Phyllis was the first of her family to go to secondary school and the only one to take up a professional vocation. She left home at nineteen to study nursing in County Antrim. Fifteen years later a personal tragedy changed the course of her life and she emigrated to Canada.
Phyllis started school at six years of age walking the mile or so with her brothers, sister and neighbours to their nearest school, Mullaghduff National School. The arrival of a donkey and cart in 1934 provided regular school transport allowing her parents to move their children to Masterson National School beside the Parish Church in Marorhamilton, making the longer journey each day.
She was a keen pupil eager to learn, exemplified by her significant contributions to The Schools Collection, a compilation of folklore and stories which became a National Archive, that includes her original copy books. Gathered from family and neighbours the contribution reveals over ten individuals that Phyllis badgered to collect the impressive range of stories, lore and riddles.
The Technical School opened in Manorhamilton, in 1936. Referred to as The Tech, Phyllis moved there a few years after it opened its doors. Like her older sister Ena, she liked Irish and was awarded a Silver Fainne Medal despite her parent’s misgivings about time spent learning Irish. The medal was a circular silver collar pin showing a proficiency and love for the language.
Her teachers encouraged her to consider a career. Phyllis had known of the early death of her older sister Maureen at a few months old, and experienced the family’s anguish during the illness and lingering death of her brother Herbie. Phyllis never forgot a throwaway remark made during her brother’s illness that she brought his diphtheria into the house, the infection that eventually killed Herbie. Given this, nursing was not a surprising choice.
Her grades at The Tech were good and she easily achieved the entrance standards for nursing. In 1945 she started as a trainee Mental Health Nurse at Purdysburn Mental Hospital on the outskirts of Belfast.
Of all our Davis aunts and uncles only Phyllis and Jack – the two who went to secondary school – would regularly dispense their knowledge and advice with great vim. Perhaps the experience of secondary school gave them a confidence, or it was the impact of what they learned there. Phyllis would frequently remind us, her young nephews and nieces, how to brush our teeth, of the best foods to eat, to take time and chew you foods properly, and the benefits of learning and doing your lessons well. I recall a long lecture from her while brushing my teeth, endlessly it seemed, at the bathroom sink, probably at the time my teeth were damaged from too many sweets.
Phyllis had an independent streak influenced, undoubtedly by the strong will of her mother in steering the family through very challenging times, and by the opportunities opening up for women. When Phyllis was established in her nursing career, she bought her first car. On weekend visits home to Boggaun she was in great demand by her brothers and sister whose weekend exploits were usually limited by their bicycle or “shanks’ mare”.
One Sunday they planned a trip to the Park Cinema in Manorhamilton. Annie, her mother was against it believing such entertainment was not only morally dubious but certainly inappropriate for a Sunday evening. However, Richard, her father saw little harm in it saying that they should go and take Padraig Fitzpatrick who was in the house at the time. Padraig is a regularly informant for these stories. So, Wallace, his leg in a cast after a recent car accident, Ena, Cecil and Padraig piled into the Morris Minor with Phyllis and they drove off down the lane for an evening’s entertainment.
Perhaps they saw Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in full technicolour, in the war drama “From Here to Eternity” or Jane Russell and Marilyn Munroe in the lighter musical comedy “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, both box office hits at the time. Unusually, Padraig does not recall the film, but does remember the evening and driving home to Boggaun, leaving the limping Wallace behind as he had other interests in town.
During these years whether in Ballymena or Larkfield, Phyllis took us on day trips and when she worked at Magheramorne Hospital in the late 1950s we took Sunday drives from Ballymena to see her there, Phyllis cutting an impressive figure in her Matron’s uniform.
In 1951 Phyllis was a Registered Medical and Surgical Nurse in Belfast City Hospital Belfast, and by the end of the 1950s she was the Matron of the small Magheramorne Hospital, near Larne. In 1959 she was engaged to be married to Tommy when he tragically drowned in an accident. Phyllis was distraught with the loss, her world and plans turned upside down and she began to look in different directions. Having seen the adverts for nurses in Canada she decided on a fresh start there.
In 1960 she followed Alf, her brother to Toronto albeit by the easier air route – much had changed in the 12 years since Alf emigrated. There she took up a nursing post and was soon a fully Registered Nurse working in Toronto General Hospital. She missed her parents and wrote that she would “Love to get dad to go Canada, if I can only convince him that Ireland won’t move when he is away.” Unfortunately, he fell ill in 1961 when she came home to nurse him in his final weeks, stirring memories of Herbie’s death almost thirty years earlier. Her mother Annie would visit her in Toronto a few years later.
Not long after arriving she met Frank McBride and they were married in September 1961. Frank was a Scot via Merseyside and, like Phyllis was a recent arrival.
Two years later she encouraged my parents to send me to Toronto for the summer where I spent the time between Aunt Phyllis’ and Uncle Alf’s family. When Phyllis was not working she took me and her young son Graham on many trips around the city, memorably to see a live stadium-show of The Three Stooges and my first cinema experience seeing Danny Kaye in the comedy “The Man from the Diner’s Club”. At weekends we all travelled out of the city, to Niagara Falls, Muskoka Lakes, and up to the annual Davis reunion near Orangeville, among other destinations.
Using her first Brownie box camera Phyllis left a great store of photographs. Many of the ones used in this series of stories dating from the 1950s are most likely hers, and with others they provide a great family record of that time. Over the many visits she made back to Ireland we are grateful to Phyllis for corralling us into family photographs which would otherwise not have been taken. The one above is typical and was taken on the family’s visit to Larkfield about 1972, behind is the hay shed and almost hidden is Cecil’s Skoda car.