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Irish Women’s resistance during the second World War

Irish Women’s resistance during the second World War.

Irish women figure prominently, making up over 50 per cent of the Irish Resistance contingent in the second World War. Many Resistance groups dedicated themselves to helping Allied servicemen evade capture. The first evasion networks sprang up in 1940 and by 1944 a series of elaborate networks had been established across France.

Katherine Anne McCarthy also known as Sister Marie Laurence
One of the largest evasion groups was known as Musée de l’Homme. One of the group’s earliest members was Katherine Anne McCarthy, an Irish nursing sister from Cork. She had served previously as a nurse during the first World War and in 1940 she was serving as a nurse in the civilian hospital in Bethune.

During the fighting that raged across France in the summer of 1940, she found herself with several wounded British and French soldiers in her care. As these men recovered, she smuggled them out of the hospital and some of her earliest evaders made it through the lines to the beachhead at Dunkirk.

She later passed recovered patients on to one of the fledgling local Resistance groups and it was through this activity that she became involved with the wider work of the Musée de l’Homme movement. She was arrested at the Bethune hospital in June 1941.

At her trial she was condemned to death on the testimony of an informer. This sentence was commuted to deportation. During the next four years she was sent to various camps before being sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück in December 1944. Miraculously she survived and was evacuated by the Red Cross in April 1944.

Maureen Patricia O’Sullivan

MAY 1944. It is a few short weeks to D-Day. A young woman is stopped by German soldiers at a checkpoint near Limoges in France.

In the heart-stopping minutes that follow she contrives to chat to each soldier alone as they check her papers. She flirts outrageously and, as she cycles away, both Germans believe that they have secured a date for that evening.

According to her papers, this woman is a French citizen. In reality, the suitcase on her bicycle holds a wireless set. Only the soldiers know why they didn’t want to search it.

She is Patricia O’Sullivan, born in Dublin and, in 1944, working for the British government’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) with the Resistance in occupied France.

She used the noms de guerre Micheline and Josette, and narrowly escaped arrest, torture and death several times, using her guile and cunning, as with these soldiers at a German checkpoint.

Those who served in the SOE were awarded both British and French medals. Patricia O’Sullivan received both the Croix de Guerre and the MBE.

Paris honours Irish who fought, spied and died for France

The Irish College has unveiled a plaque to the 50 Irish who served France in second World War

Seventy years after they fought, spied, sabotaged and – in some cases – died for France, 50 Irish men and women, who worked for the French Resistance, were officially recognised for the first time, at a subdued but moving ceremony in the Irish College in Paris in October 2014.

Some 750 Irish people lived in France when the second World War started.

The plaque in the courtyard of the Irish College is dedicated to “Irish men and women who served the cause of the liberation of France”.

It was unveiled by Fiona McCarthy – whose great aunt, Katherine Anne McCarthy, also known as Sr Marie-Laurence, who helped 120 allied servicemen escape from German-occupied France – and Joe Linehan, whose third cousin Maureen Patricia O’Sullivan parachuted into occupied Limoges for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to work as a radio operator.

“These people made a moral choice,” Prof Murphy said. “They could have waved their Free State passports, mirrored the Irish government’s stance and said, ‘I’m not involved. I’m neutral.’ ”

The prevailing sentiment, expressed by Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s new Ambassador to Paris, was one of “very great humility” in the face of such courage. At least one man in the open-air audience cried as the names of the 50 resisters, three of whom were killed by the Nazis, were read out.

Jo Jewson (74) remembers Katherine McCarthy or “Auntie Katie” as reverend mother at Honan Convent in Cork after the war. Retired history teacher Ms Jewson regrets not having recognised earlier the magnitude of her aunt’s achievement and suffering. “When I was a history student at the University of London, I told her I had visited Berlin, and she recalled walking barefoot through Berlin when she was shifted from one camp to another.”

Her nieces say it’s a miracle Ms McCarthy survived. The Nazis had condemned her to death. She was eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she nearly starved, contracted typhus and was four times designated for the crematorium by the “huntsman” who selected women unfit for hard labour.

Maureen Patricia O’Sullivan was “a bit of a rebel” when she was recruited by the SOE, said Joe Linehan. She used the noms de guerre Micheline and Josette, and narrowly escaped arrest, torture and death by flirting with soldiers at a German checkpoint so they forgot to open the suitcase in which she carried a radio transmitter.

“I often ask myself, ‘what would I have done in her situation’?” Linehan said. “The answer is, you don’t know.”

More than half of the 50 Irish people honoured yesterday were women, compared to fewer than 10 per cent in the Resistance as a whole.

“As an Irish woman, I am particularly struck by the proportion of women among the Irish members of the Resistance,” Ms Byrne Nason said.

“There can be no surprise at the bravery of those women following in the greatest traditions of Mná na hÉireann. I revere them today as outstanding examples of independent-minded, intelligent women who went into action and risked everything for what was right.”

Irish women resisters were “well ahead of their time and of what their society expected of them; of what Ireland allowed of them,” Ms Byrne Nason continued. “To borrow a phrase from former president Mary Robinson, they didn’t just rock the cradle, they rocked the system.”

John Morgan, a lawyer from Dublin and a trustee of the Escape Lines Memorial Society, campaigned with David Murphy for recognition of Irish resisters. Five years ago, on a hike through the 1940s Pyrenees escape route, he met Nadine Dumont, a French woman who wept when she told Morgan about her Irish friend Catherine Crean, who died at Ravensbrück. Ms Crean’s name was among those read out yesterday.

“These stories of courage, resourcefulness, selflessness and self-sacrifice remind one of qualities we lack today,” said Mr Morgan. “Each story is more inspiring than the last. It’s quite addictive.”

French officials present included Emmanuelle d’Achon, who was ambassador to Dublin, Senator Hélène Conway-Mouret, who spent decades in Ireland, and Jean-Pierre Azéma, a historian of the second World War and president of the French commemorations committee.

Prof Azéma, who has attended numerous similar events, praised the solemnity of the Irish ceremony. “Politically, it’s understandable that the French and foreigners among them joined the fight against Nazism. What impresses me most is the personal and emotional resonance the period still has for people 70 years later.”