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Eisenhower's love affair with Inish Beg's war hero

December 20th, 2015 7:25 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

Kay Summersby from Inish Beg, putting the US pennant on General Eisenhower's car

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THE controversial wartime love affair between Dwight D Eisenhower and a West Cork woman is the subject of a new book.

Ike’s Irish Lover: The Echo of a Sigh, by Kieron Wood, tells the story of the Skibbereen lady who was Eisenhower’s driver and secretary.

Former RTE reporter and now barrister and author, Kieron Wood has painstakingly researched the background to this fascinating story.

‘People found their happiness “where they could during the war”, as they did not know whether they might be alive the next day,’ he says in the book’s introduction, quoting a female naval officer of the time.

Kieron told The Southern Star that he had always been fascinated by the story. ‘This book is based on a true story, the love affair between General Eisenhower and Kay Summersby, from the time they met in 1942 until the end of World War II, and what happened afterwards.’

Red Cross worker Mollie Ford said in 1977: ‘There’s no denying Ike Eisenhower was infatuated with her. He was really crazy about her.’

While the personalities and events in the book are based on fact, there is inevitably an element of speculation. ‘Nobody can say for certain that Ike (as he was popularly called) and Kay were lovers, but all the evidence, during and since the war, points to the conclusion that they were having an affair,’ states Kieron.

It is believed that Eisenhower even wrote to chief of staff of the US army Gen Marshall to say he wished to divorce his wife, Mamie, and marry Kay.

Kieron says that while the document can no longer be located, there is plenty of evidence to say it did exist.

President Truman, Eisenhower’s successor, said he had seen it, but there was no appetite to use it for political purposes.

Indeed, Kay’s relationship with Ike seems to have caused quite a stir in some circles. Kay was edited out of the official photograph taken after the signing of the German surrender in Reims.

‘During the war,’ she is reported as saying, ‘I was accused over and over again of being more to General Eisenhower than a member of his inner circle.’

Kay (baptised ‘Kathleen’) MacCarthy Murrogh was born in Schull in 1908, but from the age of eight was brought up at Inish Beg, between Skibbereen and Baltimore, and was sent to England in her late teens.

After that, she travelled around Europe, worked as a film extra and later a model in Paris. She was known for her beauty and married a man called Gordon Summersby. Although they were later divorced, she kept the Summersby name for the rest of her life. Summersby had earlier been married to writer Dylan Thomas’ sister, so Kay had been moving in smart circles for some time, even before she met the future US president.

After hearing about the declaration of war in Germany, Kay decided she wanted to get involved and enroled in the Mechanised Transport Corp. For a time she drove ambulances, but found herself ferrying dead bodies around London, sometimes with no destination as morgues were filling up quickly during the Blitz.

She grew weary of the job and asked for a new challenge. She opted to drive Americans which is how she met Dwight D Eisenhower, having become his driver during one of his visits to London.

They soon formed a strong bond, although she claimed their affair was never consummated. This perplexed some observers, given Eisenhower’s own children with wife Mamie.

With an incredibly busy and colourful life, Kay also fell in love with Major Dick Arnold, who was later stationed in North Africa.

When he was killed by an exploding mine in Tunisia, she blamed a jealous Eisenhower for his death.

After making up with ‘Ike’, they went on to visit Egypt, and then the Holy Land. 

In letters between the couple, he refers to her regularly as ‘Skibbereen’ and ‘Irish’.

‘He mis-spelt Skibbereen, but he was never very good at spelling,’ says Kieron.

Neither was Kay, apparently, but that didn’t stop him from giving her the role of his secretary.

Despite this, she wrote two books about her life. The first made no reference to Eisenhower, but the second, written before she died of cancer at 66, was about the relationship.

During her career, she was made an officer of the WAC (Women’s Army Corp of the US army) by her lover, and was the only foreign national to be given this honour during the War.

‘This was against the wishes of the WAC founder, and Eisenhower was warned against it, but he did it anyway,’ says the author.

Despite his letter suggesting he would divorce Mamie for Kay, Eisenhower did not stay true to his word, and remained married to Mamie when he became president. ‘He had obviously decided that his career was more important than her,’ observes Kieron.

Mamie, it seems, was aware of the relationship, once saying her husband displayed a ‘particular love for Ireland’. Some read that as meaning for Kay herself.

During her career, Kay won several awards and numbered Churchill and other prominent names among her ‘friends’.

‘The more I looked into her, the more I was fascinated,’ says Kieron.

After she passed away, her brother Seamus brought her ashes back to Rath church in Baltimore, where he scattered them over the family grave, which is well marked today, at the church entrance.

‘I have asked Paul Keane [the current Inishbeg owner] about her and he said that in all his time, only one visitor enquired about Kay’s grave.’

There is another West Cork link with the book, as former mayor of Skibbereen, Frank Fahy, was involved in research into the McCarthy-Morrogh family for the author.

‘I researched the genealogy side of Kay McCarthy-Morrogh for Kieron Wood and became fascinated by the story,’ he said. ‘From the minute I picked up this book, I could not put it down. It is impeccably written and referenced and gives great insight into, not only the “affair”, but also into the campaigns and wartime actions of the then commander-in-chief, Dwight Eisenhower.’

Eisenhower died after a stroke in 1969 at the age of 78. Kay died from liver cancer in New York in 1975, aged just 66.

Ike’s Irish Lover: The Echo of a Sigh, by Kieron Wood, is available now on Amazon and Kindle.

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