A hidden Irish contribution to WWII? Artist seeks former parachute factory workers

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
Website:  www.shadidlewis.com/recentwork

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.

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14 Responses to “A hidden Irish contribution to WWII? Artist seeks former parachute factory workers”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    Carolyn- Have you come across Mary Muldowney’s work on Irish women in WWII? I know she used a lot of oral history and interviewed people who were still alive. She may know of a source that you can use.

    Mary Muldowney, The Second World War and Irish Women. An Oral History., Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2007
    Mary Muldowney, New Opportunities for Irish Women. Employment in Britain during the Second World War., University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, 2006, p1 – 186
    Women Workers in Belfast and Dublin during the Second World War in, editor(s)Alan Hayes and Diane Urquhart , Irish Women’s History, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2002, pp168 – 186, [Mary Muldowney]
    Mary Muldowney, Just the way things were. Recollections of women workers in Dublin and Belfast 1939-45, UCD History Review, 13, 2002, p12 – 21

    Very intriguing story. I wish you all the best in your research and please keep us update.

    Best,
    Lisa

  2. Lean Says:

    The Irish Times often prints letters where Historians ask people to contact them if they have had a certain experience or were involved in a particular event, might be worth a try and smaller local papers too. It doesn’t cost anything so no harm.
    Lean

  3. Carolyn Shadid Lewis Says:

    Thanks Lisa and Lean!

    These are great suggestions. Mary Muldowney’s work looks fascinating, and I do hope that she might be able to connect me with one of her sources.

    Sending a letter to The Irish Times is an excellent suggestion. It is definitely worth a try, and I especially like the fact that it is free!

    Carolyn

  4. Ida Says:

    What about the Belfast Telegraph also? The Irish Times would not have a huge circulation in the north. I have heard of others from Clare who migrated to get employment in the north during the war.

  5. trish Says:

    What a lovely story Carolyn. I live not to far away and found the story very interesting. I hope you will find the remaining important pieces of history. I would love to know your outcome on this.
    Best Wishes

  6. P Freund Says:

    My mother Sylvia Nicol worked in a parachute factory in Sydney during WW2, I remember a miniature parachute with all the girls signatures on it. Must try and find it, my Mum is 90.
    Patricia

  7. Visual art Says:

    Visual art…

    […]A hidden Irish contribution to WWII? Artist seeks former parachute factory workers « Pue's Occurrences[…]…

  8. Esther Brett Says:

    Hi

    My mother worked in the parachute factory in Carrickfergus, making parachutes and supply droppers. She speaks about the experience often. Silk was used to make the parachutes. The supply droppers were filled with sand. I wasn’t aware of Mary Muldoneys research but will take a look at it.
    Esther

    • Carolyn Shadid Lewis Says:

      Hi Esther,

      I just now saw your post. Apologies for my delay in responding. I would love to hear about your mother’s experience in the parachute factory. Feel free to contact me directly. If you would like to read more about the project, you can do so here: http://www.shadidlewis.com/seams/

      Thanks for your interest in my work!

      Carolyn

  9. Maureen Says:

    Are you still looking for women that worked in the parachute factory in Carrickfergus. My mom did and talks about it often.

    • Carolyn Shadid Lewis Says:

      Hi Maureen,

      I would love to hear about your mother’s experience. Please feel free to contact me directly. Thanks for reaching out!

      Carolyn

      • Maureen Says:

        Hi
        what is the best way to get in touch with you?
        My mom worked there from 1943 until it closed down in 1946.
        Maureen

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