UPDATE – I would like to wish all the readers of One Irish Rover, a wonderful Christmas. It’s been a mad two years on this planet. But love, kindness, goodness, tolerance, always wins out in the end. Together, as the 99.999%, we are undefeatable. Big hugs, camaraderie, friendship, good conversation, and an ability (and the humility) for each of us to take the time to listen, are the order of the day.
And what have we done
This year, many new people have found the website and subsequently registered to be informed of updates. I did a check. The USA has the largest number of subscribers, followed by the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are subscribers in places such as Asia, Holland and Germany.
I had two wonderful emails in the past week that got me emotional, from opposite ends of the world (hi Rebecca and Helen). It is wonderful to see such kindness and appreciation. I love doing the research, the photoshop work, and putting these articles together. It makes my day when I see others who get a thrill from it too.
At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade
September, and the Christmas period, are the most difficult times of the year for me. My parents were lost during Septembers in the 1980’s. Even nearly 40 years later, it hasn’t got any easier. Christmas too is always a difficult period. Life is so fragile and so special. Each one of us carries our own sorrows. We all need to be kind, because most everyone around us, is carrying a heavy burden.
But there are other festive period memories too. Memories close to 40 years ago, come flooding back of queuing outside entertainment venues (discos) like Tullyglass and the Adair Arms (both in Ballymena), or Traks and Kellys in Portrush, in the cold (I recall queuing in the frost and snow outside Tullyglass) to pay ridiculous entrance prices, into venues that were packed full to the rafters, elbow to elbow. A visit to the bar, for a warm coca cola, could take 30 or 40 minutes. It’s funny, but as an older person, they couldn’t pay me to do similar now.
But we were young. It was the place to be. We were bullet-proof. We had drive. We had ambitions. We dressed well (usually via Sam’s Boutique in Ballymena), and had slim ties and gelled hair. The ladies had big high hairstyles (think Dallas or Dynasty, or any 80s music video). We had our whole lives ahead of us.
Slipping back further, to December 1973, one of my first Christmas memories was in the front porch, overlooking the garden, at our farmhouse. It was about 6pm.
Being December it was pitch black by this time. We were about to drive down the four miles, to Portglenone, to collect mum from her work (she was a nurse at the local health center).
But before we left, we got the lights, on our tiny little Christmas tree that sat on a table in the porch, turned on. Mum would see the tree lit up, when she got home.
I remember the reds, greens and blues, shone so brightly. I guess young eyes must see colours much more vividly.
Our house looked out across the darkness, across scores of endless fields, to the distant mountains beyond Maghera, some 10 miles away.
Here on a very quiet little country road, that saw a passing car maybe only every 20 minutes, at rush hour, was a little beacon of hope shining proudly amidst the vast empty expanse of darkness.
Back then, it was colder.
Pipes would freeze, so we would lag/insulate any external pipes above ground. An internal pipe, near a bedroom radiator, froze on one occasion, and burst. Getting money out of the insurance company for the damaged carpet, was like dragging blood from a stone.
Snow back then would come and sometimes lie for several days.
For this Christmas post, I was looking across wartime newspapers and came upon an old set of war letters from late 1915.
George Burleigh (son of Thomas Burleigh, from Ballinamallard, near Dungannon) spent the first world war fighting with the Royal Garrison Artillery in France.
I discovered a Christmas letter that he wrote, from the front, to his brother Robert William Burleigh. His brother was a draper and traveling commercial salesman. Prior to leaving for the war, George lived in the same house and assisted his brother with the drapery work.
The Christmas letter was sent to Robert William’s residence at Ranfurly Terrace in Dungannon. I managed to find an old photo of that street, and Robert’s signature. You must know by now my fetish for old handwriting/signatures!
George Burleigh was born in 1880, so he would have been 35 when he wrote these two letters.
The first letter is from about October 1915. The second is from Christmas 1915.
The Christmas letter, arrived a month later, at his brother Robert William Burleigh’s residence on Ranfurly Terrace in Dungannon.
October 1915, Altered Circumstances
The lighting arrangements are of wax in a single candelabra; the light is what is sometimes called ‘dimly religious.’
I am not complaining, as we are indeed glad to have a roof to cover our heads and to be able to preserve a sound skin.
Aye, About Those ‘Souvenirs’
Now, as regards the souvenirs, I am afraid you are doomed to disappointment.
Collecting these is not the work of the artillery, but of the infantry, which are very considerably in advance of us, and therefore get the first selection.
However, I may be able pick you up something, when I can do it legitimately.
Souvenir collecting is called by a very ugly name here (i.e. looting), therefore it behoves me to be careful.
Anyhow, I have got you a couple of curios, which I will send the first chance.
