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Sunday 19 November 2017

Sligo nurse's role in Spanish Civil War recalled

10th February 1939: General Solchager receives Franco’s Spanish Nationalist troops at Col De Portus, a deep valley in the eastern Pyrenees, during the Spanish Civil War
10th February 1939: General Solchager receives Franco’s Spanish Nationalist troops at Col De Portus, a deep valley in the eastern Pyrenees, during the Spanish Civil War

Pauline Murphy

International Women's Day March 8th, is a global celebration of women's achievements in culture, sports, politics and society.

In Ireland and indeed Sligo many women have made their mark throughout history, many well known but some are relatively unknown, which is the case of Sligo's Hannah Rutledge Ormesby.

Born in Sligo in 1902, Ormesby can be considered the only Irishwoman to die in the Spanish Civil War.

Ormesby came from a well to do family who resided at the estate of Belleville in Dromore West and went to Spain with a British medical unit in 1937 to aid republicans fighting against General Francos fascists.

In 1936 Spain's democratically elected left wing republican government was over thrown in a coup by right wing fascists led by General Francisco Franco.

What followed was a bitter civil war which saw the inclusion of brigades from other countries fighting on either side.

Here in Ireland those who supported the fascists joined Eoin O' Duffy's Irish Brigade and went to Spain to fight alongside the Francoists.

Those in Ireland who supported Spanish republicans came from a pool of left leaning ideologies. Trade unionists and IRA members with socialist inclinations signed up to the 15th International Brigade to fight against the spread of fascism in Spain.

Hannah Rutledge Ormesby, who was known better as 'Ruth', was a qualified nurse and arrived in Spain on the 4th of April 1937 with a British medical unit sympathetic to the left wing Republicans.

Although she declared herself of 'no political affiliation' her sympathies lay with those who were dispossessed of their democratic right.

In Spain, Ruth Ormesby worked under Surgeon Dr. L. Quemada who would later eulogise the Sligo lady as a 'hard working efficient nurse.'

The conditions under which Ruth and her comrades worked were often unbearable. During the Summer, the sun scorched the soil around them and helped spread illnesses among patients weakened by gun shot wounds and shrapnel injuries.

During the height of a swealtering August on the Aragon front in 1937, Ruth and the other nurses and doctors had to tend to their patients in the middle of a three day wind storm that covered their field hospital in dust. The mobile field hospital at La Puebla de Hijar near Quinto in Aragon was in the thick of fierce fighting and in a 12 day period it saw up to 160 operations carried out.

A Spanish Medical Aid Committee report described the harsh climate Ruth and her comrades had to endure: "Nurses including Ruth Ormesby worked day and night. The percentage of wounded who died was very low.

"They ate and slept when they could snatch a few minutes out in the open or if on duty for 20 or 30 hour stretches they lay down in the wards so that they could be ready at a minutes notice."

During the intense fighting on the Aragon front, Ruth and her fellow nurses there were credited with turning four wooden huts into a field hospital.

This field hospital had no electricity or running water but served to save the Iives of many people including those fighting with the 15th International Brigade and civilians caught up in the conflict.

There are differing accounts regarding the last moments of Ruth Ormesby's life. What is known is that she perished following a fire in a medical aid flat in Barcelona in April 1938.

One account states that a Primus stove exploded as Ruth and another nurse were making tea.

Unfortunately petrol was used as a replacement for paraffin. During war items such as parrafin are usually rationed.

Another account has it that a petrol can being used to keep a door shut had exploded, thus trapping Ruth and another nurse.

Whatever the real cause of the fire, it claimed the life of Ruth Ormesby who in utter desperation flung her badly burnt body out of the 7th floor window.

It was a sad end for the 35 year old who had dedicated her life to saving others but alas, could not save herself.

No inquest followed, and it is assumed Ruth was laid to rest in Spanish soil.

Those she had helped would find themselves on the losing side of the Spanish civil war and endure decades of dictatorship rule under General Franco.

Hannah 'Ruth' Ormesby may not be well known in the land of her birth but as we celebrate International Women's Day, this Sligo lady rightly secures her place in the pantheon of Irish women who went out in the world to make a difference.

Sligo Champion

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