Lorna Quin hails from Tandragee, Co. Armagh. She's a retired primary school teacher, and someone drawn to the stories of the Second World War since her childhood. Last year, Lorna released a book of real-life stories gathered from people across Northern Ireland who recall wartime life. Just in time for Christmas 2022, the second volume is ready to go with another 25 tales of life in wartime Ulster, 'The Emergency' in Éire, and a childhood under the Nazis in Austria. Join us for a wee bit of war...Contact Lorna Quin
Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode, we're joined by Lorna Quin from Co. Armagh. Over the last number of years, Lorna has been collecting, collating, and editing stories from members of her local community, from people who remember life in Northern Ireland during wartime. Last year, she published the first collection under the title 'Yes, We Have No Bananas'.
It’s an excellent read, particularly if you enjoy social history, and those real life stories that we so often feature on WartimeNI. Lorna, welcome to the podcast. We’re delighted to have you join us.
Thanks very much for your invite.
In recent episodes, I have dived into my personal story a few times telling how I became interested in this particular area of Northern Ireland’s history, and I’ve been into it since I was relatively young. Has it been the same for you? Is this a lifelong passion? Or how did you come to be intrigued by these tales of the Second World War in Northern Ireland?
Well, I was thinking about that. I was thinking, you know, what did start it off? I remember when as a small child – young child – and an older cousin of my dad’s coming to visit, and he had been in the R.A.F. during the war. And I remember not wanting to go outside to play but I remember sitting in the living room on the carpet, and listening, enthralled as he told his stories of being in the R.A.F. in the Far East. And it was just, they were, they were, they were just mesmerising tales. And I was, I think that, you know, that got me interested. And then I remember in P7, my class teacher at Tandragee Primary School, my class teacher reading ‘The Silver Sword’ to us as the class novel by Ian Serrailier – the story of three Polish children, and then another wee boy joined them, and it’s their journey, well, their journey to survival really, through the war years. And it was that sense of children against a bigger enemy. And the, you know, the father had been arrested by the Gestapo, and it was that sense of injustice and their bravery that appealed to me. And then I also remember the film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’, which even when I was wee was an oldie, but it was, you know, the bravery of Viollette, the, in the French Resistance was just, oh, just, you know, I can’t describe it. Really, it just it just really intrigued me, that whole, you know, a girl being so brave and a real heroine.
And in my introduction there, I mentioned your book that came out last year, ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, in which you you took kind of a look at the social history and look at real life stories from people predominantly in and around Co. Armagh. What was it that made you want to commit these stories to paper? How did the book come about really?
Well, I, I began talking to my old primary school teacher, about what it was like growing up during the war years, and she told me that people came round, officials came round, and measured their front door to see if the door was wide enough to take civilian casualties. And I thought, you know, that’s really fascinating because, you know, to get to for, for government to get into down into that detail of, you know, measuring people’s front door for this whole war machine, you know, to get into progress to, you know, to, you know, to fight the enemy. This is the detail that needed to be taken. And then, because she grew up in Markethill, obviously it was close to Gosford, and then you have her mother being asked whether she would take evacuees or soldier’s wives. They chose soldiers wives, and then the story of, you know, a strange family coming to live in your, you know, been given over to one room in the house and living in in that one room. And then I said, oh, I would love to, I would love to hear more. And, you know, she said why don’t you ask my sister in law? She was older and she would have more memories and so it just snowballed, Scott. And because these people, you know, the memories are going through the decades and we’re not going to have these stories forever. And I thought, you know, I have enough here to write a book, as it snowballed – the project snowballed, and I wanted to capture these stories for posterity. They’re so precious. Each one is unique. Each one is different, and the details in them that the people remember, over so many years, it’s just, it’s just, it’s just fascinating. It’s a fascinating time for children to be, you know, to live through. And it was to me, it was like, it was like, as if they were living in a, you know, in a movie scene with all this going on around them.
Occasionally, we here at WartimeNI receive emails or messages with little snippets of information here and there, and that sparks a flurry of research. In your, in your book, you have some very different stories and they come from a very wide range of people. How did you go about finding these stories or finding the information for these?
Well, Scott, they were friends or friends of friends. And, you know, someone told me you should ask such and such a one. Or I thought, you know, I bet you that, I bet you that person has a good story, you know, and I had to go by their age as well, because the people over 90 are obviously going to have, you know, more memories and, you know, than a child of four or five. And I was fortunate enough also to, to interview a lady who was in her one hundred and second year at the time. So she was a young adult, and she was telling me about going to dances in Gosford, you know, sorry, with the, she was telling me about the troops, you know, the local troops coming to the dances in Markethill every week. And as a young girl, you know, she was different dance partners every week. And she was able to, you know, tell me that, and I just thought that was… wow, amazing.
