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A tribute to Gilda O’Neill

– Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter

We are midwives and authors of The Midwife’s Tale: from handywoman to professional midwife. In the 1980s, through a series of contacts from family, friends and the Royal College of Midwives, we interviewed elderly retired midwives and women who gave birth before the National Health Service (NHS) was set up in 1948. The stories we were told were very moving and we were lucky enough in the early 1990s to be offered the opportunity by Scarlet Press to publish them in a book. And that’s how we met Gilda O’Neill.

We would like to try to explain why Gilda was so important to us. When Scarlet Press took us on we had a lot of wonderful stories and little idea about how to bring them to life in a manuscript. Ann Treneman, our editor at Scarlet Press, had the brain wave and generosity to commission Gilda to help us with this task.

We met with Gilda and showed her how we had cut up our transcripts and arranged the data into ‘themes’. She was enthusiastic about how we could use these ‘themes’ to create chapters and tell the stories of birth, mother hood and midwifery in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. We made a plan together about how we could write a draft manuscript.

Around that time Nicky was given a small Apple Mac computer in return for being a midwife at the birth of a baby whose parents had access to computers but no money. She took the computer and a small printer and went to stay with her sister Annie Scotland in rural Somerset.

Fed and watered regularly by Annie, Nicky spent over 12 hours a day at the computer writing drafts of chapters. Each day she would print out two copies of recent drafts, walk down to the post office and send them ‘first class’ (next day delivery) through the post: one draft to Billie (now living in the Outer Hebrides) and one to Gilda. They, in turn, would mark up the drafts with suggestions and send them back through the post ‘first class’. And so it went on until everyone was happy with a draft to send (through the post, first class) to our Scarlet Press editor, Ann Treneman, who would edit our drafts and send them back (through the post, first class) . . . Eventually there were proofs.

We still have hard copies of the drafts that Gilda sent back to us. The margins are littered with expletives like ‘Blimey!’ ‘Bloody Hell!’ and ‘That is incredible!’ next to our quotes. Gilda’s sense of humour was infectious and her capacity for friendship and enthusiasm was unbounded. We had such fun engaging with her and treasure what we learnt from her.

This encouragement and guidance from Gilda made us believe that we could do it – she ‘midwifed’ us through the process of bringing together the ‘amazing’ quotes with minimal text around them; just enough to bring them together with a sense of cohesion that did not distract from the raw energy of people’s testimonies. The Midwife’s Tale: from handywoman to professional midwife was published in 1993 and launched at the Royal College of Midwives. We have some photos of Gilda at the launch and remember the wonderful speech she made about her enthusiasm for the stories in the book. She was able to combine humour with poignancy and we remember her talking of women’s lives in a way that was very moving.

Over the next 20 years The Midwife’s Tale continued to be enjoyed by many people. In 2012, we were delighted when Pen and Sword Books invited us to publish a new edition of The Midwife’s Tale. Scarlet Press was no longer operating and it was getting hard to find copies at a reasonable price. With increasing interest in midwifery history due to the popular TV dramatisation of Call the Midwife, many people were asking where they could get hold of a copy.

When we knew that there was to be a new edition, we went online to find Gilda and let her know, anticipating her excitement. We were so sad to find a Guardian obituary written by Lorraine Gamman.

As Lorraine’s obituary stated:

‘Gilda had a nuanced understanding of ordinary lives . . . she figured out how to use story telling, lived experience and memory to draw political parallels’

(Lorraine Gamman, Guardian 6 October 2010).

In thinking about this and what we had learned from Gilda, it was easy to arrive at a decision not to meddle with the way she had helped us tell the stories in a major re-writing of the book. In returning to The Midwife’s Tale for re-publication with Pen & Sword we have tried to stay faithful to what Gilda taught us, exemplified here in this quote from her book about going ‘opping (hopping’) in Kent: Pull No More Bines. We’ve placed the quote under the dedication to Gilda in the new edition of The Midwife’s Tale:

‘Each version of a story has its own truth. And our myths, whether of the universal, numinous kind, or of the more prosaic family variety, are used by us to tell and retell truths in ways that mean we can make sense of our world’.

(Gilda O’Neill, Pull No More Bines, 1990)

We learnt so much from Gilda and, for both of us, her delight and skill are embedded in the way we read and re- read the voices of the people who contributed to The Midwife’s Tale.

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