Irish nurses in wartime Britain: Mary Morris's diary

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Photographs of Mary Morris in military uniform (Courtesy of Kathy Lowe, private collection)
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Over a quarter of a million Irish men and women left Ireland for Britain between 1939 and 1945, some to do war work and others as volunteers for the British armed forces. Mary Morris was one of these, initially training as a nurse and then volunteering for the nursing branch of the British army.

Mary Morris's diary was deposited in the archive of the Imperial War Museum in London and was subsequently published in 2014. It is available in paperback and as an ebook. Mary Morris, A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime, edited by Carol Acton (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2014).


The Irish in Britain

Irish migration to Britain has a long history. From the nineteenth century, the Irish came to the country in large numbers and were one of the two most numerous groups of migrants — the other being the Jews from Eastern Europe who fled from persecution. A major 'push' factor of Irish migration in the nineteenth century was the Irish famine of the 1840s in which more than a million people died. During the famine and in its aftermath, over a million Irish men and women took the decision to emigrate. Most went to the United States, but some came to Britain.

By the 1931 census more than half a million Irish-born people were living in Britain. A stock idea of an Irish migrant in the early twentieth century was a 'Paddy' working on a construction site, but in fact the majority of Irish migrants in the twentieth century were women. Most arrived not as members of family groups but as young, single migrant workers. During the 1940s and 1950s, large numbers of Irish women like Mary Morris were recruited as student nurses. By 1951, 11 per cent of nurses and midwives in Britain were Irish.

Mary Morris’s diary

Morris arrived in Britain from Southern Ireland in 1939 when she was 18 years old to train as a nurse at Guy's—one of the large teaching hospitals in London. She kept a diary throughout the war.

In her diary, Morris dates the beginning of the 'real war' to 31 May 1940, when ambulances started to arrive at the Kent and Sussex hospital where she had been evacuated from Guy's in London. Here, Morris was ordered to the Casualty department, where she was astonished to see so many wet, dirty and injured people. She guessed that the soldiers among them were survivors from Dunkirk, an evacuation which successfully brought more than 338,000 troops and refugees from France to Britain. There were also civilians, including John, the captain of the Brighton Belle, a steamer which had once taken holiday-makers on pleasure trips but which John had taken to Dunkirk to evacuate troops. John told Morris that, on the return journey from Dunkirk, the Brighton Belle, had 'struck the wreck of a ship' 'and slowly sank.' 

In August 1940, Morris witnessed the Battle of Britain in the skies over Kent. She nursed Battle of Britain pilots 'most of them with burns'. She also nursed German prisoners-of-war, who had been captured after parachuting into Kent. They included Helmut, who is described in her diary as 'a typical blond Aryan German youth'. By October 1940, she was nursing victims of the London Blitz.

In June 1940, Morris nursed a Frenchman called Pierre and describes him in her diary as 'slim and dark, with beautiful brown eyes and masses of Gallic charm'. Pierre told her about his plans to remain in Britain and become a member of the Free French Army and invited her to dinner. Hospital rules forbade nurses from speaking to patients about anything other than their treatment – a rule that Morris broke regularly – and also ruled against nurses accepting invitations from patients. Despite this, Morris accepted Pierre's request, commenting in her diary, 'Pierre is charming. I shall go out with him'. Morris's meeting with Pierre did not go unnoticed. It was reported by senior nurses and she was reprimanded by the hospital Matron.

Morris went on several trips to London with Pierre, where they were caught up in air raids. The last entry in her diary for 1940 records a visit where she and Pierre witnessed the 'Second Great Fire of London' and its iconic symbol, the dome of St. Paul's, standing out against a background of smoke and flame. Morris continued to go out with Pierre from time to time until 1942, when he told her that he was returning to France to join his compatriots in the resistance movement there.

The term 'multinational' was not widely used in the 1940s, but Morris uses it on several occasions in her diary. In 1940, she wrote about a trip to London with Pierre, 'We mingled with the multi-national crowd in the West End for a couple of hours. There are many Polish and Czech soldiers here at present and the raucous voices of the Aussies are still recognisable'. Her presence as an Irishwoman, accompanied by a Frenchman, contributed to the multinational composition of this crowd. Morris wrote about 'a marvellous feeling of international camaraderie in London' and 'great friendliness'. In 1944, she became one of the thousands of Irish volunteers for the British armed forces, joining Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, the British Army's nursing branch. Posted to Normandy, Morris nursed casualties of the D-day landings and described her ward as a 'multi-national microcosm of a Europe at war'.

