It was a time of black markets, rats, rain and mud — Europe's world war was only barely over — when three Irishmen stood in a field in Normandy in August 1945 as the advance party for an ambitious medical-logistical operation in north-western France.
One was an experienced Irish army officer, another was the writer Samuel Beckett and the third was a young Dublin doctor. They were there to build and run a hospital.
A year earlier, the town — St-Lô — had been almost completely destroyed in bombing raids that started on D-Day (June 6, 1944). The bombs were dropped not by the enemy, Germany, but by the allied forces coming to liberate France.
It was a disaster visited on much of Normandy. British and American planes dropped bombs across the region in a bid to dislodge the Germans who were waiting for them inland. Hundreds died in St-Lô, and in bigger towns like Caen it was thousands.
After the trio of Irishmen arrived as the advance party, there followed a stream of Irish nurses, doctors, surgeons, specialists, administrators, storekeepers and lab technicians. To these were added a chaplain, physiotherapist, radiographer, chemist, accountant, and mechanic.
Long before Bob Geldof told people in the 1980s 'Give us the money!’ appeals went out to 1940s Ireland for donations to run the hospital project. A temporary state lottery was started to collect funds. Storage space was donated to house the materials that were coming in and groups of volunteers spent evenings preparing packages.
A ton of jam and marmalade was donated.
The hospital began to take shape in France, from the Autumn of 1945, as a series of wooden huts. Prisoners of war were sent from a local camp to help out. Bathtubs were sourced from destroyed Paris apartments. Almost immediately there were queues of outpatients at the hospital from before daybreak.
Around sixty Irish Red Cross workers would arrive to keep the institution running. In the months to come there would be long stressful hours for the staff, warm relations with their French hosts and ultimately an experience that was to stay with many of them for years.
After almost a year and a half spent setting up and running the ‘Irish Hospital’, the Irish handed it over to the French and went home.
This documentary hears from historians, descendants of the Irish hospital workers and some of those whose families were cared for by the Irish health workers. It draws on archival material and visits the town today to see why, in a small Normandy town, people still turn out every year on St Patrick’s Day to remember the Irish Hospital of St-Lô.
Contributors include Phyllis Gaffney, Bernie McNamee, Nicole Harivel, Gerry Dukes, Conor Lovett and Pierre Lebehot.
For a detailed account of this piece of Irish history, see Phyllis Gaffney’s book, Healing Amid the Ruins, Dublin, A. & A. Farmer, 1999.
Narrated by Aidan O'Donnell
Produced by Aidan O’Donnell and Sarah Blake
Sound Supervision by Damian Chennells
Readings were by Donal O'Herlihy, Karl Quinn, Conor McKay, Joanne Ryan and Conor Lovett.
Translations were by Léa Minod and Julien Manuguerra-Patten.
First broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday 5th September, 1pm
Repeated on RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday 6th September, 7pm
The Hospital the Irish Shipped to France was funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the Television License Fee.
The audio of Bernie McNamee is courtesy of Ciara Gillan of Love.Audio.Stories. It originally featured in the podcast about Mary Frances Crowley called 'Women on Walls at the RCSI' in partnership with Accenture. This is a campaign that seeks to make women leaders visible through a series of commissioned portraits that will create a lasting cultural legacy for Ireland. The commission was managed by Business to Arts. For more, visit: www.accenture.com/womenonwalls
Thanks also to:
The staff at The Irish Red Cross, Jean Lascoux RIP, Anne-Marie Bissada, Archives départementales de la Manche, Dan Harvey, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Jean-Pierre Gilette, Jean-Claude François, Lucie Périer, Marie Carney, Matthew Kay, Nadège Néchadi, Ronan Hayes, Shane Lehane, RCSI, Ville de Saint-Lô, World Radio Paris.
Buiochas, les enfants de ’46 [Georges Guibet, Françoise Lenourichel, Cécile Poisson, Nicole Chevalier, Guy Lefèvre, Jacqueline Pierre, Michel Duval, Jean Malherbe, Patrick Sanson]
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries