Irish Internees at Frongoch Internment Camp, Wales, 1916
By Alan McCarthy, UCC History
“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
During his stay in the Frongoch internment camp, described by Tomás Ó Maoileoin as “a gloomy part of Merioneth in South Wales, backward and lonely,” Michael Collins claimed he was often moved to recall Wilde’s famed Ballad of Reading Gaol:
“I only knew what hunted thought quickened his step and why, He looked upon the garish day with such a wistful eye.”
While Collins internment may have occasionally offered him cause to lament, ‘The Big Fella,’ a nickname he apocryphally gained in the camp, along with 1,800 fellow internees, have retrospectively garnered a degree of scholarly attention for their role in re-invigorating the nationalist movement with the confines of this internment camp.
For many, the grouping together of Irish rebels in Frongoch remains a massive blunder on the part of the Crown.
As W.J. Brennan-Whitmore’s invaluable first-hand account of life in the camp notes, “we were certain that by the time we would be released the nucleus of a magnificent military machine would be presented to Ireland.” The British government, however, had not been without sufficient warning. In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, all those involved, or suspected of involvement, were rounded up and detained in Richmond Barracks. Upon visiting, H.H. Asquith, the British premier, noted:
Richmond Barracks became “the clearing house for rebels…the university in which the doctrines, methods and hopes of the men of Easter Week were folded into the life of men from every part of Ireland.”
Many resolved themselves, like Collins, to make what they could of the experience. The corollary was the maintenance of a tremendous espirit de corps and the creation of the ‘Sinn Féin University’ or the ‘University of the Revolution.’ The impact of such an education, and inevitable radicalisation on the ordinary Volunteer, is documented by Seán McConville in his series on Irish Political Prisoners. McConville notes that:
“Before captivity he was an occasional soldier in part-time or underground forces, now he is full time. All the influences which can be brought to bear by men with whom he must live in close proximity and comradeship are loosed upon him. The restraints and rewards of work, the duties and comforts of domestic life and wider social obligations, and the opportunities and absorptions of civil society are removed. The camp is a pressure-cooker. Those who cannot endure its lack of privacy, its loneliness, social strain and physical discomforts fall by the wayside. The militant, by contrast, is daily fortified in the cause. He relishes the authority which he and his comrades have constructed, and physical fitness, military instruction, and cultural and ideological indoctrination pass the time and justify and console him in captivity”.
Originally used to house German prisoners-of-war, Frongoch comprised of two separate camps. North Camp conveyed the appearance of a conventional military internment camp, a concept originally conceived by the Kerry-born Lord Kitchener and first implemented during the Anglo-Boer War.
South Camp was, rather unusually, the site of a disused distillery which had previously produced ‘Royal Welsh Whiskey’. Charlie Browne recalled that South Camp “had been condemned for such use by the International Red Cross. It was, however, good enough for the Irish and our dormitories were arranged in the old grain lofts which were badly ventilated,” points refuted by Sir Edward Troup in his report on the camp.
Despite being inhumanely cold and plagued by rodent infestation, the latter actually provided a degree of amusement for the prisoners who were quick to acknowledge the aural similarity between ‘Frongoch’ and ‘francach’, the Irish word for rat.
The Gaelic League Branch set-up in the camp took the name ‘Craobh na sroíne deirge’ owing to an internees’ belief that Frongoch meant ‘red nose.’ More poignant commemoration was directed towards the two streets, or mud-tracks, within the camp, which were named Connolly and Pearse in honour of the executed leaders of the Easter rebellion.
In light of the internment of “practically the entire body of officers of the Volunteers and Citizen Army” the control of the camp was placed in the hands of the internees.
Such was the freedom allotted to the prisoners that Joe Sweeney would later recall that “we had the life of Riley.”
When one takes O’Mahoney’s comparison of North Camp and Dachau into consideration, Sweeney’s recollection certainly appears to be somewhat peculiar. Undoubtedly, however, conditions in Frongoch bore a marked improvement to those in Knutsford, for example, where Frank Robbins would be forced to rely solely on the use of Morse code tapped onto the prison walls as a means of communication.
