Centenarian remembers VE Day

As the UK and other nations recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of ‘Victory in Europe Day’ and the ending of the Second World War on the continent, residents across the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s (PCI) care homes were also commemorating the anniversary – including Margaret McKeague, who will soon turn 100 and served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, or the ‘VADs’ throughout the war.

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 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!”

VE Day was ‘unforgettable’ says Margaret

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.”

PCI Care Homes

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 ‘pining the cigar on Churchill’. Residents in Adelaide House in south Belfast and Sunnyside House in Bangor have written about their memories.