McCorkell, Aileen Allen (1921–2010), Lady McCorkell , Red Cross volunteer, was born on 18 September 1921 in Ootacamund, a hill station in the Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu, India, the second of three children (two girls and a boy) of Colonel Ernest Brabazon Booth of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and his wife Marguerita Agnes (née Currie). When Aileen was two, the Booths returned to the family home, Darver Castle in Co. Louth, where she spent her childhood, attending Drogheda Grammar School and then Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire. When the second world war broke out, she was at a finishing school in Paris. In line with family tradition, she was eager to join the British forces, but her application was turned down several times because she was from southern Ireland. Finally accepted into the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in 1941, she served four years in the ranks as a radar plotter before being commissioned near the end of the war. She stayed with Coastal Command in the north of England until 1946.
After a short period as a school matron in England, she came back to Ireland, met Michael McCorkell, and married him on 29 April 1950; they had three sons and a daughter. McCorkell had been a lieutenant-colonel in the British army, and then colonel of the North Irish Horse in the Territorial Army. He was ADC to the queen, lord lieutenant for Co. Londonderry (1975–2000), and in 1994 was knighted (KCVO) for his work in the community. A member of a northern gentry family which had made money in shipping and trade, he was a nephew of Sir Dudley Evelyn Bruce McCorkell (qv), and took over his uncle's farm at Ballyarnett House, just outside Derry city.
In 1961 Aileen had a serious riding accident that could have left her paralysed. She recovered, but was made aware of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, at a time and in a place in which welfare provision for the disabled left much to be desired. In 1962 she established a branch of the Red Cross in Derry, which was formally constituted in 1965 with McCorkell as first president. She marshalled volunteers to provide a Meals on Wheels service to elderly or disabled people, many of whom were living in grim conditions.
The resulting contact with isolated people encouraged her to establish a Red Cross Thursday Club to provide social activities and necessary transport, and in 1967 she was a founder member of the North West Council of Social Service. She was chairman of a sub-committee on provision for the disabled, and for years worked to raise money for a purpose-built day centre, helping in charity shops and jumble sales as well as lobbying local politicians. The Glenbrook Day Centre finally opened in 1973, but she was disappointed that voluntary groups were unable to maintain services, and even more disappointed after it had to be handed over to the local authority. Red tape infuriated her.
Everything changed in Derry in the late 1960s, when the NI troubles escalated and quickly changed the needs that the beleaguered voluntary organisations had to try to meet. Derry Red Cross had no experience of providing first aid, and did not even have blankets or bandages to help the first civilian casualties in October 1968. McCorkell called in former nurses to help, and old Red Cross posters were cut up to make signs to identify private cars in which victims were ferried to hospital or to safer areas. A McCorkell warehouse was turned into a store for clothing and furniture to help families turned out of their houses after the battle of the Bogside in August 1969. When she realised that no police would come anywhere near, McCorkell had no difficulty telephoning the Bogside Committee to tell them to send vigilantes to protect the warehouse from looters.
With the new situation came ethical dilemmas as well as confrontations with insurgents; some Red Cross volunteers may have had difficulty in the chaos and political instability in maintaining the principles of impartiality and neutrality on which the organisation was based, but McCorkell was always very clear. The last line of her memoir about the years 1968–74, A Red Cross in my pocket, states: 'The Red Cross is neutral, even in Northern Ireland.' At times, Red Cross activities were threatened because it was the 'British Red Cross', and McCorkell, on account of her Church of Ireland background and her accent, very much to her annoyance was attacked as being a 'bloody Englishwoman'.
Her bravery and commitment to those caught up in terror were eventually recognised by paramilitaries and activists on both sides. During the extremely tense Ulster Workers' Council strike of May 1974, orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries, she went in person to Workers' Council representatives to ask for petrol for Red Cross activities. British army commanders and troops on the ground also came to recognise her moral authority. When a British army vehicle displayed a Red Cross emblem to access a 'no-go' area, McCorkell complained to the authorities, and paid a visit to an army brigade major to demand that a confiscated Order of Malta ambulance be returned.
During the worst of the bombing and civil unrest, Derry was effectively a war zone; McCorkell's volunteers were threatened and some had their cars hijacked. Her husband's car was fired upon, and she was often in danger, routinely dealing with paramilitaries to seek permission to evacuate civilians from behind barricades. The Meals on Wheels service continued almost without intermission, and the Red Cross also organised much-appreciated holidays away from the city for disabled persons, especially youngsters.
McCorkell developed good relations with the other first aid voluntary organisations, the Order of Malta and the Knights of St John. They worked together, and on McCorkell's initiative made progress towards establishing a united grouping, but Derry's sectarian strains brought this to a halt. Later, wearing her Red Cross uniform, McCorkell attended a special mass held in St Eugene's cathedral to honour the Order of Malta volunteers.
She herself was honoured in 1972 by the award of two badges of the British Red Cross: the badge of honour for distinguished service, and the queen's badge of honour; she was awarded the OBE in 1975. On 20 June 1972 she and her husband made their home in Ballyarnett available for negotiations between a delegation of Daithi Ó Conaill (qv) and Gerry Adams, representing the Provisional IRA, and British government officials, which produced a two-week ceasefire.
Her memoir set out to be a record of the valour and commitment of the Red Cross volunteers of Derry, and also paid tribute to the resilience of the Derry people they helped, but her matter-of-fact style captures also the pragmatism and courage with which she achieved improvements in social welfare before the troubles, as well as her contribution to the community during those difficult years. Her robust approach to difficult situations is summed up in her advice on how to get a Red Cross vehicle out of a hostile crowd: 'Put your head out the window and roar!'
Lady McCorkell died in Dublin on 25 December 2010. A memorial service in Derry was packed with friends, both catholic and protestant, who reflected on the ideals of the Red Cross for which she worked throughout her life: ideals that underpinned her commitment and efforts in the sort of leadership role that so well suited her character, background and social standing, but in a strife-torn context in which few others would have given so much.