Mary Elmes, a Corkwoman and Trinity scholar, turned her back on a brilliant academic career to volunteer in two of the 20th century’s worst conflicts. When it was no longer safe to stay in Spain during the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War, she followed the Spanish refugees over the border into France and found herself in another war – World War II. She continued to help refugees and later risked her life to save Jewish children from deportation, writes Mary Rose McCarthy.
Marie Elisabeth Jean Elmes, later known as Mary, was born on the 5th of May 1908 and grew up in Ballintemple, a suburb of Cork city.
She was the first of two children born to parents Edward and Elisabeth who owned a pharmacy in Winthrop Street. John was her younger brother. They were a non-practising Protestant family.
From an early age, she showed an interest in global affairs. At the age of nine, she knitted socks for the British Army during WW1. She sent them to General Sir John French to distribute among the men. He sent her a signed portrait which she kept until it was stolen fifty years later.
Mary attended Rochelle school which today is known as Ashton School. She was a very bright student. Before enrolling at Trinity College Dublin, she took an extended tour of Europe including Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and France.
At Trinity, she studied French and Spanish modern literature and became a scholar of the university, an achievement reserved only for those of exceptional ability. She graduated with a First, and as top student of her year won the Gold Medal. On the recommendation of her professor, she was awarded a scholarship to the London School of Economics.
She became interested in politics but in her own words ‘was not in any way political.’ She and her colleagues kept a close eye on what was happening in Europe. During this time, she also met Miss Edith Pye, a Quaker who had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, by France for her relief work during WW1. When Mary met her, she was coordinating Quaker relief works in Spain.