Ireland’s Wars: Frongoch

It is time that we begin to turn our attention to the complex and thorny issue of what we know as the Irish War of Independence. Even that very title is complicated, since such monikers are typically given to conflicts that end in independence for someone, which the war fought in Ireland between 1919 and 1921 did not. A more academic term often used is the “Anglo-Irish War”, but this has always struck me as too vague, just as the “Tan War” is too rustic. So I will be sticking to the “War of Independence” throughout, and beg the forgiveness of anyone who feels it is not an appropriate description.

In the coming weeks, months, and maybe even years, we’re going to go over the events of the War of Independence with as fine a tooth-comb as I can reasonably manage, but I can only do so much. It was a war of numerous small-scale ambushes and assassinations, where substantial actions were rare, and I will not be covering every movement of every flying column. I will pay attention to what I deem to be the very important singular events of course, but much of my focus will be on a larger operational and strategic level.

But before we get to any of that, we have to give some time to the interval period between the conclusion of the Easter Rising, and the events of the 21st January 1919. In the next four or five entries, I have a few things to cover, from the rebirth of Sinn Fein as the party of revolutionary nationalism through the effects of the later parts of World War One on Ireland and on into the organisation of those military entities that would fight the War of Independence. But before all of that, we must discuss the fate, and progress, of those men and women imprisoned for their part in the Easter Rising in May 1916.

Thousands of people had been rounded up in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Some of them were members of the Irish Volunteers or Irish Citizen Army who took part in the Rising, some were members of those organisations who did not take part. Some were members of Sinn Fein, or the Gaelic League or the GAA, arrested not for their participation but because they were simply viewed, in that moment, as a potential seditious threat to the British administration. And some were completely innocent, victims of a military government that lost the run of itself in the the latter half of May 1916.

While those prisoners that John Maxwell deemed important enough were put on trial for their lives and, in many cases, executed, questions remained over how to deal with the rest of the masses now packed into Dublin gaols and military barracks. They couldn’t be kept there forever – it didn’t take long for MP’s in Westminster to howl with outrage over the conditions – and Maxwell certainly didn’t want them released. And so the decision was taken to move thousands of them across the Irish Sea to Britain, there to be interned, without proper trial, in pre-arranged camps. After a period of processing, where many of them were kept in severe conditions of solitary confinement in various English prisons, nearly 1’800 were sent to the small village of Frongoch, an isolated place in rural North Wales, that some of those destined to spend time there compared to Connemara.

On the outskirts of the village was an abandoned distillery – Frongoch had been a place built around whiskey production up to the 1910’s – and a few other buildings, that the British government choose to re-purpose as a prisoner-of-war camp for Germans captured on the western front. In June 1916 the Germans were moved elsewhere, and the Irish were moved in. The camp consisted of a North and South section. Wire fences enclosed the the two, and up to 400 guards were stationed there at any one time to prevent escape, which was unlikely enough: even if prisoners got beyond the guards and the wire, there weren’t many places for them to go in the surrounding area. Conditions were basic: roll-call at 5.30 am, lights out at 9.30 pm, with frugal meals of bully beef provided. Men lived, ate and slept in huts, always in close proximity to one another. There was space to walk and take exercise, but little to no privacy, and the weather was usually cold.

Aside from the roll-call’s, meals and a morning mass, the prisoners were largely left to their own devices by the guards for the remaining time, and it is in this that the legend of Frongaoh was born. It took only a few days for the prisoners to elect a committee whose task it was to “run” the camp internally; very quickly, such government became dominated by militant nationalists, who would turn Frongoch into the “university of revolution”.

It must be remembered that only a certain proportion of the Frongoch internees were committed nationalists, but the opportunity for what we would describe today as “radicalisation” was obvious, given the perceived injustice of their incarceration. Those members of the IRB and Irish Volunteers who were in Frongoch leaped at the opportunity to use the place as a recruiting ground for the cause. Chief among them was Michael Collins.

I have mentioned Collins in passing before, but he deserves a more considered introduction now. Born near Clonakilty, County Cork in 1890, the son of a former IRB man, Collins was raised and educated in an atmosphere of intense nationalist feeling. A bold and adventurous child, he was nicknamed “the Big Fellow” before he reached his teens. After leaving school at 15, and lacking prospects at home, he moved to London to take up a postal job with the civil service. There he became a well-known figure in nationalist circles: through the London GAA and other organisations of the gaelic revival, he was made a member of the IRB by future trophy inspiration Sam Maguire. Despite his young age, Collins advanced rapidly, catching the eye of many due to his intelligence, organisational ability and personable style.

