This week Dan MacCarthy looks at Kay Summersby's life on Inishbeg
She first encountered him at Paddington Station London, and as he approached she noticed he had “nice broad shoulders”. Kay McCarthy-Morrogh who was born on Inishbeg island in West Cork was working in London during World War II when she encountered the man who was to become the supreme commander of Allied Forces during World War II and later president of the US: General Dwight D Eisenhower.
Eisenhower (Ike) was in London to work out a strategy with the British to invade North Africa and drive back the Nazis. He needed a driver and when she was detailed to pick up a contingent of US top brass, she met the general. After waiting three days she was only required to drive Eisenhower a half mile to Claridges.
“Yet that quickie trip was to start me on travel through England, Ireland, Scotland, North Africa, Egypt, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Palestine, Iceland, Denmark, Hungary, America, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, even Russia,” she wrote in Eisenhower was my Boss, In 1936 she married Gordon Thomas Summersby but soon divorced him.
Prior to being deployed to Eisenhower she had driven an ambulance during the London blitz. After working as a model she signed up with the Motor Transport Corps. That job was looked on disdainfully by Cockneys and newspaper hacks as ”the only requirements deemed necessary for the job were 1) ability to drive a motor car and 2) ability to drape oneself in chic fashion at the Ritz or Dorchester bars”. Summersby soon proved her mettle when the Luftwaffe arrived in 1940 “in full terrifying, horrifying strength — 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off as the bombs rained down.
“Blood and death became as commonplace as a cigarette,” she wrote.
Then some of the drivers of the Motor Transport Corps were transferred to US army headquarters and she had her famous meeting. Off-duty pursuits with Eisenhower followed. He liked to play poker and to strum West Point songs on his guitar. And from the upper echelons of US politics to British, and meetings with the prime minister Winston Churchill.
Whether she and Eisenhower were lovers is not known but Eisenhower was known to have considered divorcing his wife and marrying Summersby but was dissuaded as it would have risked a political career.
Life on Inishbeg was idyllic in their ‘Sheltered Life’, she wrote. Her passion was to sail down the four miles to the Atlantic with her brother and three sisters. “There was a succession of governesses, hunts, riding in the fields and the long avenue fringed with old trees, the usual pattern of that obsolete world.”
Her military awards included the Legion of Merit, Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, European Campaign Medal, World War Two Victory Medal and Army of Occupation Medal. She became an American citizen and died in Rhode Island in 1975. Her ashes were brought back to Cork.
Inishbeg is a riverine island as opposed to lacustrine (lakes) or maritime (sea). It is the most northerly of the famous Carbery’s Hundred Isles which number only about half that number. It lies close to the mainland and is connected to the eastern bank of the Ilen River by a short causeway. However, this wasn’t always the case and the island has characteristics of an island nonetheless. There is a sense of separateness on such islands (Valentia Island, Great Island perhaps) that was probably passed on over the generations. St Fachtna reputedly received the ‘Book of Dues’ at Ard-na-b-Partan (Crab-fish hill) on the island in the sixth century.
Nowadays, the island is a holiday centre with self-catering cottages where visitors birdwatch, fish, boat and stroll beneath the canopy of the woods. The Inishbeg estate has an awardwinning garden with among many other species specimens of almond, pear, quince, medlar, cherry and plum trees.
If you visit, consider the incredible life of Kay Summersby, née McCarthy-Morrogh.