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The amazing story of the Irish nun who survived Hiroshima

Julia Canny and I met in Tokyo 40 years after the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb, and we immediately fell in love.

Adrian Millar

70 YEARS AGO today, my friend Julia was sitting in her garden when she saw a huge blinding flash of light in the sky and was thrown off her chair.

She picked herself up and ran inside her home for cover 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 neighbourhood.

Spared from radiation

She had just witnessed the world’s first atomic bomb, its epicenter a mere 1.7 kilometres 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.

A further 50,000 people died from raging fires in the hours that followed.

Julia and her friends were spared from the radiation by taking shelter in their convent, and saved from serious shrapnel injury when they ran out from the convent as it went up in flames behind them.

Julia and Adrian with Japanese friends Source: Adrian Millar

Concentration camp

Julia Canny was born in Clonbur, Co Galway, in 1894. She 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 boarded the last boat out of San Francisco to Japan before Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of war between Japan and the USA.

Upon disembarkation, she was immediately thrown into a concentration camp, the Japanese authorities presuming that she was an enemy American.

She was released six months later upon the intervention of the Swiss ambassador who proved she was an Irish citizen.

Total carnage

What lay before Julia’s eyes beyond the convent walls that morning of 6 August, 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, who had just said Mass for the Sisters – three French, two Italians and two Japanese citizens – stepped outside the convent walls just before the flash occurred.

He 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 four-kilometre journey.

Wasteland of corpses

They travelled 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 burn all the bodies in an elementary school that had been turned into an emergency centre near the Jesuit novitiate. The stench of human remains remained in the area for weeks.

Japan A-Bomb Hiroshima Photo Essay Hiroshima reduced to rubble after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945 Source: Associated Press

Falling in love

I met Julia for the first time some 40 years later. She was 92 and I was 24.

I was a student of Japanese at the University of Waseda in Tokyo, and we immediately fell in love.

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.

Memories of home

Julia never managed to return to Ireland. She wasn’t in Clonbur when her parents died or for her sisters’ marriages.

In the summer of 1985, I came home in her place, returning to Tokyo with photos of her octogenarian sisters, her parents’ graves and 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 hospitalised 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. It was All Saints’ Day.

Julia was my little saint, living by the 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 it. Nothing.

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 here

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