While some of the 300-plus residents across PCI’s homes were children during the war, or born after it, Margaret McKeague, who lives in PCI’s newest home, Trinity House in Garvagh, was 19 when at the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939. That month she volunteered for the VADs, female civilians who worked alongside military nurses in hospitals caring for injured servicemen.
Born in May 1920, in the village of Culdaff in County Donegal, a year before partition, Margaret lived with her parents and 7 brothers and sisters on the Inishowen peninsula, before moving to London in her late teens to work for HM Customs & Revenue. Recalling why she volunteered she said, “I felt I had to do something. I would never have been ‘called up’ as I was in a reserved occupation, so I volunteered.”
Working in hospitals around Bristol, South Wales and Liverpool, she was given basic nursing training and looked after naval personal, “I felt I was doing something useful for the servicemen. They weren’t officers and they appreciated the comfortable conditions in the hospitals. They were very respectful to us and used to call me ‘Nurse Paddy’. I remember the Nursing Commandant told me not to let them be so familiar, telling the men my first name, but I explained it was only because they knew I was from Ireland. I managed quite well with the nursing duties, with only very basic training, and managed not to kill anyone!”
When it comes to VE Day itself, Margaret remembers it well, “I was in a hotel in Princes Street in Edinburgh for a short break with a friend who was also VAD. We heard a commotion and looked out of the hotel window and saw that the streets were lined with people, all jammed in, and on top of the cars. We got dressed quickly in our uniforms and joined the revellers outside. We danced the whole night up and down Princes Street. It was unforgettable.”
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Council for Social Witness has responsibility for the running of the denomination’s care homes. As part of the VE Day 75th anniversary commemorations many of the homes have been decorated, by the residents and staff, with different activities taking place.
“It goes without saying, that these are exceptionally difficult days for care homes, their residents and staff,” said Lindsay Conway, Director of PCI’s Council for Social Witness. “I can’t praise our teams enough for all that they are doing during this Coronavirus emergency, which has seen our staff go the extra mile in so many different ways to save lives and to keep everyone we care for safe.
“While our homes have been in lockdown for nearly eight weeks now, I hope that these celebrations, activities and parties for folk, who like Margaret and others served during the war, will provide a timely lift in these days. For everyone who has baked, put up bunting, organised tea parties and remembrance services, all within the current regulations, it is just another example of staff going that extra mile,” Mr Conway said.
In Trinity House, the home has been decorated with flags and memorabilia with a special focus on the Royal Air Force, in memory of a resident who passed away earlier this this year and had fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940. A ‘street party’ has been planned with a special menu, along with a short memorial service at which Margaret will read a prayer.
Residents in Aaron House, PCI’s residential home for people with profound learning and physical disability in Dundonald, have drawn pictures of doves of peace and will have a BBQ. Lawnfield House, a respite home in Newcastle, have already been treated to a piper who played outside in the garden. They also have other activities lined up including a special game of ‘pinning the cigar on Churchill’. Residents in Adelaide House in south Belfast and Sunnyside House in Bangor have written about their memories. Residents of Willow Brook, PCI's supported housing scheme in Coleraine for people with a learning disability took the opportunity to bake.
Photos (1) Donegal born Margaret McKeague, who turns 100 next week, holds a picture of herself in the uniform of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, which she volunteered for in 1939, serving throughout the war until 1945 (2) Jen, one of the residents of Aaron House in Dundonald with the dove of peace that she made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in Europe.
To mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr William Henry, joined the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Roman Catholic Church, and the Irish Council of Churches, in issuing a joint statement that reflects on how peace was won and how it ‘is still a costly, precious and fragile commodity…’
The Leaders of Ireland’s main churches concluded by saying ‘With God’s help may we together work to create and shape a better and more peaceful world where love and respect is at the centre of all our thinking.’ You can read the joint statement here.