As the world remembers Hiroshima, one man remembers a Galway survivor
70 years ago, Japan was introduced to the atomic bomb and the devastation that came with it when the USA attacked Hiroshima in 1945. The chances of an Irish person witnessing this historical event were slim; however, one Galway woman not only witnessed the first atomic bomb, but survived it too.
Born in Clonbur, Co. Galway, in 1894, Julia Canny lived a simple childhood, with no running water and plenty of open space surrounding the Kilbeg home she shared with her family.
“She used to go up to Kilbeg and bring sandwiches and lunch up to her father and uncle who were working in the bog in the 1900s,” says Adrian Miller, a Belfast-born writer who became very close to Julia near the end of her life.
“Times were really hard. The house that she was born into was knocked. It was just a ruin behind the farmhouse I went to visit in 1985 to meet her sisters who were in their 80s at the time.”
When Julia was in her 20s, her life changed immensely, taking her far away from the rural lifestyle she was used to in Co. Galway, and on to much bigger and brighter places.
“She left for America in 1921 and went to New York where she was for 10 years. And then one day, she found an article in a magazine, which gave her this notion of a vocation to a religious life,” says Adrian, retelling the story he heard from her so many years ago.
Julia spent a number of years with the Sisters of the Holy Souls in New York before taking another life-changing step. At the age of 46, in 1939, she boarded the last boat from San Francisco to Japan before Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of war between the USA and Japan.
“But when she made it to Japan, she was immediately arrested and put into a concentration camp because they thought she was an American citizen. They kept her locked up for six months,” says Adrian.
In fact, it was the intervention of the Swiss Ambassador that freed her from the concentration camp, after proving she was an Irish citizen.
Her life in Japan got off to a bad start and one would think six months in a concentration camp would be the worst thing to happen during her time in Asia. But this was far from true.
In 1945, near the end of World War II, the USA dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in what is considered to be one of the most horrific atrocities in military history.
On 6 August 1945, Julia was sitting in her garden when she saw a blinding flash of light coming from a blast that threw her off her chair. She immediately ran inside with her fellow Sisters of the Holy Souls and took shelter within the convent.
The convent in which Julia was living with her fellow nuns was a mere 1.7 kilometres away from the explosion which caused the whole building to tremble. The fact that she took shelter within the convent is what spared the nuns from the radiation.
But the convent, like the rest of Hiroshima, collapsed from the blast, leaving Julia and the other sisters lucky to have their lives after running outside in the nick of time.
But what lay before the nuns on that morning could only be described as total carnage as they made their way to a Jesuit novitiate outside Hiroshima, where fellow Jesuit priests had turned their chapel into a makeshift hospital.
The horrific journey from the collapsed convent to the makeshift hospital was filled with the dead and the dying. The nuns stopped to help as many people as they could, but with limited first aid materials, they were obliged to leave people to die.
It was 40 years later that Adrian Miller came into Julia’s life. She was 92 and he was 24 at the time, and they felt an intense connection.
“I felt really close to her. It was like she and I were on a desert island in the midst of 12 million people in Tokyo,” says Adrian.
“She had no Japanese. I spoke Japanese. I was Irish, from Belfast. I grew up in the midst of war. She knew about war. And our hearts met.”
The following year, in the summer of 1985, Adrian travelled home to Ireland and took a trip to her home place in Clonbur.
“I had only ever stayed one night in the Republic of Ireland before. It was totally foreign to me, being from Belfast and a war zone,” he says.
“I took the train to Dublin and I got on a train to Galway and took the bus to Clonbur or somewhere around there. And then I met the family and I got all the photographs.
“She’d never been home. She’d never seen her sisters in 60 years. And I took photographs of her parents’ graves – she’d never been to their funerals.
“And I returned to Tokyo and handed her the wad of photographs and she cried bittersweet tears. But there was laughter and she was saying, ‘what, there are roads?’ and ‘oh my god, there’s running water’. And there was a great joy in her heart because she saw things had progressed.”
Although she never returned home to Galway – not even for her sisters’ weddings or parents’ funerals – Julia kept up to date with everything that was happening in her family’s life.
“She never, ever left home in her heart. She communicated with this favourite niece, Margaret. And she never met her, but they were close. And she knew all that was going on with grand-nephews and nieces. But they never met.”
Julia’s “favourite niece” Margaret Canny married Tony Browne, who used to drive the school bus from Ballinrobe to Clonbur. Another surviving family member is Stephen Canny, the son of Julia’s brother, who still lives in Kilbeg.
Julia Canny led an extraordinary life, but without an education or the ability to speak Japanese, the second half of her life was spent in complete isolation.
“I was a total godsend to her and she was a gift to me. I was hungry for Irish people and there were no Irish people and there was no connection. And then we made this connection,” says Adrian.
She was bedridden and near the end of her life when Adrian knew her, and she would often raise the palms of her hands to him, telling him that she was suffering from the effects of the radiation from that day in 1945 that never left her memory.
Julia died in Japan, one month short of her 94th birthday, in 1987. It was All Saints’ Day.
Adrian Miller is currently working on his next book, The Silk Factory, which will be available in 2016. More information can be found at www.adrianmiller.ie.
**This article was written in summer 2015 for The Connacht Tribune.