VAD Card for Mary Maud Harper, Sphagnum Moss Collector

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VAD Card for Mary Maud Harper, Sphagnum Moss Collector, Portumna Castle, Co. Galway.

I came across this VAD Card for Miss Mary Maud Harper and was intrigued to find out more. The card details Miss Harper’s First World War Service as a Moss Collector at the Sphagnum Moss Association, Portumna Castle, Co Galway.

The dates of service are not completed on the card, but it is partially stamped with the date of 22nd December. The card gives Miss Harper’s address at the time as Portumna Castle. Her previous address of Hollymount, Co. Mayo is still visible on the card despite having been struck through. Whilst the service card for another Sphagnum Moss collector describes their ‘invaluable contribution,’ Miss Harper is described as producing ‘good work from time to time.’ This perhaps provides an insight into the mindset of someone who was likely quite young and away from home for the first time.

The Irish Red Cross, or Crois Dhearg na hÉireann, was established in 1939, with its inaugural meeting being held on 5th September 1939. Coincidentally, this was the day that the Second World War started. During the First World War, it was the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John that recruited an estimated 2,000 Irish women as Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) to work in a variety of settings to provide aid to people affected by the war. Moss Collection in the grounds of 17th century castle was certainly the most unusual of these.

The absorbent properties of Sphagnum Moss or ‘bog moss’ had been known since medieval times and the plant had been used to some extent during the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars. However, it was a shortage of cotton during the First World War that led to demand soaring. Dried Sphagnum Moss can absorb up to twenty times its own volume of liquid and has antiseptic properties. Sphagnum bandages kept wounds sterile by keeping the pH level around the wound low, stopping the growth of bacteria. Sphagnum Moss thrives in the peaty soil of Ireland and Scotland and in Ireland, Red Cross sphagnum moss centres were set up in every county to keep up with demand. Female volunteers, like Mary Harper collected enough sphagnum moss to make close to one million dressings.

Portumna Castle where Mary was based is about 10 minutes from where I grew up and yet I knew nothing about this part of its history. It has been interesting to find out more about this little-known area of Red Cross work and to find a connection so close to home.

Audio Recording by Conor Burns (Volunteer), London.
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