COUNTDOWN TO 2016: Life in Frongoch

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

By Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

Frongoch internment camp was located in a former whiskey distillery in Merionethshire, Wales. Until 1916 it housed German prisoners of war in the disused distillery buildings and crude huts, but in the wake of the Rising the German prisoners were moved and it was used as a place of internment for approximately 1,800 Irish prisoners. They were accorded POW status.

Frongoch contained hundreds of GAA members and Gaelic football was a major activity among the prisoners. Hurling was outlawed: the British camp commandant banned camans, fearing that they would be used as weapons against the guards. The football pitch in Frongoch was called Croke Park after the stadium in Dublin, and posters advertising the matches indicated that ‘admission was to be five shillings, and wives and sweethearts should be left at home’.
Joe Clarke, who had served in the 3rd Battalion in the Rising and was posted to Clanwilliam House at Mount Street Bridge, recalled:

‘After the Battle of Mount Street Bridge I was arrested and kept in military barracks in Dublin for about ten days when we were taken to the North Wall and put aboard a cattle boat and taken to Wakefield Jail in Yorkshire. We were in solitary confinement there for about three weeks and late in the month of May 1916 we were transferred to Frongoch camp in Wales. This camp was formerly occupied by German prisoners as their names were written in the German language on the walls. We had between 900 and 1,000 prisoners about the middle of June. We were all brought in batches every other day to Wandsworth Jail where we spent two nights. We were then questioned by an Advisory Committee about our actions in Ireland about the Rising. A big number of us refused to answer any questions and following that, about the middle of July, half of the prisoners were released in batches every other day. Between four and five hundred, including myself, were detained until the 23rd of December when we were released.’

Above: Recreation inside the huts at Frongoch. (W.J. Brennan-Whitmore, With the Irish in Frongoch [1917])

Above: Recreation inside the huts at Frongoch. (W.J. Brennan-Whitmore, With the Irish in Frongoch [1917])

Though many of the prisoners had not participated in the Rising, most were actually members of the Volunteers or the Irish Citizen Army. Because so many of the prisoners had received some military training leading up to the Rising, they soon established a military command structure. The camp became fertile ground for the spreading of the revolutionary gospel, and later became known as the ‘University of Revolution’ or the ‘Sinn Féin University’.
A look at the names of just a few of those who were imprisoned in Frongoch gives an idea of the ‘talent’ that was available to teach and inspire the men to follow the revolutionary doctrine. Capt. Michael Collins was Prisoner 1320 here. Collins smoked 30 cigarettes a day in Frongoch; he gave them up in 1920, after the Tans arrived, saying that he would not be a slave to anything. Paddy Daly went on hunger strike as a result of being punished for a minor infraction of the camp rules. The strike was successful and he was released to the general prisoner population.

Later he became a major-general in the Irish Army. Capt. Leo Henderson became O/C in charge of the 1st Dormitory. He later organised the ‘Belfast Boycott’, and was arrested in a raid on Ferguson’s Garage at the start of the Civil War. The King brothers (Arthur, George, Michael and Sam) were taken from Frongoch and handed over to the British military for desertion; they were eventually discharged as ‘persons not likely to give loyal and faithful service to His Majesty’. Brian O’Higgins was one of the party who moved the explosives into the GPO basement. He was imprisoned in Frongoch, became a TD and fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. He wrote The soldier’s story of Easter Week. Capt. Michael W. O’Reilly was the Camp O/C at Frongoch and subsequently was Director of Training for the IRA.

Joseph Connell Jr is the author of Who’s who in the Dublin Rising (Wordwell Books). His new book Michael Collins’s Dublin will be published in early 2017 also by Wordwell).

FURTHER READING
L. Ebenezer, Fron-Goch and the birth of the IRA (Conwy, 2005).
S. O’Mahony, Frongoch, University of Revolution (Dublin, 1987).
S. Ó Maoileoin, B’fhiu an Braon Fola (Baile Átha Cliath, 1958).

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