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Catherine Gagneux from Orne is a member of our Normandy Ambassadors network. Back in 2020, the Honorary Consul of France in Ireland stumbled upon the moving history of the Irish Red Cross that came to Saint-Lô, in Manche, after D-Day. Let’s turn back the clock and dive into the show of solidarity!

The discovery

Catherine Cagneux, expatriée en Irlande

Catherine Gagneux moved to Ireland in 1995 but remains closely bound to Normandy, especially the Orne département. Domfront, Saint-Fraimbault… her Normandy roots date back several generations from her grandmother on her father’s side and her sister’s family tree goes back as far as a distant relative called Drollon…

The nature-loving Norman is always on the lookout for links between her adopted home and homeland and discovered the incredible story of the Irish Red Cross during the pandemic. “I was listening to the Irish national radio and stumbled upon a fantastic podcast about the Irish Hospital that opened in August 1945.” The story inspired Phyllis Gaffney’s book, Healing Amid The Ruins – The Irish Hospital in Saint-Lô.

A little context

Saint-Lô in central Manche was left a shell of its former self after D-Day. Like many other towns in Normandy, 85% of it was in ruins. The town’s many buildings didn’t stand a chance against the allied bombings, including the hospital on the banks of the Vire. “The residents were warned in advance so lots of them fled to the countryside or distant villages.”

Saint Lô

But with health centres in tatters and military hospitals dismantled, what could be done for the returning civilians after D-Day? During a trip to Manche a few months after D-Day, the Irish minister was moved by Saint-Lô’s misfortunes and offered his country’s help to supply equipment from Cherbourg port.

Natural solidarity

Equipment and volunteers: the Irish Red Cross put out the call and soon saw doctors, nurses and administrative staff put on a real show of solidarity. The mission: build a hospital across the pond. “It didn’t just happen overnight. A lot of volunteers used their resources and raised funds to transport the equipment and goods they needed,” says Catherine.

A boat set sail from Ireland in December 1945 with 12 doctors, 23 nurses and 7 administrative staff on board. 25 wooden huts with a hundred beds were built on Rue Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny to form the Irish Red Cross Hospital. Anyone who was wounded, sick or pregnant received free treatment there. It was inaugurated on April 7th 1946 and 180 Saint-Lô babies were born there that same year. 

An illustrious Irishman

Samuel Beckett

One of the administrative staff working at the hospital was a warehouse clerk, driver and translator called… Samuel Beckett. The same Samuel Beckett to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. The Waiting for Godot author wasn’t a household name back then and had just left the French Resistance. When he got back to Ireland, he decided to join his friend Dr Alan Thompson on the amicable adventure. He stayed there for 6 months: The Capital of The Ruins is a poem about his experience, written in Paris in June 1946 and published in the Irish Times.

The Capital of The Ruins

Vire will wind in other shadows 

Unborn through the bright ways tremble 

And the old mind ghost-forsaken 

Sink ingot its haves. 

 

Les méandres de la Vire charrieront d’autres ombres 

à venir qui vacillent encore dans la lumière des chemins 

et le vieux crâne vidé de ses spectres 

se noiera dans son propre chaos. 

What happened next?

The hospital stayed open until June 1956 and stood where you can now see Collège Pasteur. But the support of the Irish Red Cross, and free healthcare, ended in December 1946 when the French Red Cross took over the site. The Irish left Normandy in January 1947 and left Saint-Lô with a deep sense of gratitude.

Students replaced the sick in the huts in 1957. The Centre Hospitalier Mémorial France États-Unis de Saint-Lô opened a few miles away bearing a mosaic by the Normandy artist Fernand Léger. Another hospital, another story… 

Saint Lô Memorial

In the meantime, Catherine (you can find out more about her here) wants to delve deeper into the history and is looking for anyone who can tell her more about this time so dear to Saint-Lô. Who knows? She may even share the story in Ireland itself. “I spoke about it on local TV, it’s part of a national channel and they want to make a TV film or documentary about it…”

If you have any information about the Irish volunteers who came to Saint-Lô after D-Day, please contact Catherine Gagneux.

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