Monday 21 October 2019

The Orangeman and the Cumann na mBan typist

When his keen interest in history led him to a fundraiser for a Battle of the Somme mural, the last thing Peter Thompson expected to unearth was the love story of a staunch unionist man and a Catholic woman

Love conquers all: Peter Thompson came across the ultimate 1916 love story
Love conquers all: Peter Thompson came across the ultimate 1916 love story

Celine Naughton

For County Antrim man Peter Thompson, the Easter Rising provides the starting point for an extraordinary Romeo and Juliet love story that spanned Ulster's sectarian divide. In happy contrast to Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers however, staunch unionist and Somme veteran George McBride and Winifred Carney, a pistol-packing member of Cumann na mBan and secretary to James Connolly, went on to enjoy many years of happy marriage after the momentous events of 1916.

An avid historian from the village of Dervock, Peter discovered the unlikely tale quite by chance in 1985 while fundraising locally for a wall mural to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

"There was £150 left over in the kitty, so we decided to donate it to a hospital for veterans in Belfast, known as the Somme Hospital, now the Somme nursing home," he recalls. "When we handed over the cash, a nurse asked if we'd like to meet one of the veterans.

"They wheeled in this gentleman called George McBride, who told us how he'd fought in the 36th (Ulster) Division in the First World War and was captured at the Somme and held as a prisoner of war.

"For me, this was fascinating stuff, but then when he moved on to his personal life, I could hardly believe my ears.

"On his return to Belfast in 1919, George joined the Labour Party, where he met and fell in love with Winifred Carney. Now this was no ordinary love story.

"George, a Protestant born in the Shankill Road in Belfast, was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and then joined the Ulster Division to fight for his king and country, while Winifred, a Catholic from Co. Down, was a key figure in the 1916 Rising.

"Known as the 'typist with the Webley' because of the revolver she carried, along with her typewriter as James Connolly's secretary, she never left Connolly's side throughout the fighting in the GPO.

"She and her Cumann na mBan colleagues were subsequently interned in Kilmainham Jail and later Aylesbury Prison in England, until December 1916."

In 1924 she too joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party and was struck by Cupid's arrow when the handsome Orangeman won her heart. The pair were married in 1928.

"They had much in common in that both fought for their country, and were captured and imprisoned, but at the end of the day, he was a staunch Ulster unionist and she was an equally patriotic Irish nationalist," says Peter.

"How two political idealists on completely different sides could marry was unheard of! I asked George how they dealt with that and he just said, 'We left that side of things alone.' I was mesmerised."

The marriage was not accepted by some of their friends and there's no doubt the couple would have been ostracised in many social circles, but, as Peter says, "George and Winnie were in love and that's all that mattered - that and their shared belief in socialism."

They lived happily in Belfast for 15 years, and George never remarried after Winnie's death in 1943. However, while she was buried in Milltown cemetery, her beloved husband was buried elsewhere - and for years, Winnie's grave remained unmarked.

On the website, Winnie's great niece Joan Austin explains: "Uncle Ernest refused to put a headstone on Aunt Winnie's grave due to her marriage to Orangeman and protestant, George McBride. The National Graves Association stepped in and recognised Winnie by erecting her well-deserved headstone, while tending her grave to this day."

Amid all the sectarianism that Northern Ireland has gone through, this unlikely love story is seen by some as a beacon of hope that shone decades before the peace process started healing old wounds between North and South.

Peter is actively involved in historical events both in his own village and in cross-community projects throughout Ireland. Reconciliation through cultural understanding and respect is part of his ethos.

"I joined re-enactments of the 1798 rebellion - some say the forerunner to the 1916 Rising - in Mayo and Wexford, and made some great friends there," he says.

"And in turn, when these people came to my village of Dervock as part of a local council cross-community project, I gave them a tour and told them stories about the place and they loved it.

"I love history, regardless of where it's from, and this year of course marks the centenary of one of the momentous events in our shared past. I don't believe the events of 1916 caused the divide in this country; the barriers were already there.

"My great grandfather, William John Cheatley, was a Lance Corporal in the 2nd Battalion Irish Rifles, stationed at Portobello Barracks, during the Easter Rising.

"I want to visit Dublin this year and see the sights for myself, to go where he was and stand in the ground where he stood.

"The Easter Rising is part of the tapestry of our shared culture and history. I know many unionists disown it, saying it has nothing to do with us, but it has.

"It's part of who we are, all of us. If we don't study this important part of our history, understand it and learn from it, we damn future generations to come."

Irish Independent

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