Long-retired Co Armagh nurse Myrtle Joyce was a Christmas Day baby – 100 years ago.
She was born a year before the 1916 Battle of the Somme, and the First World War held poignant memories for the family.
Her father James survived the 1914-18 conflict, but her half-brother Jim perished. Her half-sister Martha – a nurse in the Queen Alexandra’s – made it home, and then emigrated to Canada to serve the forces as a nurse there.
“I lost touch with Martha over the years,” Myrtle recalled.
She’s the last survivor of two families, with her three half-siblings all older than her. James’ first wife died, although Myrtle fondly remembers the third sibling – Jim, who also served in the forces and went on to become a policeman.
The century of birthdays-cum-Christmases this year is tinged with sadness. The last of her ‘full’ siblings – Dora – passed away at the beginning of December aged 93, the others being George and Vanda.
She was, though, given quite a lift when Presbyterian Moderator Dr Ian McNie called at Mahon Hall in Portadown on Monday with double good wishes.
And the occasion was lifted even further, with the visitors including Myrtle’s close relative, niece Myrtle Kavanagh, who lives in Bangor.
“She was called Myrtle after me, and we always referred to her as ‘Babs’ to avoid confusion,” said Myrtle. And, in the fine family tradition Babs also became a distinguished nurse, working in England and Scotland, hand-in-glove with husband Eddie.
Said Myrtle Jnr: “The moderator had a lovely chat with Auntie Myrtle, and he was accompanied by the Rev Christina Bradley of Armagh Road Presbyterian Church where she worshipped for a long time. But I have to say she was much more taken with old photographs of the town’s old Mahon National School, brought in by Maurice Mahaffey, whose parents attended the school along with Myrtle.”
Myrtle was trained in general nursing at The City Hospital Belfast, followed by midwifery at the Royal. But she never worked in a hospital after that.
She went into private nursing for a few years in Holywood, until her ‘charge’ died during a trip to Dublin “and his wife had to drive all the way to collect his body”.
After that, she spent “the happiest 25 years of my nursing life” as an industrial in Portadown’s bustling Metal Box factory, during the years when tinned foods and soups were the order of the day.
About 400 worked there in round-the-clock shifts, with Myrtle being one of a team of four ‘angels’ who tended to cuts and bruises and industrial accidents.
“It’s long since closed,” said Myrtle. “But I retired long before it ended. My sister Dora was a supervisor in the factory and we worked different shifts so that we could look after mother who suffered from a long illness.” Neither sister ever married.
All her old friends are now gone, and she is very grateful for the tender care of the staff at Mahon Hall.
“It does get very lonely,” she said. “But it’s been a good life.”
And although the children of today receive legions of expensive toys and electronics for their birthdays and Christmas, Myrtle doesn’t envy them one little bit. Her gifts were the odd toy and the traditional orange, “and we were very happy”.