Duffin, Emma Sylvia (1883–1979), nurse, diarist and welfare worker, was born 8 November 1883 in Belfast, fourth daughter in a family of seven daughters and two sons of Adam Duffin (qv) and Maria Duffin (née Drennan). The family was well-to-do and well-connected. The Duffins and Drennans were members of the non-subscribing presbyterian denomination, and closely involved in Belfast business and political life. They participated in a strong local and family tradition of public service, and the education of girls was taken seriously; after private education by their mother and German governesses, all seven Duffin girls were sent to Cheltenham Ladies' College, then the pre-eminent girls' school in Britain and Ireland. Emma went there in May 1900; in 1903 she spent a few months in a school in Shrewsbury, and then took classes in Belfast Art College. She was interested in making a career in book illustration; a few drawings enliven her manuscript diary, and later she illustrated children's books and books of verse written by two of her sisters, Celia and Ruth. Ruth Duffin was the influential and formidable first warden of Riddel Hall (1914–43), a women's residence for Queen's University of Belfast.
Emma Duffin spent 1911–12 as a governess or ladies' companion in a wealthy family in north-east Germany, an experience she enjoyed. Only three years later, in early 1915, after the outbreak of the world war, she and three of her sisters enlisted to serve as Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses (VADs). In autumn 1915 Emma was called up, and sent to a general hospital in Alexandria in Egypt, although she lacked nursing experience and, at the age of 31, was older than most VADs. Experience came very quickly, as she was moved round different wards. In 1916 she signed up for another six months and was sent to Le Havre in northern France, first to an isolation hospital and then to La Gare. The railway station had been converted into a huge clearing house for badly wounded troops, and Duffin had to nurse men who had suffered dreadfully in the trenches. The strain and unremitting hard work, as well as night duty, were very difficult for her, and the nurses' own living conditions were extremely rough. She also worked in wards on the docks where men were nursed before being repatriated, and as convoys kept bringing more and more wounded men, she spent weeks without a change of clothes and worked night and day.
Later in 1916 she was transferred to another hospital in Le Havre, a former hotel, and then in autumn 1917 to a former emigrants' hostel which was crawling with bedbugs, and where her bed was soaked when it rained. In spring 1918, as Spanish flu swept through the hospitals, she was sent back to the Quai hospital, and she encountered hundreds of wounded and ill Germans being sent as prisoners of war to England. There she suffered effects of secondary gassing, from contact with soldiers' uniforms and bedding. She also experienced nightly air raids, there and later in Calais, from early autumn 1918. Duffin provides a vivid description of armistice day (11 November 1918) in Calais, but she herself was not demobbed until spring 1919, and then returned home to life with her mother and unmarried sisters in the prosperous suburbs of Belfast.
Duffin seems to have kept some form of diary during her service and, realising its historical importance, wrote it up as a lengthy and more formal narrative after the war. Her generally unemotional but affectionate account of the hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers and officers that she encountered tells a harrowing story of their bravery and awful suffering; witnessing, for example, the excruciating pain endured by soldiers having wounds dressed without anaesthetic often made her feel physically ill.
Her sympathy, somewhat unusually, extended to the German prisoners, and she wrote movingly of their gratitude for her ability to speak their language and for the small kindnesses she showed to them. Her diary is a major historical source, not just for the war experiences but also for revealing details about nursing etiquette and procedures. She was promoted against her will to 'assistant nurse' (she was upset because she felt it affected her voluntary status), and later turned down proposed training for a nursing career. In December 1918 she was mentioned in despatches.
Her mother (who lived to be 100, not dying until 1954) had been involved in the Belfast Council of Social Welfare from its foundation in 1906 as the Charity Organisation Society, and Emma Duffin gradually took over her mother's role there. She was on the committee of the society from 1923, and was secretary (1933–53). The organisation was not only an umbrella group to prevent duplication of effort among Belfast's charities, but also extended financial and social support to poor families, investigated the social circumstances of particular cases, pioneered free legal aid and advice, and was involved with the provision of subsidised housing; over sixty houses were rented to people in need, often to single mothers. Duffin initiated the Belfast hospitals' aftercare committee, which employed almoners to support people discharged from hospital. She more than capably lobbied civil servants and Belfast Corporation officials in connection with the design of public housing in the late 1930s, and represented the Council of Social Welfare on the Women's Advisory Housing Council of Northern Ireland (chairman, 1943–7).
When the second world war broke out in 1939, Duffin started to keep a diary again, and like other former VADs was asked to register to volunteer to provide first aid; in the event, in February 1940, she was appointed VAD commandant of the Stranmillis Military Hospital, and later of the Donegall Road Military Hospital. In the aftermath of the blitz bombing of Belfast in April 1941, she had to help organise the temporary morgue in the St George's Market and, as her diary reveals, found that the spectacle of mass violent death was even harder to deal with in her home city than it had been in northern France in the first war. She served in Bangor from 1943 until demobbed. Her civic engagement was cited as the main grounds for the award of an honorary MA by QUB in 1954, but Duffin's nursing service in two wars was also mentioned in the presentation by E. Estyn Evans (qv).
As she prepared her diaries for deposit in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, she wrote in old age about her service in the first world war:
Emma Duffin died 31 January 1979, aged 95; she never married.