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Nursing The Troubles by Megan Kelly

In 2019 the BBC released a documentary[1] which showcased interviews with nurses that had worked during ‘The Troubles.’ Compelling and poignant, one of the exceptional features of the documentary was just how willing and keen nurses were to share their stories.

‘The Troubles’ (1969-1998), was an extraordinary series of civil conflict that took the lives of close to 4000 and injured over 40,000. Considering the scale of violence, nurses were amongst a select few who were stationed at the frontline and who helped pick up the pieces after such terrible events. In the documentary one nurse recalled, ‘these were not things you were prepared for.’ This was followed by accounts which included nurses recalling that ‘The Troubles’ had left a last marking on them. As one put it, ‘you got so angry inside yourself, and thought, what was this all about?’[2]

These two statements alone were proof of the emotional toll that ‘nursing’ the frontline in Belfast exerted. Taking up this theme, my PhD looks at how nurses managed and often repressed their natural emotions in order to carry on with their work. In the imagination of the public, nurses are calm and stoic caregivers. My thesis unravels this tension and examines the appearance versus reality of nursing in post-war Belfast. In doing so, it explores the emotional labour of acute care nurses in the Belfast area, covering their reactions to cataclysmic events such as Bloody Sunday (1972) and the Omagh Bombing (1998).

The reason I chose Belfast and its surrounding environs was because the hospitals in these areas were often at the frontline of violence. Thus far, my interviews with the nurses have revealed that by living and working in the same area, many nurses had to work hard to balance their work and personal lives during this trying time. It was also interesting to speak with nurses who came from rural communities and worked in Belfast. Some of these nurses knew very little of the conflict before their career began and talking about this transition was fascinating.

Coined by Hochschild (1983), the term ‘emotional labour’ captures the significant gender differences in emotion work and emotion management behaviours. Emotional labour considers any occasion in which a person adapts their emotion to suit the workplace and this can have lasting effects such as emotional burnout. My thesis therefore examines the ‘emotional labour’ that nurses on the frontline performed during ‘The Troubles.’ In doing so, it explores the tension between the ways in which the nurses would have been trained – to remain professional and emotionally distant – and the reality of very emotionally demanding work during this turbulent period.

While there is an extensive literature on the emotional labour of nurses (in non-conflict settings), the concept has not yet been applied to understand the experiences of acute nurses in Northern Ireland.  One of my key research questions concerns the ways in which nurses had to manage their emotions – this might be having to adapt to the trauma of seeing an injured child or simply having to cope with sectarian tensions amongst patients and visitors –  and what happened when this wasn’t possible.

In carrying out my research I have conducted oral history interviews with retired and current nurses. In encouraging nurses to speak freely about their experiences, I offered my interviewees an opportunity to share their narratives, enabling me to shed light on the history and experiences of a group of women to whom history has paid little attention.

In examining the extent to which nurses dealt with the daily impact of ‘The Troubles’, including death, injury, workplace violence, my PhD examines the emotional labour that nurses were compelled to undertake in their jobs. It is my hope that sharing the story of nurses can help evoke an inclusive narrative that moves beyond sectarianism.

Megan Kelly is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. She specialises in the emotional labour of acute nurses who worked during ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Megan also has an interest in sharing hidden narratives of ‘The Troubles’ and encouraging lesser known stories to be heard through the medium of oral history and storytelling. Megan is due to submit her PhD in 2021 and is excited to share this piece as an insight into her work; of which the core is to encourage the sharing the nurse’s story.

Reference list

Hochschild, A.R (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, California: University of California Press

Online sources

BBC (2019) Nurses on the Frontline, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs1DM3g2ZqA

[1] BBC (2019) On the Frontline: Nurses on the Frontline , Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06n66y5/on-the-frontline-nurses-on-the-frontline (Accessed: 28th September 2020)

[2] Ibid; 2019