The Belfast Girl on the Front-line
Claire Melvin, UK
My great grandmother Mary Molloy would often say that she thought her family must have gypsy blood as she, her sister and many of her children had travelled the world but it was her oldest daughter Annie Kerr who found herself in the greatest danger.
Annie Kerr’s mother Mary Molloy had been working as a servant for a pawn broker in the Pottinger area of the Belfast, when her grandmother Roseanne had started taking in lodgers, including a young man called Joseph Kerr who was a committed Marxist, heavily into nationalist politics and worked in the mills as a flax dresser. Joseph had refused to talk about his family or his past, possibly because his family were everything he despised. His mother’s family, the Auchenlecks had inherited wealth, and his grandfather and uncle were part of the Dublin ascendancy, gentlemen who did not need to work and lived off their property income. Joseph had been well educated and had left a good job as a clerk in a fashionable department store and his family’s large comfortable home in the Crumlin Road area of the city to work bare foot in harsh conditions in the mills and live with Mary’s family in cramped conditions in Plevna Street near the Falls Road.
Annie’s father’s political convictions would mean times were often hard and she and her sister had to support the family.
By 1905, Mary had fallen for Joseph Kerr and the two had married.
They had then moved to a house in Abyssinia Street, where Annie Kerr had been born, the oldest of six children, including my grandmother Molly.
Attempts were going on to strengthen the trade union movement in the mills. There were strikes which caused hardship to Joseph and his family. There were also attempts to get the trade union movement going in the ship yards, where her father Joseph had worked for a while as a timekeeper but there was a lot of anti-Catholic feeling there and he found it a difficult place to work.
Annie’s mother’s cousin John McHenry who was also from Belfast and would later become a fulltime official of the National Union of Seamen had got a job working as a fireman on the ferries between Belfast and Ardrossan, in Scotland. With the outbreak of the First World War, in 1915 he suggested the family should come to live with him in Saltcoats in Scotland. Saltcoats was a small seaside town but it was also the home to what was known as “the Dynamite”, a huge explosive works which had been set up by Alfred Noble, the inventor of dynamite. The town had been chosen as the location because sand banks could be built around the works to reduce the impact of any explosion and because of its close location to ports which made export easier. The work was well paid and with the outbreak of the First World War business was booming so jobs were plentiful but it was also very dangerous. Annie and her brothers and sister liked living by the sea but the family was still battling prejudice. When they moved into a tenement flat near the sea front, the neighbours protested to the building owner that an Irish family had been allowed to move in and asked for them to be evicted. The factor (the owner’s agent) came round to see her mother and look at how she was keeping the house. In the end he advised her to ‘hold her own with the neighbours’. He could see she kept the house clean and as she was the only one who paid the rent on time he wasn’t going to evict her. Annie’s mother did ‘hold her own with the neighbours’ and in the end she even made friends with them.
With the end of the war, there was less work at “the Dynamite” and Annie’s mother decided she didn’t want her sons working in such a dangerous place so had persuaded Joseph to head back to the Falls and Belfast. In 1920, following what was known as the Fourth Home Rule Bill, the unionist politician Carson had delivered a speech warning of the dangers of Sinn Fein which would have an inflammatory effect on the city in what became known as the Belfast Pogroms. 5,000 Catholics who had been working in the ship yards were attacked and forced to leave their jobs. There was gunfire in the area between the Falls and the Shankill neighbourhood. Catholic shops and businesses were looted, property was burnt, churches, monasteries and convents were attacked. It was estimated over £1m in damage was done to properties. What had started in the shipyards, spread to other businesses and it was estimated 8,000 catholic men and left wing Protestants in warehouses, factories and other concerns were expelled from their jobs. People who had lived in mixed areas were chased from their homes, some managed to swap houses with people of other religions in a similar position but tents were put up in the Falls Road to try to accommodate them. There were curfews and 465 civilians were killed, and over a thousand people were injured. One night, in 1921 the violence came directly to Annie’s door. She didn’t know why, it may have been a reprisal and she didn’t know who although the men were dressed like soldiers. At that point every man in the street, her father included was taken out, lined up and every second one was shot. Joseph was one of the lucky ones but at that point the family decided they could no longer stay in Ireland.