And of course, we have you on the podcast now, because the big news is that volume two of the book is out just in time for Christmas. What, what can people expect from the next batch of stories?
Well, the next batch of stories, I have broadened my geographical range this time, Scott. Yes, I’ve got a lot of stories from Northern Ireland. I’ve got super story from a wee boy who grew up in Derry. So he saw the, the German submarines, you know, come into Lisahally, and, you know, at the end of the war, and I have a story from Fermanagh. I have two stories from south of the border. So that gives us a glimpse of what it was like, during “the emergency”, as they called it, during those war years. I have two American stories. So, I’ve two American kids. I see these old people just as kids, because, you know, they’re telling me, they’re telling me their story. But, you know, it stops at the end of the war. So they’re children in my eyes, not old people. But I’ve got you know, he remembers, the wee American boy remembers coming out of the cinema, and he said, it seemed like the whole world was crying. And that’s, you know, when obviously, when Pearl Harbour was attacked. And the little girl remembers, you know, she remembers exactly what she was doing when, when, you know, when news broke out that America had entered the war. So she was coming home in the bus. And I’ve got that perspective. And I’ve also, through a friend of a friend got the story of a young girl who grew up in Austria under the Nazis. And I’ve got her story. So I’ve, I’ve widened my, I’ve widened my geographical net this time. Yeah.
So just briefly, going back to the first book. When I was at school, I was I was best friends – I went to school in Portadown, and grew up near Tandragee, which is where I believe you went to school. And back then I was best friends with a fella from Hamiltonsbawn, and it was a lovely experience for me to see his father’s story of American GIs in Co. Armagh in the first book. That was one of my, my favourite moments in there, even though it maybe wasn’t the, the best of the stories that were in there, but it just had a nice personal touch for me. Do you have any favourites from from that first book, or maybe one or two that you’d like to share with us?
Well, I think that every story is a real gem, Scott, you know every story is unique. I mean, one of the, one of the Banbridge ones is that eh James remembers on V.E. night being kissed by Belgian soldier in the middle of Banbridge street. Now, he was given a continental kiss. And in those days, like, men didn’t, men just didn’t show their emotions at all, Ulster, Ulster men didn’t show their emotions but to be kissed on both cheeks in the middle of Banbridge street was something, you know, that he remembered all those years, all those years later. And of course, the, the meals that, the food that the Americans gave the kids when they brought them into Gosford… George McHugh says that he never tasted anything like it in his life since, and he thinks it might have been watered down condensed milk, but he doesn’t know. It was such a beautiful taste. You know, so and then someone else, well I think it was Sam, remembers the food being like an artist’s palette. It was so colourful. So obviously, you know, through rationing and all the rest, this was, this was just wonderful for these kids.
And yeah, it’s hard for us to imagine what, you know, what life was like back then. And there was that kind of lack of colour and lack of excitement, you know, maybe certainly, in those those rural areas, and I’ve read a lot from the flip side of that, you know, letters home from American GIs who write about how quaint and rural, and you know, ancient and historic, Ireland or Northern Ireland is. But to have that, to have that reaffirmed then you know, the other way around and the stories of the drama and excitement and colour and things that troops brought in is just amazing. Do you find it particularly interesting that these stories all or predominantly have like a childlike aspect to them? Or you know, they’re seen through very young, innocent, naive perspectives?
Yes, well, several of the of the people mentioned that, I mean, obviously their parents were more worried than they were and they, you know, they enjoyed the sweets from the Americans and they enjoyed, you know, seeing them march up and down Tandragee street. They, you know, Uncle John lay in a ditch and watch the Belgian troops walk down, march down the road and then be joined by other Belgian troops who had been hiding in a ditch, you know. All these, all these memories are, it must have been such an exciting time that as the backdrop to their normal life, you know, they’re so all these things going on and yet, you know, it was no, it was normal to them, but it must have been very, very exciting and special. I mean, to see a tank up close and to see the guy with the earphones on when you may not even have had a wireless at home.
Yeah, I, I’ve seen photos of, of kind of tanks and military vehicles coming out of that gate of Tandrag-
Tandragee Castle, yes marvelous, marvellous.
I used to work, I used to work in there. I used to work for Tayto back in my student days.
So did I, Scott, so did I. Did you eat the crisps? Did you eat the crisps?
We certainly had our fill of them., yeah, I think it’s a rite of passage for anyone who’s grown up in that area. But even now, you know, I’m a lot older now than I was was back then but I still can’t get my head around what it must have been like to watch, you know, to watch, to watch a Stewart tank, just drive out that gate and start coming down Main Street.