With regard to correspondence, James ‘Barney’ O’Driscoll recalled that “When we reached Frongoch the place had been previously occupied by German prisoners of war, some of whom must have been tubercular. The British had cleared out the camps but they let untouched a large stack of envelopes marked Prisoner of War on the outside. We used these for a time before it was discovered. Questions were asked about it in the House of Commons, and as a result we claimed prisoner of war rights and treatment.”
Camp Commandant at Frongoch was Colonel F.A. Heygate Lambert, pejoratively nicknamed ‘Buckshot’ by the internees. Brennan-Whitmore remembered him as “a type of Englishman who should never be placed in charge of Irishmen.” Describing Heygate Lambert’s colleagues, the soldiers on guard at the camp, Tomás MacCurtain in his diary noted that they were armed with “shot guns [sic]. They were mostly too old for anything but keeping guard. With the shot guns they had little need for accuracy.”
While neither accuracy nor the shotguns were ever urgently required, camp life was not without some confrontational elements. Several of the more prominent internees were transferred from Frongoch to Reading a shortly into their sojourn in Wales, among them MacCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Arthur Griffith, Ernest Blythe, Darrell Figgis, Seán T. O’Kelly and Cathal O’Shannon, while the he camp controllers and internees came to a stand-off following attempts to conscript internees who had been resident in Britain prior to the outbreak of the Great War into the British Army. By refusing to answer roll-calls and sign for packages, the internees made it impossible for internees to identify the sixty internees eligible for recruitment.
The loyalty of these would-be conscripts lay, of course, with the Irish Volunteers. Military re-organisation began in earnest in the Welsh camp in the immediate aftermath of internment. Such were the military advances made that Brennan-Whitmore was “almost disappointed to be released after seven months due to the potential for improvement in military machinery if interned for longer.”
Aided significantly by the smuggling of military manuals into the camp, the rebels sought eagerly to “make the military machine as complete as possible” nonetheless. This entailed both military lectures and a degree of drill for the rank-and-file in the mornings, while the more senior officers were “being grounded in the higher branches in the evenings.” These aforementioned branches incorporated both vitriolic speeches on the necessity of a ruthless approach to conflict, as well as lectures on the exploitation of Irish terrain, which would prove most conducive to the implementation of guerrilla warfare.
As well as the above military education, more traditional academic learning was also integral to the daily life of the Welsh internment camp.
Sean O’Mahoney writes that “While the morning was used for military drill, the afternoon was used for educational purposes. Classes were organized between 2.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. every day.”
Subjects taught included Irish, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Mathematics, Bookkeeping, Shorthand, Telegraphy and Irish History.
Concerned primarily with the historic activities of the Fenian movement, these classes instilled in internees like Tomás Ó Maoileoin, for example, the belief that revolution didn’t have to be all “blood and sacrifice.” Eamon O’Dwyer, interned at Reading Gaol amongst numerous internees transferred from Frongoch, remembered that:
“One of the things that we got up in Reading was a weekly lecture by some member of the crowd. The lecturers touched on very many aspects of Irish life and there was also a weekly talk. on military matters or on the war then being waged in Europe. Captain O’Connell gave those talks and they were very interesting, as he seemed to be able to prophesy pretty well what was going to happen. Arthur Griffith, Terry McSwiney [sic], Darrel Figgis, S.T. O’Kelly, P.T. Daly and Ernest Blythe were amongst the speakers at those various talks.”
The mass round-ups and internments that came like a hurricane on the heels of the Rising not only decimated the Irish Volunteers, but also the Citizen Army and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.
In Irish Socialist Republicanism Adrian Grant posits that “plans for reorganization were already afloat in the Frongoch internment camp” where Thomas Foran ascended to James Connolly’s position as acting General Secretary, while William O’Brien, “who was a long-term member of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, officially joined the ITGWU in 1917, quickly becoming its No.1 Branch vice-president, its most prominent organizer, and leader in the post-Easter Rising years.” O’Brien was, however, to play a hugely influential role within the barbed wire of Frongoch internment camp.
