The life of Ita Lawton’s great aunt ‘Cissie’ Lecky was anything but a bed of roses. However, it’s Cissie’s award-winning work as a nurse during the First World War that Ita is understandably keen to focus on – especially because Cissie ended up concealing her heroism from her own family.
Born in Belturbet, Co. Cavan, Ireland, in 1887, it’s easy to see why Mary Teresa Lecky, later nicknamed Cissie, wanted to become a nurse: she was just 10 when she found her father dead in a field, while tuberculosis killed three of her eight siblings. Not only did these tragedies inspire her interest in the medical profession, but – as Ita points out – nursing was one of the few options available at the time that enabled women to bring in a good income for a struggling family.
“Her eldest sister became a nurse as well. They all had to work as there wasn’t a lot of income once her father died, the eldest breadwinner died of TB, and the next eldest brother was disgraced and ran off to join the British Army.”
However, it was expensive to send both Cissie and her sister to nursing college in Dublin, leading the pair and their mother to make lace at home to raise funds. Their sorry state of affairs led to an act of compassion that went down in family legend, which Ita was thrilled to confirm as fact.
“They were trying to make enough lace for Cissie and her sister to go to nursing college. They were using the light of a candle reflected in a bowl of water to make the light go further,” explains Ita. “A parish priest came along and said it was ridiculous, so he actually paid for Cissie to do her nursing training.”
Cissie’s training coincided with the outbreak of the First World War and, as a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Services, her service was meticulously documented.
“The National Archives has the documentation for the Queen Alexandra nurses. They keep all their service records, letters, reviews and references, and Cissie’s are incredible with all these comments about her work that you can see first-hand,” explains Ita.
After leaving Dublin she worked at the Third London General Hospital in Wandsworth, before heading to Pembroke Dock, Wales. Here she was awarded a medal after receiving a great deal of praise for her work over several years, including battling through the pneumonia she contracted in May 1917, and contending with the Spanish Flu epidemic that plagued the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers coming back from the trenches. “Why her commendation came about was her tireless work to keep the conditions spick and span, because they knew about dirt and infection.”
A blotchy newspaper article from her grandmother’s scrapbook about “a distinguished Belturbet lady” along with newspaper archives and Irish, UK and North American census records helped Ita flesh out Cissie’s life story – she married an American Protestant, and moved to Montreal and the USA. Although this woman who came from poverty enjoyed a comfortable life across the Atlantic, it was the union of Protestant and Catholic, rather than what she witnessed in hospital, that was the reason for her decades-long secrecy over her wartime experience.
“She was an Irish Catholic living in a very staunch, conservative, rich US Protestant family. She kept a lot of this quiet to the extent that she became known as ‘Maureen’, from Mary Teresa, on censuses,” Ita reveals. “So there was a generation she couldn’t have shared these things with, because questions would be asked about her origins.”