was one of my most extreme experiences. I ran across in front of the sniper, not realising.

"I finished training, spent a year staffing and then went to Australia."

Muriel Wilson (68) from Newry also left, moving to England shortly after qualifying, although she is now considering moving back.

"Newry was a lot more mixed, people lived side by side; Belfast was a very different experience," she said. "I remember Divis Flats being on fire, and people coming in with gunshot wounds and severe burns. When I saw the sniper on the canteen roof, that was it."

Fifty years may have passed but many who attended the reunion at Jury's in Belfast yesterday shared fond memories.

Olive added: "I still see the same faces as 50 years ago, I can still recognise everyone."

Belfast Telegraph

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