They fled that night to Scotland. There was no time to take possessions so they left with little more than their clothes and a big clock which had been bought recently for Annie’s baby brother Denis who had just been born. There were not alone in doing that, several thousand Belfast families fled at that time mostly to Glasgow or Dublin. Annie’s parents decided to go to Glasgow. Joseph felt he couldn’t go back to Saltcoats as the people they knew there would think they had failed. The family of eight ended up in a single room in Glasgow’s infamous Gorbals area. This time it was very different than it had been at the “Dynamite”, Joseph couldn’t get regular work and Annie and her sister Molly were soon working in a garment factory to try and support the family. The sisters would take the baby Denis out in the pram and walk the streets crying she they were so unhappy in the new home. The local Irish community in Glasgow tried to support the refugees. Collections were made to get them food and clothes. However, when they discovered their landlady had food and clothes hidden under the bed in her kitchen which she was embarrassed to be found with, they suspected she had stolen food parcels which had been brought round for them.
One day while walking in the Govan (shipyard area) of the city, Annie’s mother bumped into her father’s sister Ellen Molloy who had moved there from Belfast with her husband many years before and she helped the family get back on her feet and found them a new home in the area. From their new flat in a tenement block it was possible to see all the huge ships, which were being built there and it was that which was inspiring Annie and her brother George. By the age of 15 George had left for Canada on a church sponsored scheme.
While his sister Annie still working in the garment factory had similar dreams of seeing the world but a very different way in mind to do it. Annie had found out about an order of Middle Eastern nuns, who had convents in France and in what was then Palestine. She had decided to join them but before she did she needed to raise the money for the fare to Marseilles where she would need to do her training. Annie was artistic and would later teach art, so she and her sister Molly began designing and making clothes to sell, and Annie also took a second job as a cinema usherette at the Lyceum cinema in Govan.
Finally, she had enough money and was able to join the sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition who were a teaching order in Marseilles, and took the name Sister Leila. With their help she trained to be a teacher and was sent to Palestine to teach, where the order had convents in Jerusalem and Jaffa. She painted the amazing sites she saw and sent the pictures back to her family. However, by 1938, she was writing to her mother asking her to pray for her, worried she might never see her family again. For a girl who had lived through the Belfast Pogroms, what was happening around her again was worryingly familiar. The nuns’ schools were in the Middle of the Arab uprising. By 1938, the Palestinian government had lost control. Troops had occupied Jerusalem. There was violence on the streets, people were being abducted and over 900 people had been murdered. However, she did see her family again in 1939 and she was sent by the nuns then to teach in a school in Malta.
What none of the family knew in March 1939 was that World War II was coming.
Annie Kerr had been living in the convent in the ancient city of Valetta in Malta, and was teaching English and Art in the school which the sisters ran there. She had a good friend Sister Ita O’Reilly, who was from an America Irish family and her pupils included the children of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. As a new front open in Africa, Malta became the site of fierce fighting as the Germans and Italians tried to seize it. Over a period of two years, over 3,000 bombing raids were carried out on the island. The convent close as it was to the Grand Harbour was now in the firing line. The island came effectively under siege for two years, running out of all essential commodities and the whole population of the island would later be awarded the George Cross. Food and water was hard to find, as the bombing had broken the water pipes. All livestock had been slaughtered. The convoys taking supplies to the island were being bombarded and very little supplies were getting through. However, there was one person who managed to get through was Annie’s brother George. At the start of the war he had been a merchant seaman travelling the world but he like many others had been co-opted into the navy. By the end of the war he had been involved in the Africa campaign, had been on the Atlantic convoys to New York, and would earn the Pacific Star with trips to South America. His ship the Trocas, however had limped into Malta in need of repairs and for a brief time stuck in Valetta, he was able to walk every day from the Grand Harbour to see his sister in the convent. Little did he know as he finally left the island that would be the last time any of them would see his sister. Back in Scotland, Annie’s sister Molly had a dream they were playing with a rope in the garden, the rope had broken and her sister had slipped away. She would later receive a letter from Sister Ita, telling her, her sister had died that day. The nuns and their pupils had been stuck in the shelters for days in a place called Balzan, as the bombing had continued and had been forced to drink contaminated water. Annie Kerr had been one of the 1,300 civilian casualties. She was buried in a grave in Valetta which merely said, “The sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition”.
Annie’s mother had jokingly put her children’s desire to see the world down to ‘gypsy blood’ but it was probably more about the city of Belfast they had come from – a city where you could see the big ships that would go out into the world being built but also a city which they had been chased from so they never quite felt at home again after that.