One hundred and one years ago this month, as the War of Independence continued to unfold across the island of Ireland, Christmas approached. It may seem strange to consider Christmas during a time of conflict, not least an historic one that has left such bitterness behind it, but sometimes it can also be hopeful.
In December 1920, IRA member Ernie O’Malley was captured by British forces in Kilkenny and was taken to Dublin, where he was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. For part of his time he was kept in the Guard Room of the Auxiliary “F” Company, which looked out onto Exchange Court. The same Guard Room had been the location only a month previously of the murders of Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune on Bloody Sunday.
What follows here are some extracts from O’Malley’s memoires that describe his time as a prisoner in Dublin Castle that Christmas, 101 years ago.
On Christmas Eve the cook walked over to where I sat on an army biscuit [a type of padded cushion]. ‘Come on and I’ll cut your hair and shave you, then you’ll look well tomorrow.’ He talked as he snipped. ‘I’d never pull a gun on an unarmed man. I don’t hold with that sort of thing.’ He brought me upstairs to the rooms where the Company slept. By the side of each bed was a rifle with bayonet fixed. Some of the men were lying down. ‘Always ready,’ he said.
We sat at a table beside the guard on Christmas Day, four Auxiliaries and three prisoners. It was a good dinner; we did not talk much. I was thinking of other Christmas dinners.
Following the Christmas pudding, glasses were charged with port (O’Malley had water as he didn’t drink) and a toast was proposed to the King. The other two prisoners drank the toast along with their guards, but O’Malley declined. An argument ensued and the guards drew their guns on him, at which point an officer arrived on the scene, demanding to know what all the shouting was for.
‘That swine won’t drink the King’s health, sir,’ said one. He turned to me: ‘Is that true?’
‘Why do you refuse?’
‘I am a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, and I owe no allegiance to your king.’
He looked at me. He held out his hand. ‘Shake hands,’ he said. We gripped hands firmly. He turned to the guard; the anger was going out of their faces. ‘You heard your orders, didn’t you, that prisoners were to be well treated on Christmas Day? […] He turned to the guard. The four came over to me, we shook hands one after the other.
A little later, a Major whom O’Malley had befriended invited him up to the mess room to have a drink. O’Malley was worried given what had happened earlier, but was reassured by the Major, who promised him he would be alright. O’Malley describes how:
Auxiliaries were talking and singing in a large room upstairs, some were trying to dance. Bottles of wine, liquor, whisky, and champagne were on the table.
‘Will you drink with me?’ [said the Major]
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t drink now.’
‘Oh, well, your health and mine in a little bubbly.’ He poured out two large glasses of champagne, we clinked glasses and drank. We joined hands around the tables and sang: ‘For the Sake of Auld Lang Syne.’ We roared the chorus, swinging our hands to the words. They cheered when the song was over. With one knee on a chair we drank ‘Good Luck.’ ‘Prisoner’s speech,’ shouted the company. The others spoke. My turn came: I did not like to speak. I said that I was glad that we who fought each other could be human for a while.
Later that evening, some of the auxiliaries asked O’Malley to sign Christmas cards. He did so, in a practiced ‘backhand scrawl’ and asked them to sign their names in one for him in return, which they did. He fell into conversation with one of them called ‘Grace’, who described himself as being from Trinity College Dublin. O’Malley ends his recollection of the strange Christmas by telling Grace:
‘Two years from now when the Irish Republic is recognized, we’ll meet on Christmas Day and dine.’
‘Remember, that’s a bargain,’ he said, as we shook hands.
O’Malley doesn’t mention whether he and Grace ever reunited for their Christmas dinner – one suspects the course of history prevented them. However, as we contemplate and remember the formative moments that led to the birth of the Irish state, it is hopeful to see that amid all of the terror and atrocity of those times, Christmas shines through as a day on which both sides strove to put their differences aside and to enjoy each other’s company.