By Adrian Millar
Seventy years ago today my friend Julia was sitting in her garden when she saw a huge blinding flash of light in the sky and she was thrown off her chair. She picked herself up and ran for cover inside her home along with her fellow religious sisters – all Sisters of the Holy Souls in Hiroshima. Suddenly, there was a deafening explosion and the convent building began to shake. Terrified, she ran outside as the convent collapsed at their heels. The convent wall collapsed before her very eyes. Where the wall had stood lay the remains of her neighborhood.
She had just witnessed the world’s first atomic bomb, its epicenter a mere 1.7 kilometers away. She was probably the only Irish citizen to do so. In that instant, 50,000 people had been burnt to death – secondary school children, hospital patients and staff, factory workers, shoppers, kindergarten children and teachers, entire families.
In the hours that followed, a further 50,000 people died from the fires that raged. Julia and her friends had been spared from the radiation by taking shelter in their convent, and had been spared from serious shrapnel injury when they had run out from the convent as it went up in flames behind them.
Julia Canny was born in Clonbur, Co. Galway, in 1894. She had joined the Sisters of the Holy Souls in New York in the early 1930s at the age of 39. At the age of 46, in 1939, she had boarded the last boat out of San Francisco to Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war between Japan and the USA. Upon disembarkation, she was immediately thrown into a concentration camp, the Japanese authorities having presumed that she was an enemy American. She was released six months later upon the intervention of the Swiss ambassador who proved that she was an Irish citizen.
What lay before Julia’s eyes beyond the convent walls that morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when she ran back outside again, was a scene of total carnage: black smoke, fires, loud explosions, the injured and the dead everywhere. People with black faces and huge burns on their bodies. Mothers carrying their burning children, the less grievously injured carrying the gravely injured on their backs as they tried to beat a path away from the raging fires in the city towards the nearby hills.
A German Jesuit priest, Fr. Kopp, had just said Mass for the Sisters – three French, two Italians and two Japanese citizens among them – and had just stepped outside the convent walls when the flash occurred. Fr. Kopp was injured by falling shrapnel and had his hand burned by the radioactive blast, but together with the sisters he began to try to save valuables from the burning convent. They had time to bury some things in an open field before fleeing. The convent burned to the ground behind them.
Together they made their way to the Jesuit novitiate just outside Hiroshima, where fellow Jesuit priests had turned their chapel into a makeshift hospital. It took Fr. Kopp and the Sisters of the Holy Souls five hours to make the 4-kilometer journey to their destination.
They traveled through a burnt out wasteland full of the dead and the dying. They stopped to help those that they could, but with little by way of First Aid materials, they were obliged to leave people to die. An hour after their arrival at the novitiate, a tornado rose up out of the sea and the dying and injured who had sought refuge by the river drowned. It took a company of soldiers three full days to cremate all the bodies in an elementary school that had been turned into an emergency centre nearby the Jesuit novitiate. The stench of human remains remained in the area for weeks.
I met Julia Canny for the first time 40 years later. She was aged 91; I was 24. I was a student of Japanese at the University of Waseda, in Tokyo. I immediately fell in love. So did she. She was “holed up” – bedridden, effectively - in a convent house in Tokyo and didn’t have a word of Japanese. It was 1984. I was her “television” because I brought her news of the outside world – and I was Irish, a “boon” – a gift to her at the end of her life. She had never returned to Ireland. She hadn’t been in Clonbur when her parents died or for her sisters’ marriages. I came home in her place. In the summer of 1985, I visited her home-place. I returned to her in Tokyo with photos of her octogenarian sisters, her parents’ graves, her former school. “Oh, my God, they have running water!” she said. She cried bittersweet tears.
On her “down” days, she would raise the palms of her hands pleadingly to me and tell me that she was suffering from the effects of the radiation – her palms reddened. I would cajole her back to life. When she was hospitalized at the age of 93, I was at her bedside everyday demanding her to live. She finally died one month short of her 94th birthday, in 1987. All Saints Day.
She was my little saint.
She lived by one simple tenet: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do onto me.”
She knew that the people of Hiroshima were important.
She knew that the people who suffer most in war are always the civilian casualties.
It’s still the same today – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and, not so long ago, in Northern Ireland.
Nothing justifies their suffering.
And how do you stop it?
That’s easy: you stop.
You make peace. For the sake of the least of these.
Father to three daughters, Adrian Millar is a stay-at-home dad and writer. He is the compiler and editor of The Beauty Of Everyday Life, thirty-five stories by some of Ireland's best known personalities, in aid of TeenLine Ireland. In 2016, The Silk Factory, his novel inspired by the life of Sr. Issac Jogues, will be available on Amazon. You can follow Adrian on Twitter @AdrianMillar and on www.adrianmillar.ie.