Yes. And and to share your home, you know, to share your home with complete strangers, or to have a rap on the door at night and go to the door, and there’s a family from Belfast, and they’re they’re looking for some shelter for the night. And that shelter, you know, you bring them in and then they get a wee house in the area and they never go back to Belfast because they love the country. And at night time to hear, you know, to hear The Last Post every night, coming from Gosford and Reveille in the morning, I mean, wow. And to have American troops come into your house every night for a chat with your dad. Wow.
Yeah, and not just Americans. There are several, several of the stories in your book and possibly the next book as well, have soldiers from all across the world, you know. You’ve mentioned the Belgians there. So it’s a, it’s a huge kind of mishmash of people from across the globe that descended upon Northern Ireland, you know. And, as well as soldiers, we had evacuees from Gibraltar, we had Jewish kids around Millisle. And it just must have been an absolutely amazing experience for, particularly those younger kids who maybe didn’t realise quite how strange all of this was, you know, it was it was just part of their, their growing up.
Yes, yes. And, and for them, where going to the next big town was an event and yet on their doorstep, were all these different nationalities. Yes. I have, in the second book, I have a lovely wee story. I’ve made contact with the daughter of a lady who fell in love with one of those American soldiers, and went in the very early wave as a GI bride to America. So I have her, her story.
That’s fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading that. That’s going to be, gonna be one of many stories in, in the new book. It is available now and how, how would you, I mean, you’ve already whet the appetite of our listeners here I feel, but if there’s, if there’s one little snippet of a story that you think is a really good hook, what, what will be in there that will really grab people’s attention?
I have a lovely story of a wee boy in, brought up in the south of Co. Armagh, very rural. And the Americans come to the door. And they, they’re in a jeep. And they asked his mum if they can borrow this little boy to show them where the next place they have to go. And the little boy gets into the American Jeep and, you know, gets driven round his local area in the back of an American Jeep. Now how cool is that for a young lad? You know, getting driven round south Armagh in an, in the back of American Jeep, it must be like just stepping into the movies.
That’s an incredibly cool story. It makes me think, last year I was out at an event, at Derrymore House in Bessbrook, so in south Armagh. And they had a range of American Jeeps there. And they took a few kids around for a spin roud the estate. These kids were sitting in the back of, of these jeeps, and they’re just you know, kids of like 5, 6, 7, 8 years old, and they’re still incredibly excited about doing that now 80 years later.
Yes, yes, yes.
With all of the things, you know, the, the technology we have, and you know, iPads and whatever, kids are still enthralled by being in the back of an American Jeep. So I can’t even begin to contemplate the excitement that must have had, you know, 80 years ago.
Yes, I have another, another story now. This one is a young lad, young boy walking to school in the, on the outskirts of Armagh – wee country school. And they have to pass under what would have been the Armagh-Portadown railway line, and there’s a bridge. And during the night, the soldiers – these are British soldiers – had been in Armagh, and they’d been walking back to their barracks, using the railway line to guide them. But what happened was the last train came along from Portadown and two soldiers were hit by the train. And as a wee boy, he was walking to school the next morning, these, unfortunately, these two dead soldiers are lying on the road. And he remembers seeing the boot of one of them, you know, separated from, separated from the body. And even today, all these years later, you know, going under that bridge brings back those memories of walking to school and the whole thing was just unravelling at the time. The dead soldiers had just been found and, you know, that’s a very vivid memory obviously for, for that wee lad.
Goodness, yeah, it’s a sobering reminder that yeah, as much fun as many of these stories may be and we talk about riding in Jeeps and getting chocolate and candy from American GIs, you know, we we were at war, and tragic accidents like that happen but then also you had the, kind of constant reminder through, through newspapers and through the radio, you know, that that we were at war and then of course in 1941, the Luftwaffe attack Northern Ireland, and we have a whole raft of different experiences then for young people. I think, I think some stories of, about evacuees coming down from coming down from Belfast to seek refuge out in more rural parts of Co Armagh.
Yes. And I have got a got a super story from Roger who, who lived in Belfast and, you know, was in the middle of, was in the middle of this of this Blitz. Do you want me to read a wee bit out of it, Scott, just a wee extract?
Yeah, that’d be wonderful.
