Monday, 21 December 2009

Season's Greetings

(The following is extracted from an article in Belfast Telegraph's Saturday magazine on 19th December 2009. My thanks to Frances Coakley of Manx Notebook for permission to reproduce the above card from Knockaloe)

Inland of Peel Hill on the Isle of Man, just out of sight of the sea, there is a bowl-shaped area of farmland whose green and pleasant aspect belies its use, almost a century ago, as a detention camp for prisoners of war.

Between 1915 and 1919, twenty-three thousand prisoners, mainly German civilians, passed through Knockaloe Camp. There were several hundred huts, each capable of holding thirty men. The complex included sports facilities, a cinema and even - as you can see from the rather whimsical Christmas card depicting a poignantly Teutonic-looking Weihnachtsmann, his sack hung with labels marking the passage of the years - a print works.

A moustachioed detainee looks wistfully out the window, head in hand; dreaming, presumably, of home. The inscription on the card reads, 'Christmas Greetings, Civilian Detention Centre, Knockaloe, Isle of Man', and it must surely have brought a tear to the eye of sender and recipient alike.

For Lynn and I the card has a special fascination, because the snow-covered hut in front of which Santa trudges is familiar in so many details. In 1921 the camp huts were auctioned off by the War Department, and two of them found their way across the Irish Sea, into Strangford Lough, and to Islandmore; there to be reassembled, butted end to end, raised on stilts on a vantage point overlooking Ringhaddy Sound - and in due course christened The Blue Cabin.

There is a convention in publishing, to truncate the title of a book to its first word; so I have come to think of my latest effort simply as ‘Still’. And this Christmas season, having come across Behrens and his beautifully rendered card from 1917, I will think of my favourite carol, Stille Nacht, and in particular the line from Joseph Mohr’s poem: 'Alles schläft; einsam wacht' (‘All is calm, all is bright’)

It echoes the words on another Knockaloe Christmas card, this one from 1915, signed ‘G.Stoltz’:

The war drags on and yet the sprig of Love
Stays green throughout the Winter
A star winks announcing peace
Throughout the Night

Treue Grusse vom Knockaloe Lager (‘True greetings from Knockaloe Camp’)

Likewise from Islandmore!
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