heroes | 

New book reveals the army of teen medics who kept death toll down in Troubles-ravaged Derry

In his book Ghosts of Riots Past, author Jude Morrow lifts the lid on the heroic teenagers who saved lives on the streets of their city

Author Jude Morrow

Bloody Sunday

Jude Morrow's The Ghosts of Riots Past

Richard SullivanSunday World

A teenage army of medical volunteers kept the death toll down in Troubles ravaged Derry.

For the first time the largely unknown role played by members of the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps – a volunteer first aid and medical services organisation – who found themselves on Derry’s frontline has been told.

Made up largely of teenagers – mostly girls – aged as young as 15, they found themselves tending to people shot, tear gassed, beaten up as the Battle of the Bogside raged and as 13 citizens fell at the point of a paratrooper’s gun.

In his book Ghosts of Riots Past, author Jude Morrow lifts the lid on the heroic teenagers who saved lives on the streets of their city.

Kids who signed up to learn the basics of first aid found themselves playing the role of first responders as the Conflict erupted.

“They were kids, 15, 16, 17 years of age,” he told the Sunday World, “ it is a truly heroic story about a group of young people who risked their lives to help others. It’s remarkable.”

The Order of Malta, was founded in Jerusalem 1,000 years ago, with the Ambulance Corps brought to Ireland in 1938.

The intention was to provide first aid at public events – village fairs, the Oul Lammas Fair, church events – it was never intended to be operational in a war setting.

Yet Derry’s teenagers found themselves stitching bullet wounds, treating the victims of beatings and those suffering the effects of tear gas.

Jude Morrow's The Ghosts of Riots Past

“To put it in context it’s the Catholic church’s version of the Scouts or the Girl Guides, certainly not intended to provide frontline medical services.”

Ghosts of Riots Past is a novelisation of actual events. The central character is Martha who tells the true story of the Order’s volunteers.

“She is a fictional character but she is watching real life events and she is telling us what she can see.”

The book is based on interviews with volunteers, many of whom have never spoken about what they went through.

“They’ve never spoken about it, many of them not even to their families.” He said conditions were grim and supplies scarce.

“They were using needles and thread to stitch people’s wounds, they went out on to the streets every day.”

Volunteers set up and operated a series of first aid posts across the city, at a time when people were reluctant to go to hospital they were often the first line of defence when it came to treating injuries.

“People were afraid to go hospital in case they were arrested and interned.”

The volunteers themselves ran the risk of serious injury. Jude tells a story of teenage being in the face with a rubber bullet from a distance of less than four feet.

“She suffered a broken jaw, but had it not been for the fact she was wearing a gas mask because of tear gas, she is convinced she would have been killed.”

Another volunteer lay across the stricken body of a wounded man protecting him from further injury and probably saving his life. In pictures from the time of the Battle of the Bogside which raged for three days and from Bloody Sunday, the teenage volunteers can be seen on the frontline.

Bloody Sunday

Charlie Glen was a volunteer as Bloody Sunday raged. He features in the iconic picture of the late Bishop Edward Daly waving a white hankie as people try to carry dying teenager Jackie Duddy to safety.

“There he is, he’s the one wearing glasses with his medical bag over his shoulder, he’s still a member of the Order today, 55 years after he joined, ” said Jude.

He pointed out the Order made no distinction when it came to giving aid to those who needed.

“It didn’t matter who they were, they treated British soldiers, members of the RUC.”

He said an exhibition recording their actions and bravery is planned for the Bloody Sunday Museum in the New Year – a long overdue recognition of the teenage first aiders.

“I feel very privileged to have been able to speak to these people and hear their stories, the first time anyone has heard them.”

There are many reasons, he said, why their efforts have remained secret.

“There was no such things as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder back then, they had to deal with what they say and what they had to do, by themselves.

“And then there is their humility and their dedication to this city. This was something they had to do and they just did it.”

He said many he had spoken to, now in 70s and 80s remain members of the Order.

“When you ask them why they have never spoken, they just shrug their shoulders. But now their families are talking about it.

“They don’t see themselves as heroes, but I have no hesitation in calling them just that. There are many monuments and murals to people and organisations throughout the Troubles, its about time these people got similar recognition.”

• Ghosts of Riots Past by Jude Morrow is available now priced £11.99.

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