Solving the puzzle of the  wartime heroine buried in an unmarked grave

Janie McCarthy was a teacher from Killarney who saved countless Allied soldiers during WW2. A new campaign in her homeplace of Killarney aims to see her remembered and celebrated
Solving the puzzle of the  wartime heroine buried in an unmarked grave

The street where Janie McCarthy lived in Paris. She risked her life to save countless Allied soldiers during the Second World War.

In February, tour guide and genealogist Mary G O’Sullivan made an unsettling discovery. Janie McCarthy, the Irishwoman, and fellow Killarney native, who risked her life to save countless Allied soldiers during the Second World War was buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Paris.  How did a woman decorated by three countries for her work with the French Resistance end up in an ossuaire (or ossuary) with hundreds of others? 

“She was courageous and patriotic, and her spirit inspired others. It is a tragedy that she lies in a paupers’ grave in Levallois-Per cemetery,” Ms O’Sullivan says, still moved by the experience.  Had it not been for her meticulous research, we might not even know where Janie McCarthy, the teacher who escorted downed pilots out of wartime Paris to safety, was buried.  

Janie McCarthy: "She was courageous and patriotic, and her spirit inspired others."
Janie McCarthy: "She was courageous and patriotic, and her spirit inspired others."

Mary G O’Sullivan traced her first to a plot in the same cemetery which had been leased to a Cornelius Healy. When that lease lapsed, 10 years after Janie’s death in 1964, her remains were exhumed and transferred to a communal plot.  It is such an ignoble end for a woman who wore her wartime medals with pride on summertime trips home to Killarney but now, at least, she is being commemorated in her hometown. 

Last week, a campaign by councillors Michael Gleeson and later John O’Donoghue bore fruit when a plaque dedicated to the war heroine was unveiled by Killarney mayor Marie Moloney.  There have been suggestions that her remains be expatriated too but, as Mary G O’Sullivan points out, it would be near impossible to identity them in a mass grave.  

It is possible, however, to revive the story of a woman who was once much more widely known. When she died in 1964, for example, this newspaper carried a laudatory obituary tracing her journey from New Street in Killarney to live with a family in Brittany in 1910 where she learned French. She went on to become a teacher and, unusually for a foreigner, was awarded the prestigious Ordre des Palmes académiques in 1918 for her service to education.

Her obituary enthuses about her teaching ability and the devotion of her former students: “Sons and daughters of princes and kings of royal households of places as far away as Indo-China studied under her and were proud to be called her friends.  

“On many of her visits to Killarney she brought some of these students with her. The evidence that some of them were captivated by Killarney remains in paintings, sketches and letters they have left behind.”  

The newspaper went on to describe how Professor McCarthy, as the paper called her, displayed great heroism during the Second World War, working with a number of Resistance networks and escape lines which helped aviators to find safe passage out of France.  

“Her modus operandi was simple. She simply enrolled refugees as members of her classes or as professors and ‘members of Prof McCarthy’s staff’.”  

On one occasion, the paper noted, she moved through a Gestapo inspection in the Metro with an American officer, who did not know a word of French, by passing him off as a deaf person who could not speak. 

“On another occasion, she escaped being captured by being 15 minutes late for an appointment with another Resistance member,  Elisabeth Barbier, who was taken to Buchenwald [concentration camp] and underwent severe torture.”  

The article went on to list her awards, among them a Resistance medal and croix de guerre for bravery from France, a Tedder certificate for helping British service personnel and an American Medal of Freedom.  

The house in Brittany where Janie McCarthy lived.
The house in Brittany where Janie McCarthy lived.

Yet, a few short decades later, when Mary G O’Sullivan was doing research for a walking tour of her native Killarney, she saw no mention of this local heroine in any of the historical material about the town. Janie McCarthy had been forgotten.  What happened next, however, is remarkable. The more Mary G O’Sullivan began to delve into Janie McCarthy’s story for her dissertation on genealogy, the more she found she had in common with her subject. 

Both women left Killarney to go to France to learn French when they were in their 20s. They both studied at the Sorbonne even taking the exact same course, langue et civilisation française, but exactly 60 years apart.   And, they lived within a stone’s throw of each other in the third arrondisement in the centre of Paris.  While reading her archived file, Mary G O’Sullivan could clearly visualise the area as she retraced Janie McCarthy’s steps from her chambre de bonne, or maid’s quarters, on the top floor of number 64, rue Saint Anne, to visit other people in the Resistance nearby to plan how they would help aviators escape.  Elisabeth Barbier, mentioned in the obituary, was a former student and that is how Janie McCarthy was first introduced to the Resistance around 1940.  “Through her friend Elisabeth Barbier, Janie got to know and work alongside members of the Comet network (Réseau Comète),” Ms O’Sullivan says. 

That network specialised in getting aviators into Spain and Gibraltar, English territory. It helped to lodge aviators, get them civilian clothes and false documents and then, using the same route, the members of the Resistance set off by train from Paris via Bordeaux to Bayonne and on to St Jean de Luz, in the French Basque country.

There, the aviators were handed over to trusted guides who took over and smuggled the men into Spain.  If one network was discovered, its members helped another. 

As Mary G O’Sullivan says: “Elisabeth had many contacts and introduced Janie McCarthy to many different networks and people.”  

 It was very dangerous work, as became all too clear when Janie’s close associate was arrested. Several of her Resistance colleagues were deported or, in some cases, shot, yet after the war Janie’s work was not considered of a grade high enough to receive financial compensation.  That irks Mary G O’Sullivan but perhaps not as much as the fact that her life and work was forgotten in the decades after her death. 

The mass grave in which Janie McCarthy is buried.
The mass grave in which Janie McCarthy is buried.

At least now, Janie McCarthy is visible in her hometown and her story is being fleshed out by researchers such as O’Sullivan and others.  

 “This will help her spirit be remembered and applauded by future generations as she rightly deserves,” says the woman who retraced Janie McCarthy’s footsteps in an attempt to solve the puzzle of her life, and death.  

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