Life in Frongoch was coloured by several on-going strikes.
Many of these, such as the refusal to wear prison clothing in response to the banning of military uniforms, were overtly political. O’Brien attempted to renegotiate wages for camp labourers, causing consternation amongst Frongoch officials with his demand for “trade union wages in future.” Other incidents, such as the bucket strike and its inherent demarcation issues relating to prisoners disposing of camp guards waste by way of fatigue duty bore O’Brien’s imprint, none more so than the refusal of prisoners to work in Welsh quarries. Brennan-Whitmore later asserted that “it was utterly inconsistent with these principles to work in Welsh quarries and develop Welsh industries whilst quarries in Ireland were derelict for want of labour to develop them.” Such conflicts, in McConville’s estimation, “promoted inmate solidarity and militancy.”
While such flashpoints served to consolidate internee morale, concerns at home related to camp conditions more generally. Michael Collins victory in the 100 yard dash at a sport’s day in the camp in the impressive time of 10.8 seconds was used as a proof that the Irish internees in the camp were not malnourished and underfed, as was being argued in the Press. The camp’s chief critic was Frank Gallagher, editor of the Cork Free Press. Chief Press Censor for Ireland, Lord Decies, was live to the propaganda value that Gallagher saw in camp conditions, with the Free Press carrying reports such as ‘Tale of Horror from Frongoch.’ Frustrated with the insubordination of the Press, General Maxwell ordered the suppression of the Cork Free Press in November 1916 judging the paper’s reportage on Frongoch to be doing a great deal of harm.
Read more: Newspapers React to the Easter Rising
One of the primary concerns for the authorities at this time was how exactly letters were being smuggled out of the camp, before subsequently finding a place in the pages of both the Cork Free Press and the Southern Star. Dwyer tells us that Michael Collins “set the groundwork for his future intelligence work by establishing secret lines of communication with the outside. Letters were smuggled out in various ways.” We may speculatively note that Collins’ brother-in-law, journalist Patrick O’Driscoll, was working with the Southern Star at this time, having recently left the Cork Free Press, thereby opening a potential direct line of communication from the Camp to the Press.
This damaging propaganda, coupled with the increasingly souring public opinion directed towards the government’s handling of the Rising and its aftermath continued to aid the nationalist cause. “Compounded,” as Laffan tells us, “by the failure of the home rule negotiations, by separatist propaganda, by the efforts of newspapers such as the Irish Independent and the Irishman, by the Prisoners’ Aid Society,” the advances of advanced nationalism were given euphoric expression by the release of the remaining internees in Frongoch in time for Christmas, 1916, a conciliatory gesture from the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
While the camp had forced internees to endure some hostile conditions, it provided an important opportunity to re-group and re-organise a separatist movement that had nearly been dealt a knockout blow 8 months earlier, while the re-organisation of the Labour movement in internment camps like Frongoch is an area that demands further investigation. On the merits of the camp, Laffan elaborates further that “The detention of the most active radical leaders left a gap which could not be filled, but in the long run it was to be of enormous benefit to the separatist cause.
During the months which the prisoners and internees were obliged to spend in each other’s company their political beliefs were strengthened and they acquired a new sense of comradeship. Dedicated revolutionaries could not yet inspire nationalist Ireland with their ideas and enthusiasm, but they could at least inspire or instruct their fellow-detainees.”
Reflecting on the cataclysmic Rising of Easter and the sacrifices of its leaders while interned, Liam Pedlar wrote that “They failed, say you, yes, but with their failure achieved success.” While Pedlar’s paradoxically-penned phrase taps into the turning tide of public opinion, it also unconsciously acknowledges the opportunity for re-organisation afforded to the nationalist movement via this mass internment. The calamity that was the Rising provided the opportunity to re-group for many.