Morris's diary includes several comments on Irish volunteers in the British forces. In 1942, she wrote about an Irishman serving in the RAF who had all the 'traditional dislike of the Irish for the British', but even so had joined the fight against Hitler like thousands of other Irishmen and women. Morris's own decision to join the British army's nursing branch brought opposition from her father, who had fought against the British in the Easter uprising of 1916. Her father also opposed her marriage to a British army officer in 1946. She wrote, 'His Ireland versus England bitterness still goes on ... My father will never change now. He will want to fight the British until the day of his death, and all because of his dream of a United Ireland'.

When the war was over, Mary Morris—formerly Mary Mulry—settled with her husband in Britain.

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Mary Morris in nurse uniform (Courtesy of Kathy Lowe, private collection)

Migration to Britain during the Second World War: reasons and responses

The Second World War saw the most remarkable and large-scale migration of peoples to Britain in its history. Britain's population became more ethnically diverse than it had ever been before. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, refugees and war-workers arrived from the British Empire and Commonwealth, the United States and occupied Europe as well as from neutral countries like Southern Ireland. By the end of the war, there were also more than half a million German and Italian prisoners-of-war held in Britain. Mary's diary entries for 1940 record seeing a multinational community that included Australians and Czech and Polish soldiers and airmen. 

The migration of Irish men and women to Britain in the Second World War to do war-work was continuous with a long history of Irish men and women migrating to Britain for employment. Both 'push' and 'pull' factors brought them to the country. During the Second World War, 'push' factors were unemployment and/or low wages in Southern Ireland and 'pull' factors were plentiful employment and relatively higher wages in Britain. Another 'push' factor for Irish women who wanted to join the armed forces was the fact that they could not serve in the Irish forces, which were male-only, while roles in the British forces were available. Some men and women who volunteered to serve in the British forces record other 'pull' factors—including the desire for adventure and anti-Nazi convictions.

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Morris in military uniform (Courtesy of Kathy Lowe, private collection)
Responses to Irish migrants during the Second World War were generally more positive than in the pre- and post-war periods, particularly responses to volunteers for the British armed forces. People in Britain from all over the world who wore a military uniform—signalling that they were fighting with or alongside the British—were generally welcomed, and the Irish were no exception. Brendan Finucane—who was inevitably named 'Paddy' in the media—was a particularly popular figure in wartime as a leading fighter ace. When he was shot down in July 1942, 2,500 people attended his requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral. The Daily Mirror, reporting on the Paddy Finucane memorial fund, wrote that ‘Paddy Finucane is dead, but he lives and is loved in the memory of people all over the world’.

Publicity for Finucane rarely mentioned the fact that his father had fought against the British in Dublin during the Easter Uprising in 1916 when rebels against British rule in Ireland proclaimed an Irish republic and set up a provisional government. They were forced to surrender after four days and the British tried and executed their leaders. Mary Morris had dinner with Finucane in Farnborough in the summer of 1940. Her diary does not record how she met him but her father, like Finucane's, had fought against the British in the Easter Uprising (see Morris, A Very Private Diary, p. 26).

Post-war migration to Britain: recruitment schemes

In the aftermath of the war, the movement of Irish to Britain continued. Many Irish who had arrived to do war work stayed on and were joined by new emigrants from Ireland. Between 1945 and 1951, around 70,000 to 100,000 Irish arrived – most of them seeking work.

A 1946 Ministry of Labour scheme recruited Irish workers for British coal mines. The scheme was one of many government schemes to recruit labour in the context of an acute labour shortage in the immediate aftermath of the war. These schemes for solving the labour shortage favoured the recruitment of white Europeans over black and Asian people from the British Empire. The Royal Commission on Population, which reported in 1949, was explicit about the preference for white migrants, welcoming the possibility of migration from Europe, including Ireland. The Royal Commission dismissed the possibility of migration of black and Asian people from the British Empire in one sentence at a time when interracial marriages were widely feared and disapproved. This sentence was,  'Immigration on a large scale into a fully established society like ours could only be welcomed without reserve if the immigrants were of good human stock and were not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it'.

