Margaret Wilson outside her home in Belturbet.

Memories of a war evacuee

Let the busy world be hushed, column by Fr Jason Murphy

She sits quietly in the living room of The Gate Lodge of what was Erne Hill House on the outskirts of Belturbet listening to the toll of Big Ben on the BBC marking yet another Armistice Day. The news tells of women and children fleeing on foot to seek refuge from the bombardment of missiles in the Middle East. On the wall hangs an old photo of two brothers shaking hands, one taking leave of the other as he heads off to the trenches of Northern France in 1914. The two men, her uncles, Wilson brothers from the townland of Kilnalack on the shores of Annagh lake. On this Remembrance Sunday, she points to Willie who survived the war and emigrated to America thereafter.

She is now in her 91st year though she still walks the half a mile or so to mass each morning in a sky blue wool coat, red beret, scarf and matching shoes. As the bell tolls on the radio, she remembers a time that she too had to flee war with her family just like the women and children of Gaza today.

Born in 1933 in the West Sussex town of Haywards Heath, she was youngest of two children born to James Wilson, a brother of John and Willie in the photograph, and Margaret Arundel a lady he met while working for an electrical company in the town of Falkirk in Sterlingshire in the late 1920s. He moved with his new wife on a rural electrification scheme to Sussex, where they bought a newly-built, semi-detached house on the outskirts of this market town.

She was but six years of age when the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced across the BBC Home Service: ‘This country is at war with Germany.’ Soon it was that Messrs Fryer and Sons builders were excavating the back garden of Wilson’s house and every other house along the street in preparation for the erection of the Anderson Shelters. The children in the playground at Mount St Joseph’s Convent school in Haywards Heath skipped around in circles singing not ‘ring a ring a rosie’ but a ditty they had learned, ‘Baldy Hitler said to me... if you want your gasmask free... you must join the ARP’ (Air Raid Precautions).

In the evening time, the family sat around their wireless set in the sitting room after their rationed tea behind the black out curtains her mother Margaret had made from material issued by the War Department. Sometimes a knock came to the door with the Air Raid Warden standing there to let them know that a chink of light through their curtains could be seen from the street as fear spread through the land of an air invasion by the German Luftwaffe.

Living in the one of the most exposed counties of England, her father James followed the war assiduously each evening on the news read out on the Home service with only the light of the Marconi wireless to illumine their anxious faces as they awaited the daily updates of Hilter’s sweeping occupation of the countries of Europe.

The young Margaret clearly remembers the foreboding sense of fear that came over her as the German planes flew over the roof of her house at night, knowing that their mission was to carry out bombing raids on the towns and cities of England, praying with her hands joined tightly that it wouldn’t be her town tonight. The warnings from the air raid sirens ring as clear to her today as then and the panic that then ensued as they tried to reach the Anderson shelter in their back garden, a place that was damp and cold - so much so that they preferred to shelter instead underneath the stairs in the hallway of their home.

The call came through to the school and over the wireless about the imminent evacuation of children from towns and cities to the relative safety of the countryside, separated for months and indeed years from their families. Given the exposure of the south of England, children there were among the first to be evacuated. Notices through the letter box told that Margaret and her older brother John would be among the first cohort of children to be sent to the farms of Sussex and beyond. Out of fear of separation, their parents made the difficult decision to leave behind their life, their home, their work and friends and to return to Ireland and James’ home county of Cavan to escape the War.

Their life in Ireland was worlds apart from that they had known in Sussex. They settled in a thatched cottage in the townland of Druminisclin outside Belturbet on the road to Castle Saunderson. Without running water or electricity, her mother swapped her electric iron and other electrical goods for an oven heated iron and a paraffin lamp to light their little home. Here, for the Wilson children, it was like stepping back in time as they collected water from the well and bought paraffin oil on the black market from Ernie Fosters at the cross.

They smuggled soap, tea, sugar and white flour from McIntyre’s travelling shop from across the border at Derrykerrib, a world away from the High Street they had known in the quaint English town of Haywards Heath. They crossed the bog to Drumlaney school with their neighbours, the McElgunns, as the teacher and the children marvelled at their English accents and their polite ways of going on as they settled into a rural way of life that they had hitherto not known.

It was a future unforeseen by their parents for their children as they settled in that south English town on the cusp of their lives and, within a few short years of their seeking refuge in Ireland, the children’s mother Margaret died of cancer and the life they had known far away o’er the Irish Sea became but a distant memory.

So as the bells toll on Remembrance Day, for some there is so much to remember as they recall, like Margaret Reynolds in her home these eighty years on, how her young life changed inexorably with the outbreak of the Second World War.


LET THE BUSY WORLD BE HUSHED: Silence reigns in this house of welcomes