After his return to Ireland, where he worked for an accountancy firm in Dublin, Collins joined the Volunteers and became a close friend, confident and adviser to Joseph Plunkett. During the Easter Rising he served as Plunkett’s aide-de-camp in the GPO, and narrowly avoided greater attention from the authorities after the surrender. Despite his admiration for some of the Rising’s leaders, most especially Connolly, Collins found much of the experience disillusioning, criticising later the decision to fight a conventional war which had no serious hope of success. Sent to Frongoch with so many others, Collins, still only 26, found himself, uniquely placed to become a leading figure in the movement, thanks to the vacuum that had suddenly been created.

Collins would spend his incarceration practicing his social and organisational abilities, making contacts with other like-minded people, and putting in place the very basic structure of what would become a future intelligence network: by the time that his imprisonment in Frongoch came to an end, Collins would be very well-connected and regarded by the other high-ranking men to come out of the place, noted for his energy, extent of memory and tireless efforts to steer camp life in the militant direction as well as use the camp itself as a propaganda tool. Among the men he would have come into contact with who went on to grater notoriety were Gerald Boland, W.T. Cosgrave, Paddy Daly, Sean McGarry, Dick McKee, Sean McLoughlin, Sean Mac Mahon, and, perhaps most importantly, Richard Mulcahy.

Collins, and others like him, organised plenty of lectures and speeches on topics close to their heart, for the purpose of maintaining the revolutionary spirit in those who had fought in the Easter Rising, and getting those who hadn’t onside. Contrary to some beliefs, these programs were not all about guerrilla warfare and how to undertake it, but instead focused much of their time on Irish history, Irish culture, and the politics of revolutionary nationalism. There was an element of practical military training regardless, the Volunteers aided in this regard by the incarceration of J.J. O’Connell, who instituted discipline in the camp in order to represent it more as a prisoner-of-war facility and to maintain standards.

It was not all a case of the prisoners being left to themselves. Clashes between those interned and those being guarded were inevitable, and there were strikes against the kind of menial camp work prisoners were expected to do, and for the morning roll calls, when the British were perceived as going too far. Even when a large proportion of the Frongoch internees were released and sent back to Ireland, the remainder continued to have, at best, a neutral relationship with their gaolers, and this pattern was repeated elsewhere: in other prisoners, that included Lewes where Eamonn de Valera and Thomas Ashe were imprisoned, there were reports of prisoners rioting over conditions, and a lack of recognition of their prisoner-of-war status.

There were also fears of conscription, which plenty in the British military and political order believed would be the best solution, a method of eliminating nationalist sentiment through war service, and of contributing to the war effort. It may seem like a faintly ridiculous idea with hindsight – nationalist-minded conscripts were hardly going to really aid the British on the western front – but such was the thinking from some in a time of war, and some of the prisoners were press-ganged.

One incident, revolving around an internee named Michael Murphy, illustrates how such things could come about, and how the increasingly radicalised occupants of the Frongoch camp could fight back. The camp Commandant at the time, a disliked Colonel named F.A Lambert, demanded that the man be identified so he could be forced into uniform. Why Murphy was chosen for such treatment is a different question, but it didn’t matter: the internees closed ranks, 150 of them went on a hunger strike, and the British backed down. Hunger striking thus proved a potent weapon for prisoners, and that’s a topic we will, sadly, have to re-visit soon enough.

One of the results of the above incident was the splitting of the internees between the North and South camp. Collins came to dominate the situation in the South camp, essentially leading a new sub-committee of prisoners, one dominated by IRB men, an organisation that Collins was advancing far in even while behind the wire. He took the opportunity to raise endless complaints of the prisoners treatment in writing, including a lengthy report that made a lot of waves in Ireland, and no end of trouble for a British administration that was daily dealing with howls of outrage over the internees’ fates.

Over the course of 1916 British inquiries, judicial hearings and political pressure all resulted in a staggered program of release. By autumn around 500 men, the hardcore, remained in Frongoch, and even they would not be there by 1917: under increasing pressure in Westminster and in Ireland, the British government essentially gave a blanket amnesty before Christmas, and the internees all went home, in many cases to heroes welcomes. Many of those who came home did so with a renewed resolve to continue the struggle, which was born, at least in part, by the manner in which the British had attempted to extinguish it.

They returned to an Ireland that had undergone some significant changes, especially politically, that they would seek to both get behind and mold for their own ends. In the next entry I will discuss some of those changes, with the re-definition of Sinn Fein at their heart.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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