Heartwarming festive short stories: Christmas Truce. Ardoyne 1914 by Louise Kennedy
The day school broke up for Christmas we used to cross Belfast to collect my grandmother. The drive back to our house in Holywood, a place of relative peace in those days, took us through Ardoyne, past Crumlin Road gaol, the Court House, the Mater Hospital, St Anne’s Cathedral, around the Albert Clock and across the Lagan.
With night falling, we would pass under the hulking bent heads of the yellow cranes in the shipyard. As we turned left at Palace Barracks, my granny would say that’s where my daddy was stationed.
We put up a silver artificial tree at Christmas. My granny had bought it in the Sixties at the PX in Derry, the mess shop for American troops still stationed there after the Second World War. For the next couple of decades my mother lowered it from the roof space onto our waiting arms. Its branches were plumes of flittered, heavy-duty tinfoil. We hung baubles of cerise and fuchsia and gold, while my mother footered with the fairy lights. When we were done we sat on the floor, sucking the Double Devon Butter Toffees my granny always bought us, and admired our handiwork. One year, we sang When a Child is Born for her in the sweetest tones. Then we knocked the Christmas tree over in a scuffle over whose turn it was to hang our favourite decoration, a drummer boy dressed in red and green felt with tiny brass buttons, and a grave look in his eyes. My grandmother, Hannah Maguire, sat in one of our gold velour armchairs and watched us.
Her father had joined the Royal Irish Rifles as a young man and fought in the Boer War. He remained in the army and when war broke out in 1914 he was stationed at Palace Barracks near Holywood. Part of his regiment joined the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and stories soon filtered back of heavy losses and grim conditions.
Hannah’s parents had a fraught relationship. They were separated for a while. They must have been at least on speaking terms though, because by Christmas 1914 she had a little sister called Mary.
Her father was to be on duty over Christmas and off for the New Year. A young soldier offered to swap shifts with him. On Christmas Day 1914, men from the 1st Royal Irish Rifles emerged, hesitantly at first, from their trenches on the Western Front, to stand in No Man’s Land, face-to-face with German soldiers.
That same day Rifleman John Maguire was participating in his own Christmas truce. 51 Butler Street, Ardoyne, smelled of cloves and nutmeg and tangerines, and coal was piled high in the grate. Domestic hostilities had been temporarily suspended.
In March he was called to the Front. Before he left, the family visited a photographer’s studio. My granny recalled her parents arguing that day. Her father introduced his wife to the photographer as “Commander in Chief of the Yap Brigade”.
Just before the picture was taken, he said: “You’d better take it quick, while her face is straight, for it’s damn seldom it’s straight.”
In the photograph, John and Annie Maguire are looking at the camera. It is hard to tell what they are thinking. Mary is beaming, an infant. Hannah’s eyes are wide and she is not smiling. It was the only time the family was photographed together.
In early May a postcard came. ‘My Dear Wife,’ John had written, before asking after his daughters. ‘Tomorrow we go to the front’.
At 5.40am on May 9, 1915, close to the village of Neuve Chapelle in Northern France, the 1st Royal Irish Rifles launched a swift attack and secured a key position in a battle which became known as Aubers Ridge. Under heavy fire, the surviving men waited for relief from other battalions, but it never came. Having held the line for 12 hours, they had to retreat. Of the 600 soldiers from the 1st Royal Irish Rifles who advanced that morning, 454 were casualties, most before 7am. Hannah’s father was reported missing. Then a package Annie had sent was returned, and they began to accept that he wasn’t coming back. John Maguire’s body was left in the field where he fell. His name is on a war memorial at Ploegsteert, a few miles away in Belgium. His soldier number was 1319.
More than a hundred years later I am putting up Christmas decorations with my daughter. The shimmering foil of my childhood has been replaced with evergreen and soft white lights. My husband and son are complaining about having to listen to Michael Buble on the CD player. They can’t see her, but Hannah Maguire is with me too. She is at the window, her six-year-old hands clasped against her white pinafore, waiting for a stocky, dark-haired soldier to walk down the street.
Christmas Truce. Ardoyne, 1914 was first broadcast earlier this month on RTE Radio’s Sunday Miscellany
About the author
Louise Kennedy grew up in Holywood. Her stories have won several prizes and been published in journals including The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, The Incubator, Ambit and The Honest Ulsterman. She is a PhD candidate at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen's University, and is working on a collection of short stories with the help of an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. She lives in Sligo.