When I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University many years ago, my grandfather Thomas McCreary wrote me many letters in beautiful copperplate handwriting.
He told me the latest news from my home village of Bessbrook in South Armagh, including all recent marriages, births and deaths. It was the days before cell phones and other social media, and I still cherish the fact that my grandfather took the time to keep me in touch that way.
Unfortunately, letter writing has become a lost art. To remember what we have lost, the power of such writing is exemplified by the recent publication of the book “Midnight Again – The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle”, published by Turtle Mackie of Mahee Island.
Helen, an American who lived on the island of Strangford Lough with her husband Lancelot Turtle and three young daughters, wrote elegantly and copiously to her family in Colorado during World War II and this very large collection of her letters offers a remarkable picture of life in Ulster during one of the most difficult and dangerous times in its history.
She offers unique insight into the background of major events, such as the Easter air raids by German bombers on Belfast in April 1941, and tells us that people in her area of the province knew very few details. on the immediate consequences of this blitz. – “It’s still the main topic of conversation wherever everyone is still comparing notes and adding tidbits of information – mostly rumors because it’s all as quiet as any official statement about damage, casualties, etc. .is given and we just have to put 2 and 2 together to get a composite picture and then nobody knows because it’s just rumors and gossip.
One of the strengths of Helen Turtle’s letters is to demonstrate how her family tried to live as normally as possible despite the war. After referencing the blitz, she wrote, “The Easter Bunny came through our big window and filled the (kids’) new party shoes with Easter eggs and some goodies. The Easter egg situation was serious because there are so few candies everywhere. »
On February 11, 1942, Helen described wartime rationing as follows; “The rare thing lately has been soap flakes. This makes virtually everything except rationed bread – most canned goods, barley, rice, semolina, etc. are on a “points” system with canned meat, canned fish, etc. Most people spend most of their day looking for food. We don’t because shopping in Comber, we take what we get.
An important dimension of his writing is astutely observed by the book’s editor, Professor John Wilson Foster, in his insightful afterword summary. He states: “…Helen’s letters totally discredit the portrayal of hell by the eminent Irish writer Sean O’Faolain impersonating Belfast in An Irish Journey (1940). On the strength of a fleeting visit, he writes of “the red factories and the gray buildings, and the cruelty with which all the general eruption of this stinking city has been allowed to spread… There is no aristocracy – no culture – no grace – no meaningful leisure It all boils down to mixed grills, double whiskeys, dividends, movies and those wandering, homeless, hate-motivated poor people.
Jack Foster points out firmly: “…Helen is a single woman who rejects this travesty. She omnivorously takes advantage of the plays, films, lectures, concerts and recitals, magazines and journals (including London’s progressive literary journal Horizon as well as her beloved New Yorker) on offer in Belfast.
If there were many more observers today like Helen Turtle writing about some of the improvements in social, educational and other important aspects of life here over the past 100 years under unionism, it would help balance the a furiously one-dimensional rewriting of history by Irish republicanism in recent years.
Ironically, Helen enjoyed visiting neutral Dublin during World War II when it was clearly more liberated than the North, which was then heroically engaged in the struggle for civilization against Hitler and Nazi Germany, and provided a buoy of rescue to help win the Battle of the Atlantic and contributed significantly to the overall Allied victory. Sadly, this is something that is conveniently forgotten today in political circles in both London and Dublin.
Overall, Helen Turtle’s letters are a tour de force in providing important information about Northern Ireland during World War II. They should be preserved in all of our important scholarly archives to help historians provide a complete and balanced picture of those crucial years of World War II.
It is also an important companion publication to the definitive history of ‘Northern Ireland in the Second World War’ by Professor John W Blake and the excellent ‘The Storm Passed By – Ireland and the Battle of the Atlantic 1940-41″ by Professor John W Blake and Trevor Allen, both of whom I researched extensively for my own book “Titanic Port – An Illustrated History of Belfast Harbour”.
Great credit goes to everyone involved in the production of Midnight Again, including his daughter Julie Turtle Mackie and the wider family, as well as editor Professor Foster and designer Wendy Dunbar . The story of how Helen Turtle’s letters were preserved all this time is worthy of a book in itself, and Midnight Again is a treasure trove for anyone looking for fascinating background information while reading between the headlines. of the major story itself.
• Midnight Again – The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle, published by Turtle Mackie of Mahee Island, is available from all good bookstores. It is also available on Amazon and the Blackstaff Press/Colourpoint website.
Alf McCreary’s book, Titanic Port, is published by Booklink.