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Leaving your mark - stories of the past told in the trees

The Digger finds clues to our past inscribed in wood at Rams Island

The Jane and Robert Cardwell tree sculptures on Ram's Island with other inscriptions from trees nearby made during the Second World War period. I HAD reason to visit Ram's Island again, recently. I had been there some years earlier retracing the steps of ancestors who had taken cattle to the island from close to Glenavy over eighty years ago.

The unrelenting efforts of the Ram's Island Volunteer Team was obvious as we approached the new jetty on the eastern shoreline.

I took some time out to explore the island again. This time, however, I wasn't there to view the remnants of the round tower, the O'Neill summerhouse or the foundations of the Cardwell residence. I knew that many of the trees on the island held secrets and stories from days gone by, yet to be uncovered and retold.

Oak, ash, elder, beech, walnut and yew are amongst some of the varieties found there and the biodiversity programme continues, with the long term strategy including the eradication of the fast-growing sycamores, replacing them with native tree species.

The ingenuity of the volunteers, have returned two of the island's popular caretakers - Robert and Jane Cardwell, to their rightful place, side by side, in front of the old O'Neill summer residence.

Robert and Jane went to reside on the island in the mid 1880's. The unmistakable images of Robert and Jane Cardwell now appear in the form of tree sculptures. The sculptor had been applying the finishing touches whilst I was there.

These however, were not the first carvings ever to appear on the trees on Ram's Island. There are at least 50 other inscriptions carved into the barks of trees, mostly situated on the south of the island.

The earliest I found read "H.W M.D. 1901" and "J.C. 1916." The names "C. Donaghy" and "T. Boyle" are still clearly visible some 73 years after being carved on a tree

bark. There are several from the 1950 and 1960 period, but the majority appear to have been made during World War 2.

The island proved to be a popular retreat for military and airforce personnel based in nearby Langford Lodge and other parts of the surrounding countryside. It was during this period, we are told, that vandals visited the island and destroyed the O'Neill summer residence in an arson attack.

Local speculation was that the perpetrators of the attack were jilted lovers who took umbrage at military personnel charming the female inhabitants throughout the local townlands, and taking them to Ram's Island to further their acquaintances.

That did not deter "JS & NB" who sealed and dated their initials inside a heart shape on one of the tree barks in 1944. The date "8 13 44" appears under the initials "M.M., M.M., R.B." The arrangement of the date would indicate they were made by an American.

"W.H., ALD" made his or her mark on 29 4 45. The carving would indicate that he or she may well have been based at Aldergrove. That was a significant date in World War 2. The US 7th Army was liberating one of Germany's first concentration camps at Dachar. The scenes faced by troops at Dachar would be in stark contrast to the tranquillity other allied troops were experiencing on Ram's Island. Adolf Hitler would take his own life the following day.

"M.M." left his or her mark on one of the trees on 30th July 1946, over a year after the ending of hostilities. Some of the inscriptions are clearly of American origin. Others may well indicate the sculptors were from the American states of Alabama and California.

But it wasn't just Americans who left their signature on the island's trees. I uncovered some that indicated Belgian troops also visited the island. Some of the following inscriptions have survived, although partially obliterated due to the ravages of time.

Belgian soldiers had arrived in Northern Ireland for training exercises after the Liberation of their country in 1944. Some were encamped just off the Belfast Road, in Glenavy in the vicinity of an old ring fort.

Only recently, an old beech tree that died and had fallen was under the chainsaw. It was discovered that the old tree retained another secret. An old bullet was discovered. It may have been a remnant of the Belgian occupation in the village, hut it has been suggested it is perhaps a musket ball from an earlier period.

The Belgian soldiers in the village may well have noticed the reference to the Belgian Croix de Guerre

which was awarded to individuals for recognised acts of heroism and awarded to foreign nationals for heroism conducted in their Belgian homeland.

Glenavy man, Sergeant James Harbinson, 11th & 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles no. 19551 was a holder of the Military Medal, Distinguished conduct medal and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. According to the citation at that time, Sergeant Harbinson received one of these awards for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' during military operations in Heirweg on 25th October 1918.

He was involved in the capture of a house containing six machine guns, killing the garrison and enabling the forward advance of a right flank. He had taken control of the situation when all the officers and non commissioned officers had become casualties.  reorganising the remainder of the company.

Some of the local girls were delighted to have the Belgian soldiers so close at hand, and they took every opportunity to practise and perfect their French language and vocabulary.

The American soldiers at that time were also regular visitors to the village, and some of the local girls were warned by their parents implicitly to stay out of the company of these "Yank" soldiers and not to accept any gifts or encourage any conversations with them. Of course, as is human nature, not all the girls would heed their parents warnings.

Next: Forbidden Fruit.

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