Contributed by Carolyn Shadid Lewis
I have a small flare parachute dated 1944. It first appears to be a delicate object made of silk fabric with flowing tendrils. Yet, if it had lived out its purpose, it would have lit up the sky of a WWII battlefield. My friend gave me the flare a few years ago after discovering my fascination with military parachutes, paratroopers, and WWII. He explained to me that his Irish grandmother, Lucille McNulty, made the flare while she worked as a seamstress in a military parachute factory during WWII. As we talked, I realized that the experience of Irish women workers like Lucille was an extremely compelling subject matter, one rich in poetic imagery, history, Irish culture, and female identity.
I have since lost touch with my friend, and although I cannot find any information on his grandmother, I have not forgotten her. I have decided to explore her experience through the shared stories of others in a new documentary project. I am an American artist, and I will be the artist-in-residence at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Co. Cork for August and September. While at Cobh, I hope to travel throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland recording interviews with women who worked as seamstresses in military parachute factories during WWII.
My proposed task has proven to be difficult, and I cannot seem to find women who have this experience. I am contributing to Pue’s Occurrences in the hopes that the history community here might be able to provide some insight.
Through my research, I do know that a parachute factory operated during the war in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. I contacted the town’s heritage center, and they confirmed that the factory manufactured military parachutes and decoy dummies for the Allies. They also told me that after the war, the factory became a wool and worsted yarn mill. It is now Barn Mills, an apartment complex for tourists.
I know that Lucille McNulty lives in County Clare, (ironically, where my Irish family roots originate.) I believe Lucille moved to the North to work during the war and then moved back after the war was over. I suspect that this might have been the case for many Irish women. I have not been able to find any evidence that a military factory was in operation in the Republic of Ireland, and I imagine it is because any overt work for the Allies would have been a breach of Ireland’s neutrality.
I have put a few calls out with newspapers in every county in order to find participants for the project. I have also contacted heritage officers and other Irish history chat rooms, but I have not heard anything back at this point. One reporter told me that she did know women who worked in various military factories, but they have since passed away. Sadly, I am afraid this might be the case with most of the women who have this experience, but I am holding out hope that some are still alive.
So, readers, I guess this is what I am asking of you: could you tell your mothers, grandmothers, great aunts, and neighbors about this project? They might have worked as seamstresses or know of someone else who has. I believe the subject matter is important. These women provide a very particular memory of history, one that might have easily been forgotten. I want to give them a platform to remember and to be remembered. If you can assist in this project in any way, my contact information is below.
Email: carolynshadid AT gmail DOT com
Carolyn Shadid Lewis is a Boston-based multimedia artist whose interdisciplinary approach to storytelling incorporates stop-motion animation, surround sound and video installation. She received an M.F.A. from the Studio for Interrelated Media at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she currently teaches digital media in the college’s Studio Foundations department.