Stitches in Time
A needle’s eye threw her a lifeline:
between finger & thumb
she pinched silver to make a little gold,
told her story via business card
Creating the Centena
I wanted to write about unsung Belfast writer Nesca Robb; even sifted through her notebooks at Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), but I couldn’t connect.
An online search unearthed another little-known story, about 15 Belgian refugees who spent the war years in Monaghan town, Ireland. It involved Leonie Leslie of the renowned Castle Leslie (she was also Winston Churchill’s aunt); three elegant, entrepreneurial young Belgian women and a refugee committee that included a Mrs Kieran! Are you kidding? I was hooked.
Leonie Leslie was amazing. She persuaded the group to come to Ireland only weeks after her son, Norman had died at the front, at Armentières. When the Belgians arrived, the committee had gath-ered several townsfolk to welcome them at the train station, all wearing Belgian colours in their la-pels. Wow!
All the refugees wanted was ‘to be together and alone with their grief.’ They were delighted to be allocated four large houses, a recent conversion of the old military barracks, it was soon named Belgian Square.
The three entrepreneurs were Jeanne, Slyvie and Izette De Neve. They were talented needlework-ers and Jeanne immediately promoted their skills with a business card. Soon, they began to teach local woman lace-making and embroidery skills. They got involved with Kathleen McNally and her husband to develop the Bel-Broid lingerie factory, which thrived many years after their departure.
On a beautiful spring day, I set out for Monaghan from Belfast, to meet Deborah from the Clogher Historical Society based in St Maccartan’s College. After I’d unintentionally interviewed two Leaving Cert boys, nervously waiting to take their Irish Oral exam; “it’ll be fine lads, you’ll be great,” I eventually found her. Good news, she’d tracked down a book, ‘Belgian Square 1914 – 2014’, which I’d thought was only available for reference, but this one was for sale, from the postman. Pat was still on his rounds – we’d meet him after the tour. Deborah was great. She pointed out Belgian Square, possibly the prettiest street in Monaghan, the disused train station, the old YMCA where another refugee taught French, the McNally’s former home up the hill from the factory site, and the museum; it holds just one Bel-Broid garment in its possession. We walked, talked, had lunch and even kept the Bishop waiting for his afternoon appointment.
Afterwards I visited Castle Leslie and spoke to an elderly staff member who corroborated the doc-umented accounts of Lady Leslie’s war efforts and showed me the family portraits.
I then tracked down Adrienne Czerwin-Abbott, Jeanne’s niece living in Dublin, who kindly agreed to meet, and I discovered she too is a prize-winning embroider. Days later the Bel-broid garment I’d found online arrived from Lily, a vintage seller based in Glasgow – although a perfect fit, it was not quite a Cinderella moment.
Leonie, Jeanne, Sylvie, Izette, Kathleen, Deborah, Adrienne, Lily and me, a former textile designer are being stitched together (even Nesca gets a mention), and I’ve only just threaded the needle.
Lives of the First World War
Read more about the international community of ‘Silks’ postcard makers here.
26 is a group of writers whose purpose is to inspire a greater love of words in business and in life.