Torpedoed At Sea And Unable To Swim. Co. Mayo Nurse Working On A Hospital Ship Defied Death
Story Of War Hero, Sr. Lily McNicholas Of Kiltimagh, An Inspiration To All Irish People
In our considerations for incorporation of outstanding Irish people over several centuries, World Wars1 and 2 were responsible for the deaths of a huge army of Irish people. This collection of Irish people were not fighting for Ireland’s liberty from the British Empire in that period of the 20th century. They were soldiers in foreign armies and most times conscription was not their No.1 choice.
When soldiers go to war, only the lucky survivors make it back home. Soldiers who fall in the battle fields or out on the high seas, need exceptional and urgent medical care and that is where the nursing profession excel.
From Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, Sr. Lily McNicholas, gained international acclaim for her outstanding bravery in rescuing colleagues when her ship, MV Amsterdam, a hospital ship, was returning to England with several military casualties and they were torpedoed off the Normandy Coast on 7th August 1944.
The Irish nurse, along with her colleagues assisted the wounded to lifeboats on the high seas. She gave up a place in a water ambulance to escort her patients to the deck from her ward. When Lily escaped the capsized ship, she escaped through a small hatch with her lifejacket around her. As thirty five years old Lily plunged into the freezing ocean waters, she became gravely ill but the assistance and assurances of her officer colleagues comforted her.
The Co. Mayo woman was not a swimmer but she risked her own life to save her colleagues on board their ship and when she regained her composure floating on the water in her lifejacket, she immediately began rendering assistance to her colleagues fighting for their own lives and Lily displayed total disregard for her own personal safety.
The casualties were severe. Fifty five patients, ten medical staff, thirty crew members plus eleven prisoners of war. They all perished in this sea tragedy. The total lives lost amounted to one hundred and six.
Eventually Sister McNicholas, along with other survivors were picked up by an American cutter (a small craft capable of high speeds), she continued to care for all the injured, despite the fact Lily herself was pulled from the floating ocean and struggling to stay alive.
In the ocean tragedy Lily McNicholas, also lost her dearest nursing friend, a Scottish woman, who sank without trace and this caused immense grief to the brave Mayo nurse. The war newspapers carried pages of newsprint on the ocean tragedy and Lily McNicholas was heaped with praise for her heroism.
She was recognised for her efforts by Buckingham Palace but Sister McNicholas did not attend her Investiture at the Palace. Instead Lily decided to travel up to Scotland to meet the parents of her friend. That act signified the great humanity of Sr. Lily McNicholas from Ireland.
Lily Mc Nicholas was born on 16th October 1909 in Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo, one of ten children. Her parents were Thomas and Bridget McNicholas and the family operated a Bakery, established in 1860, by her grandparents. Lily attended the St. Louis school in Kiltimagh town.
Like many more young Co. Mayo women in the Ireland of the first half of the 20th century, Lily decided to emigrate from her native land in the 1930’s with a nursing career in England foremost in her mind.
After working for several years in a nursing apprenticeship, she qualified as a nurse and on the outbreak of World War2 with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Lily enlisted in the war effort by becoming a reserve within Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
Sister McNicholas, following her harrowing war experiences at sea underwent a period of convalescence in England and then continued with her nursing career in postings to London, Bombay and Egypt.
In 1947 Lily moved to Chicago to work in a hospital and later became a company nurse attached to the U.S. International Harvester company of Chicago, who specialised in the manufacture of agricultural machinery, construction equipment, trucks, and household and commercial products.
Sister McNicholas retired from nursing in 1976 and died at a residential nursing home - Oak Lawn - in Chicago aged eighty seven on 5th March 1998.
Her funeral mass was held at the Catholic Church on 4240 West 98th St. Oak Lawn, Chicago.
She was survived by her sisters Kathleen Madigan, Chicago and Sr. Mochua of St. Louis Convent, Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo.
Sister Lily Mc Nicholas’s family donated historic memorabilia, including the life jacket she wore in the 1944 sea tragedy, to the Kiltimagh Railway Museum during 1989.
As a Famous Daughter Of Ireland and Co. Mayo, the enrollment and incorporation of Kiltimagh's Sr. Lily McNicholas, in our Irish Heritage collection at All Ireland Hall Of Fame @ www.scoreboardmemories.com will ensure the preservation and promotion of the outstanding heroism of Sr. Lily McNicholas around the international globe.