The eldest of five children, Kate O Hanlon was born in the Markets area of Belfast in 1930. Her father worked in the Market, “That was a fruit market, where the Waterfront is today, that was all fish markets and the back of it, farmers markets.”
Kate was a young girl when WW2 broke out. During the Blitz her family moved to north Belfast on the Antrim Road, “It’s only when you read about the Blitz that you realise how bad it was in Belfast. I remember being under the table and then the coal shed. We were evacuated, we went first to Mummy’s relatives and then we went to Omeath. The hundreds that where killed, we weren’t conscious of that, until I read about it and confirmed it all, it amazed me how many people were killed.”
Kate joined the Legion of Mary and ran a youth club and netball team and then started doing first aid at the Order of Malta. Becoming a nurse wasn’t necessarily what she was planning on next but that’s exactly the direction she was headed in. “To say I wanted to be a nurse, I don’t know really and truly, I kind of drifted into it when I was 27.”
Before she could work in the hospital she had to complete three months training. “You were taught how to make beds, taught psychology, you went into the hospital maybe a day a week. I do remember, we were sitting down and Matron came in and said, where are my catholic nurses, and there were two of us and we thought this was a great welcome, but afterwards we realised it was so that everybody would know who the catholic nurses were. But having said that, it didn’t make any difference because we made great friends and still have great friends from that time.”
Kate found she had a natural ability for nursing and helping people. After training she worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The night of June 26th 1966 events were beginning to change for the worse. “I was in casualty in the Royal on night duty in 1966. That was the night of the Malvern Street shootings when Peter Ward was shot. I was in charge of casualty that night.”
“The old casualty was on the Grosvenor Road and we saw a lot of patients there, the numbers were quite high, and then we moved to the new department, the new building was opened on April 1969. The Troubles started in August 1969.”
“Treating a gunshot wound and someone from a road traffic accident, there’s not a lot of difference. You just have to put up drips and give them pain killers, make sure there’s oxygen, make sure everything’s all right before they go into theatre. The difference is after that. The way they are going to operate, the way intensive care looks after them, especially in explosions, which could damage the lungs a lot. We had experience of road traffic accidents but what we didn’t have experience with was the relatives. Mrs Ward came down with her son, her other son and we had to tell her that Peter had been shot dead, well in Belfast that was unheard of. For years afterwards when someone goes out in the morning to work and they are shot dead going to work or maybe there is an explosion, the relatives come in and you’ve got to tell them, you never get used to that.”
“If you are in charge and there’s panic you have to stay calm, you can’t get involved with one patient, if you have a few patients in because of an explosion and you start looking after one, you don’t know what’s going on around the department, you keep walking around, you keep checking up on everything, you make sure everybody’s been seen.”
“One day somebody came in shot and we had the man who shot him in, but it doesn’t matter because once they come through the door they are a patient. I’ve always said that. All we want to know is what really happened in relation to the injuries. We are not interested in the politics.”
Kate remembers one such event, which involved a relative of a member of staff.
“You were always afraid to go out to the ambulance or people coming in, that you would know them. On the day of the Abercorn bombing, the daughter of one of our consultant anaesthetists went downtown with a friend and was killed. He didn’t know, he was working in theatre all that day.”
The wounds caused by such atrocities during the Troubles needed new procedures in healing wounds. “One was the titanium plate, that was used to protect the brain, it was invented in the Royal and is still used today.”
All these experiences led Kate to write a book Nursing through the Troubles detailing her experiences as a nurse.
“When I retired people started saying to me, you should write about your experiences, this was to be my voice, I didn’t want politics in it, I wanted it to just be from the hospital’s point of view. ”
Kate retired in 1988, and in 1989 was invited to go to Gaza and the West Bank as part of a World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation, under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees.
“We went to Gaza on the West Bank to assess the facilities for emergencies for Palestinians during the Intifada, we weren’t allowed to talk to any Israeli medical staff or visit any Israeli hospitals”.
In 2007 Kate received the Outstanding Achievement Award. “It was such a shock, I was given it at the Nurse of the Year Awards at Culloden. I was sitting at the table and it was great craic, then at the end of it all they announced a special award and they started talking about … before she became a nurse she started working in the family firm… and I said, my goodness is this me they’re talking about?”