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Hannah 'Ruth' Ormsby

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Hannah 'Ruth' Ormsby, artwork commissioned by and used with permission of UNISON

Hannah Rutledge Ormsby, who went by the name of ‘Ruth’, was born in Dromore West in County Sligo, Ireland in 1901. She trained as a nurse in Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the 1920s, and in 1936 she moved down to the join the staff of the Maudsley Hospital as a Temporary Nurse, it seems in order to train as a mental health nursing professional.

It’s almost certain that her position in Glasgow was one better paid than the training post she held in the Maudsley, so it’s hard to ascribe any motive to her other than an altruistic desire to improve and broaden her skills. The Maudsley was the leading psychiatric training institution in the British Isles, so if this was an area of interest for Ruth it makes sense that she travelled all the way from Scotland to become a member of staff. That she still gave her address as being in Ireland is perhaps also telling- she may have planned to move closer to home to help with mental health care in Ireland once her training had finished.

Being a temporary nurse was a difficult, precarious position in the 1930s, and Ruth leaving the Maudsley only a year later in 1937 would not have been an untypical experience for her contemporaries in that role. However it’s here that Ruth’s story becomes much more unique as it seems that she resigned from the Maudsley in order to volunteer with the International Brigade in Spain, fighting the forces of Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans.

The Civil War in Spain was a confused and bloody conflict, but from what historians have been able to piece together it seems that Ruth served in specialist medical teams, providing assistance as a senior surgical theatre nurse operating just behind the front lines of the conflict.

Having survived the sorts of horrors that led to Pablo Picasso's work ‘Guernica’, it seems both tragic and horrifying that Ruth lost her life not in the fighting, but in a fire in Barcelona some way from the front lines. She was on leave from her duties in a medical residential block which was engulfed in flame on 7th May, 1938. She and others tried to escape the fire by jumping from their seventh floor apartment, but she did not survive the attempt.

As with other Republican fighters, it’s believed that Ruth was buried in an unmarked grave near to where she died. However, her story has recently been rediscovered thanks to dedicated work by historians of the period and also the UNISON Trade Union (for whom we thank for some of these images). Ruth was the only Irish woman to die in the conflict, but there were over 200 Irish volunteers in the International Brigade and 70 of her countrymen also lost their lives in the War. Although the returning soldiers were often ostracised on their return home to what was a neutral Ireland, their stories are also now being excavated from the archives and told to a more receptive public on the International Brigades website. A commemorative plaque for Ruth was unveiled just outside her home town in 2018, and Johnny Gogan, the historian who first bought Ruth to our attention, will present 'Behind the Lines', his film on her life, to the Galway Film Festival in July 2024.

Ormsby entry in SRM01

Ruth's entry in the Maudsley staff register SRM-01 at Bethlem Museum of the Mind

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Ruth Ormsby and colleagues in Spain, courtesy of UNISON