Across the divide: The story of republican Winnie Carney and unionist George McBride

Co Down historian Allison Murphy tells the story of the enduring but unlikely love between a Belfast unionist who fought in the Somme and a Catholic republican and feminist who stormed Dublin's GPO along with James Connolly in 1916

The only surviving photograph of George McBride and and Winnie Carney (back right)together Picture: Courtesy of the District Trades Union Council
Joanne Sweeney

LIFELONG Belfast unionist George McBride reeled in horror as he watched news reports of Michael Stone's murderous attack in Milltown Cemetery in 1988.

During his random grenade and gun attack on unsuspecting republican mourners, the loyalist vigilante had dared to run over the grave of his beloved wife, Winifred (Winnie) Carney, a fervent Irish revolutionary who had entered Dublin's GPO during the 1916 Rising alongside James Connolly.

The elderly man who fought and survived the Battle of the Somme screamed to Stone on the television screen: "One footprint on her grave and I will show you what a soldier is."

That's the scene that historian Allison Murphy's mother-in-law witnessed during her devoted care of McBride as he spent his final days in a retirement home.

And now Murphy has honoured a request by Rita Murphy to tell the story of the politically diametrically opposed couple in her new book Winnie & George: An Unlikely Union.

"I think Rita would have been delighted as it was the one thing that she asked of me," said Allison ahead of the book's Belfast launch at Titanic Quarter's Dock Cafe last night.

"When George died, he gave her this gorgeous wooden Victorian writing box which had belonged to his beloved Winnie. She then passed it on to me because she thought that I would be the one to tell their story. Rita told me to make sure that ordinary people could read it and remember George and Winnie on how they were still able to live, love and be happy."

The Victorian writing box that belonged to Winnie Carney and later given to writer Allison Murphy by her mother-in-law Rita

Rita, now dead herself, could not have picked a better writer to tell the couple's story as although Allison worked for most of her career as a teacher in Knockbreda Primary School in Belfast, she has a deep love of history.

Now retired and living in Portaferry, Co Down with her husband, she still researches and writes text for historical exhibitions – her latest, for the reopening of the east wing of Belfast City Hall, will be on show to the public from April.

In writing Winnie & George, Allison combines the role of historian with storytelling skills, ensuring the stories of the two main characters, and those of other historical figures including James Connolly, are factually correct. However, she has reimagined some of the conversations that the couple had in their relationship amid some of the most exciting and challenging periods in Irish and British history.

"There's really three stories in the book; there's Winnie and George, Winnie and James and George and Rita," explains Allison. "Rita really admired and respected George because as she looked after him, she developed this great friendship with him because of her background.

"She too was raised a Catholic in Belfast and met and married a soldier who was just back from Burma. But her family disowned her and she never saw or spoke to her father again."

A Church of Ireland unionist, George had returned a war hero after surviving serving with Ulster's 36th division at the battles of the Somme, Messines, Ypres and St Quentin and being taken prisoner of war.

A strapping six footer – he was at least a foot taller than his petite wife – he was expected to marry a local Protestant girl and raise a family.

Winnie, borne in Bangor and raised as a Catholic in the Falls Road, was a young suffragette-minded woman who became one of the first women in Belfast to train as a secretary. This career led her to becoming secretary to Connolly in 1912 as well as a supporter of his socialist ideals.

She was the first woman to enter the GPO, going in with a typewriter under one arm – she typed up Connolly's dispatches during the Rising – and holding a revolver in the other hand.

After being jailed when the rebellion failed, she returned to Belfast, disillusioned with politics, only to fall in love with a unionist 10 years her junior.

The marriage certificate of Winnie and George (author's collection)

George was in his mid-20s when he married Winnie at the age of 37 in Holyhead. Through their shared love of socialism, and working for the common man, the two had met at a Labour Party meeting in Belfast. They were happily married for 15 years, but had no children.

Although George was in his mid-40s when Winnie died, he never sought another wife.

Allison adds: "One of the things about the book, and it's something that I feel quite strongly on, is that we spend a lot of time talking about people here overcoming differences but George and Winnie didn't overcome their differences; they accepted their difference.

"She never stopped being a republican, he never stopped being a unionist. According to Winnie's niece, they debated every day but could respect and live with their differences. To me their life is a message of hope in this country."

::Winnie & George: An Unlikely Union by Allison Murphy is published by Mercier Press (€12.99).

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