OK. The first one was at Easter 1941 and I was away in the glens with the school Natural History Society. But as the bus on which we were returning home, came down the Antrim Road, we passed rows of smashed houses, with soldiers clearing the partly blocked, blocked road. The worst damage was in the Antrim Road area, as the German pilots were said to have mistaken the waterworks’ reservoirs for the harbour. The second attack came a few days later when I was at home. And this time the city centre and the industrial area were hit hard. Air Raid Precautions were primitive at that stage so my father, a volunteer warden, was outside equipped with an A.R.P. armband, a tin hat, and little else. Along with my mother and brother, I was under the solid oak dining table. The air raid shelter in the cellar came later and ended up as a turf store. The thing I remember most vividly was the noise. There was a battery of heavy anti-aircraft guns at the King’s Hall. And every time they were fired, the house shook. When we came out, we found that the only damage was that the heavy plaster ceiling in the drawing room had swung down from one end, taking the light fitting with it, it was only held up with heavy ceiling paper. Going into town a few days later, the extent of the damage was all too clear. For the many buildings were down, or still smouldering. So you know for for, for that there, that’s a first hand account of two of those raids.
And amazing how that, the level of detail and the, the feeling behind it all is still there, still very much present.
It’s still there. Yes. Many, many of the evacuees, you know came, and, and they never went back to the city again, you know, they liked the country life and, you know, realised that it was a much, much healthier environment and they never went back.
I think there may be equal parts there there. I’ve certainly come across many stories of those who didn’t go back and kind of enjoyed the the rural landscapes and that but there were even by the time of the Blitz… Evacuation started in 1940 and by the time the Luftwaffe attacked in ’41, a lot of the first evacuees had returned to the city. So a lot of those, a lot of those inner city kids were well, let’s just be brutally honest, they were ridiculously bored in the in the country. And they, they missed kicking football in the streets with their friends and whatnot.
Yes, Uh huh. Uh huh. Scott, I have I, have, I forgot to tell you. I have a, start that again, I have in the second book been allowed access to a young R.A.F. sergeant’s writing. And he wrote this for a particular R.A.F. history project. And so this is a story of Bob McHugh who grew up in Hamiltonsbawn. Now, it starts off with his childhood in the ’30s, and then it goes into him joining the R.A.F. and it goes through his, his wartime experiences. So I have been allowed to use his writings. And they’re written in the first person for this, for the second book, and I honestly think they would make a film. You know, on his 21st birthday, his best friend was killed just beside him. There’s no counselling, there’s no time to grieve or that so you pick yourself up and away on to the next, you know, to your next posting. And, he lost four stone in weight when he was in, you know, actually moved over into the continent then for operations – eating camel steaks, lifting, you know, lifting, lifting a live mine. I couldn’t tell you all the stories, but they’re, they’re his own writing. So, you know, they’re, they’re straight from the horse’s mouth. They’re eyewitness, eyewitness account of what it was like to, you know, to join the R.A.F. during those wonderful years. Wonderful. When I say wonderful years, you know, special years.
And were these written at the time? Were these written in the 1940s or written after the war?
They were written after the war. They were written after the war. The first part of his childhood, were written for his niece, particularly for his niece, and the part about his service in the R.A.F. was written particularly for an R.A.F. history project.
Well, I personally, I’m really looking forward to reading those in the next book. Both these books are a wonderful collection of stories and a great addition to the ever growing canon of literature on Northern Ireland during the Second World War. And if, I know most people listen to these podcasts, but if you’re watching the ones that we upload to YouTube, you will see the bookshelves straining behind me there. So there’s, there’s plenty to read on these subjects. If people want to keep up with you and your latest work, how can they do so? And more importantly, where can they pick up a copy of the latest book?
Well, I’d say that they, without me going on too much, my Facebook page gives details of all the shops, which are kindly selling the book, and all profits from the book are going into research for Parkinson’s Disease.
That’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a great cause. And I was very happy to pick up the last book. I got mine from Winnie’s in Portadown, but there are plenty of other shops across Co. Armagh, some in Co. Down, one in Belfast… We’ll post up links to your Facebook page in the show notes here and let people know where they can get those. Lorna, thank you very much for joining us on a wee bit of war and for talking us through just some of the stories in your two books. We hope to hear even more stories about wartime Co. Armagh, the rest of Northern Ireland and even further afield, as you’ve covered now soon. With the second book out, are there, is, are there plans for a third or what is next for Lorna Quinn?
Well, I think, I think I’ll have a wee break now from the writing. And I have to concentrate on selling the books. So I’ll be concentrating my efforts on that aspect of, because when you write a book, you’ve got to sell it. So that’s what I’ll been doing for the next wee while, Scott.
Well, I think you’ve given it some good promotion on here, and hopefully, a few of our listeners that are based in and around Northern Ireland will pick those up and help with that mission. Thank you very much for joining me and I look forward to reading the book and catching up with you again soon.
Thanks very much, Scott. I appreciate you giving me some air time.
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