Belfast blue plaque honour for nurse who kept diaries in both world wars

Emma Duffin was English born but spent much of her nursing career in Northern Ireland
Emma Duffin was English born but spent much of her nursing career in Northern Ireland

A blue plaque will be unveiled this week to commemorate a Northern Ireland-based nurse who kept detailed journals as she tended to the wounded during both world wars.

Emma Sylvia Duffin will be the focus of a special event to mark International Women’s Day on Wednesday when her great-niece Emma Makin unveils the plaque at 29 University Square in Belfast.

On the outbreak of the First World War Emma Duffin joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), serving as a nurse, first in Egypt where she tended survivors of the Gallipoli campaign, and then in the military hospitals of Le Havre and Calais.

The English-born nurse’s journals form part of the significant Duffin family archive in NI’s Public Record Office.

Emma spoke German fluently and her tales of caring for wounded German soldiers add a humanitarian perspective to what is already, by any standards, a story of devotion and selflessness.

When World War Two broke out she was appointed commandant of the VAD nurses based at Stranmillis Military Hospital. She resumed her diary-keeping and provides a riveting account of the impact of the Easter Tuesday blitz on Belfast in which more than 800 people were killed.

She recalls the day she spent in St George’s Market, used as a morgue for unidentified bodies. There, she helped stricken families search among coffins for loved ones.

In her diary she wrote: “I had seen many dead (in WWI), but they had died in hospital beds, their eyes had been reverently closed, their hands crossed on their breasts; death had been glossed over, made decent. Here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible. Death should be dignified, peaceful. Hitler had made even death grotesque.”

Emma served as honorary secretary of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare from 1933 to 1953. In this role she was involved in ensuring that social services provided between the wars were incorporated in the new welfare state that was created at the end of the war.

Emma Duffin died in 1979, aged 95, and is buried in Newcastle, Co Down.

Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said: “The Ulster History Circle is delighted to mark International Women’s Day by unveiling this plaque to Emma Duffin, who made an important contribution to nursing in both world wars, and recorded a remarkable account of her experiences in her diaries.”

The group thanked Queen’s University for their assistance in hosting the unveiling and reception and also thanked Belfast City Council for their financial support towards the plaque.