Discrimination in post-war Britain

The government wanted Irish workers as part of a solution to the labour shortage and actively recruited Irish to work in coal mines, but responses to Irish migrants from the British population were often anti-Irish. Some scholars who have written about Irish migration argue that discussion of racism in Britain has focused on racism against people of colour, and that the extent of anti-Irish racism has not been widely acknowledged. Most Irish migrants relied on renting accommodation from private landlords and landladies, but signs and advertisements for rented rooms often announced 'no coloureds, no Irish' (see: Murder in Notting Hill). Una Cooper who arrived in London from Dublin in 1954 initially rented a flat with her husband, but when they were evicted began a search for accommodation. She remembers the 'No coloureds or Irish' signs: 'It was Houses to let, Flats to let, Rooms to let, but every one of them "No coloureds or Irish need apply". So I thought I'll present myself at their doors. But when they'd hear my accent some of them would say, "It's gone".'

Black and Asian migrants to Britain had a similar experience of presenting themselves at the doors of rooms and houses advertised as 'to let', only to be told, 'It's gone'. And there were other experiences and circumstances that were shared by many white and non-white migrants. They included working in low-paid, low-status employment. Women who came from the West Indies migrated independently like Irish women, the majority coming to Britain not to join husbands, but as recruits to the British labour market, or in search of employment. Even so, some Irish women who came to work as nurses, like Mary Morris, were given access to higher status and pay than women from the West Indies who were concentrated in the lower grades of nursing as State Enrolled nurses. In contrast, Irish women usually trained as State Registered nurses—a role carrying higher pay and status. Irish migrants, like West Indian migrants, founded clubs, churches and community centres in Britain.

British responses to Irish migrants made few distinctions between those from the North and the South. The words 'No Irish' on the sign advertising rooms to let applied to all Irish even though many Protestants from Northern Ireland regarded themselves as British. Ireland had been partitioned into North and South in 1921 by an act of the British parliament with Southern Ireland becoming independent as the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland remaining a country within the United Kingdom. During the Second World War Southern Ireland was neutral while Northern Ireland was at war. It is interesting that during the Second World War there was considerable mixing in Britain between those who came from the North and the South, as well as between Protestants and Catholics from north of the border. A number of Irish record that this mixing strengthened their sense of being Irish. For example, Sam McAughtry, who had grown up in the Protestant Tiger's Bay area of Belfast in Northern Ireland and came to Britain to join the RAF, remembers wartime as a period of ‘warm discovery of my Irishness’ when he would ‘corner the owner of every Irish accent, North or South ... find out where in Ireland he came from and ... pull out the fags or buy beer and talk about home’.

Memories of war

The Irish contribution to the Allied war effort as war-workers and volunteers for the British armed forces was largely forgotten when the war was over. In the UK, the focus of national memories was on victory won by the British. In Southern Ireland, the government policy of neutrality enjoyed widespread popular support and was seen as successfully asserting independence from Britain and maintaining national unity. Within this version of Irish wartime history, there was no place for memories of Irish volunteers who had worn British uniform. But following the Irish peace process of the 1990s, there was a remaking of Irish national memories. In April 1995 John Burton, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) speaking at the Islandbridge National War Memorial paid tribute to those Irish people, North and South, who ‘volunteered to fight against Nazi tyranny in Europe, at least 10,000 of whom were killed while serving in British uniforms’. He said that ‘in recalling their bravery we are recalling a shared experience of Irish and British people … we remember a British part of the inheritance of all who live in Ireland’.

Image of Mary Morris not in uniform, (Courtesy of Kathy Lowe, private collection)


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Questions and Student Activities

Mary Morris's migration story offers students an opportunity to compare and contrast Irish wartime migration with other related migration stories and migration themes.

  • For example, how were the experiences of Irish wartime workers similar or different from the experiences of Irish migrants who arrived in England in earlier or later periods?

The source also offers opportunities to explore themes, such as war and religion.

  • How, for example, did the experience of Irish wartime workers in England compare and contrast with the experiences of other migrant workers who arrived to work in wartime Britain, i.e. from the Dominions, the West Indies and South Asia? Should the Second World War be seen as a turning point in the history of migration to Britain — why or why not?
  • In terms of religion, to what extent is it possible to argue that Catholicism informed anti-Irish sentiment in England? What other historical examples of discrimination against migrants on the basis of religion can we find on this website?