I note your remarks re the little wooden cross, and I expect you infer by this time that I have not made acquaintance with it yet. Thank goodness for that. I have a presentiment that neither French nor Belgian soil will cover my carcass, with a bit of luck.
The weather here has been very wet and cold lately, and as a result of the rain a beautiful coating of glutinous mud has been left, which is not altogether pleasant when one has to spend the greater part of the twenty-four hours in it.
In spite of this, however, to use the official expression, ‘the morale of the troops is excellent.’
I am writing this during my break off duty in the very bowels of the earth.
When you see Andy McClay, give him my kindest regards. Tell him, I‘m as happy as a duke, if not as a king. You and he may think of me sometimes when you are having your three and four-course commercial dinners. You may have a better dinner than I have, but you certainly have not a better appetite.
The Christmas Letter, December 1915
George wrote a second letter, to his brother, from the front at Christmas time.
He describes how he and his colleagues celebrated Christmas at the front.
The Pleasure of Letters From Home
Everything has been rather quiet on this part during the Xmas holidays, or at least what would have been the holidays had things been different.
Shakespeare of old credits Brutus with using the expression “To make conditions.” Well that is just what we had to do, for our Xmas here. If you accept conditions ready-made, you will have a very poor time indeed.
So far as material display is concerned, we had indeed a very quiet time, which gave us a chance of enjoying it better.
I came off duty at 4am on Christmas morning, and was finished with actual work at 4pm the same day. I was in charge of an observation post with six others, so I am never actually off duty. The weather was rather indifferent, but not really unbearable.
We managed breakfast at 8.30am, which consisted of bacon and eggs, bread and tea.
The eggs were procured after considerable trouble, but we were repaid by remembrances of electioneering in bygone days. A stray goat, which was discovered the day before, was ‘told-off’ to supply milk for the occasion, but she showed her contempt of Christmas and her lack of seasonable goodwill by refusing with violence; therefore, this luxury was denied us.
Then after breakfast I made a futile attempt to get my blankets dried, and my bivouac watertight.
Dinner hour (1.30pm) followed, and if the old saying is correct, ‘Better a dinner of herbs with love, etc., etc.’ we had quite a banquet, as everyone was very amiable indeed.
The menu was as follows:- Soup a la mystery, fish not arrived, roast beef do., Irish stew (Maconaghie), plum pudding, cheese, wines—limited.
Ample justice having been done to the good things provided (I think that is the proper expression), I was detailed to propose the first toast.
“To the King,” which was suitably responded to.
The next toast, “To the Allies” I also proposed with a very poor speech, which everyone bore with great fortitude, and to which there was a general response.
Next followed “To the King of the Belgians,” which was cordially honoured.
The toast “To Absent Friends” was proposed by Gunner Ryan, and acknowledged in silence, everyone living for a few moments, where his heart most desired.
A large parcel of “woodbines” arrived from you, Robert, on Xmas Eve, and Gunner Champion proposed an expression of thanks and appreciation, which was supported by Gunners Ryan, Kerr, Nicholson, and Whittle.
In your absence I did my best to respond, but I wish you had been there yourself. I know you would have been pleased at the appreciation of the boys.
Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot
The singing of “Auld Lang Syne” brought our Xmas to a close, as far I was concerned, having to go on duty in “my little dug-out in the West.”
This finished my second Xmas on active service, and I sincerely hope that the next will see us more peaceably disposed to all men and nations. I hope to get leave soon.
If you saw me now, you would know that my dress is not suitable for visiting. However, if I can manage to get a “rig out” in exchange for my muddy one, I will see Dungannon if possible, and be in the land of the Shamrock before the end of January, provided I do not get in the way of German strafe.
It is always a great pleasure to get a letter from you or any friend. The fact of getting a letter seems such a pleasant break in the day, which is strangely eventful, yet monotonous. I have nothing but the sincerest sympathy for the man who has no one to write to him.
As I write, there is one man producing some discordant notes on what is evidently a mouth-organ, which had its birthplace probably in Germany; whilst three other men are singing each a different song, usually known as a “cats’ chorus,” so it is difficult to concentrate my thoughts, so I will close with best wishes for the New Year.
After the War
George Burleigh spent the entire war, 1914 to 1918, fighting in France with the Royal Artillery. He was never wounded, sick, or off-duty, apart from when he was allowed home on leave for brief periods. He survived the first world war.
After the war, he continued to work in France for the Imperial War Graves Commission.
He subsequently left Ireland (in 1930 it appears from the shipping records) and re-settled in Canada.
On the outbreak of the second world war, in September 1939, he signed up only two days after the war broke out.
The last record that I can find, is of him guarding German and Italian prisoners of war, in January 1941.
This article was compiled using local newspaper reports of the time, in tandem with other resources.
Wishing you, and your family, health and happiness this Christmas.