Tuesday 17 September 2019

Frongoch: university of the revolution

Some 1,800 Irish men were held at a remote Welsh prison camp and it was here that the seeds of the War of Independence were sown

Caught up: Collins wrote that at least a quarter of the men at Frongoch were completely ignorant of the Easter Rising.
Caught up: Collins wrote that at least a quarter of the men at Frongoch were completely ignorant of the Easter Rising.

Graham Clifford

In an overcrowded, smoke-filled and damp wood cabin, young men sit listening to their seniors. They hear of how and why Ireland must be cut free from the British Empire. They listen intently and conspire to hit British authorities in Ireland with sporadic attacks when they are eventually released from this make-shift prison camp. The seeds of the Irish War of Independence are being sown in a remote Welsh valley. This is Frongoch - the University of Revolution.

Today, the fields that once housed the POW camp lie idle. Sheep graze on the site of the camp while an old whiskey distillery, converted into part of the camp in 1916, has been totally demolished. A bungalow and a primary school are located where the distillery once stood.

Locals still tell the stories of 1916, they've been carefully passed down through generations. They talk of the 1,800 Irish men who were arrested by British authorities in the wake of the Easter Rising, held without charge and transported to the camp.

Of how around 1,000 German soldiers, held as POWs in Frongoch, were moved on to make way for the Irish influx (except for seven soldiers who were dying with TB). And of how the folly of the British in bringing so many republicans together on one site backfired dramatically in the years that followed their release.

For years, Irish rebels developed methods of avoiding detection when communicating with other like-minded individuals. But it wasn't easy. Large public gatherings were monitored with suspicion in the Irish police-state. Even in the build up to the Rising itself, the call to arms had to be concealed until the last moment for fear an informer would alert the British authorities in Dublin Castle.

But here in Frongoch, the men were, effectively, left to their own devices and assembled from the four corners of Ireland. Indeed many who had vague Republican sympathies before their incarceration returned to Ireland at the end of 1916 with much more entrenched ideas of revolution.

Young men like Michael Collins lived on a diet of poor food and talk of rebellion while in Frongoch.

The camp was divided into two sections - the North and South Camp. The South consisted of the rat-infested distillery where prisoners were crammed into poorly ventilated crop storage rooms.

The North camp was made up of wooden huts in parallel rows at the far end of a muddy field. Dampness and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the huts led to breathing problems.

Some of the Irish prisoners named the two camps "Purgatory" and "Siberia".

Writer Brian O'Higgins, who was Secretary of the Irish College in Carrigaholt in Clare, told of the psychological impact of internment at Frongoch.

"There is no more deadly, more cruel punishment, than the 'freedom' of a prison camp. There is absolutely no privacy. Nerves become frayed, tempers out of control, and all the meannesses of man come to the surface. The mind becomes dull, the body enervated, the heart hopeless or hardened, and selfishness displays itself unashamedly in every direction and at all hours of the day."

Among the other internees held were high-profile republicans such as William T Cosgrave, Terence MacSwiney, Seán T O'Kelly, Richard Mulcahy and Gerry Boland.

Collins wrote in a letter from the camp in September 1916 that in his estimation, at least a quarter of the men in the North Camp were completely ignorant of the Easter Rising. They simply got caught up in the British authority's national sweep.

Aged just 26 when he was held at Frongoch, Collins was better able to handle the conditions than older men who had families at home.

Collins wrote in correspondence: "There is only one thing to do while the situation is what it is, (and that is to) make what I can of it."

The Irish prisoners were guarded by British soldiers deemed too old or unfit to fight on the front line in the war-fields of France and Belgium.

Had the prisoners decided to escape from Frongoch, it's likely they could have fled without capture. But given the remoteness of the camp (it was almost 20 miles away from the nearest large town), the prize for breaching the wire was considered insufficient for the risk involved.

Also, Britain was at war and while most Welsh people would have let them go on their way, others wouldn't have hesitated to notify the authorities.

So when the first batch of men arrived in June of 1916, they established an internal organisation to help them through the long days. Some believed they would be held here for years. Many of the internees were teachers, linguists and academics. Irish history and language classes were quickly established and by August of 1916, the prisoners had access to French, Spanish, Latin, mathematics, short-hand and book-keeping classes.

Local Plaid Cymru councillor Elwyn Edwards told me on a recent visit: "I used to know an old man who, when he was a teenager, helped Michael Collins to learn some Welsh. Collins was very eager to learn the language and was so impressed that the local tradesmen were able to converse in their native tongue and hold on to their language while the Irish were not."

Many of the men also learned to play traditional instruments and there was even a drama society of sorts.

Sport, too, was vital in offering some much-needed respite from the monotony of camp life.

"The men played an awful lot of sport when they could, especially Gaelic football. Actually, they weren't allowed to play hurling because the prison guards were worried they might turn the hurls on them," explains Frongoch councillor Alwyn Jones, whose home is built on the site of the South Camp.

I walk with him over a bridge to a field known locally as 'Croke Park'. Two thirds of the large field are relatively flat but an embankment rises on the final third. "You see they'd play here in the flat part," explained Cllr Jones, adding "and the rest of them men would gather up on the embankment to get a good view of the proceedings. The games used to be fierce, we're told - the men really went for it."

By the end of 1916, the new British government accepted that the ploy of holding hundreds of men without charge on a remote Welsh hillside was both counter-productive and embarrassing.

By Christmas of that year, most of the men had returned to Ireland to be with their families. But many returned as different men, some deeply affected by the conditions of their internment and the fact they were treated as prisoners though they had not taken part in any form of insurrection.

For others, Frongoch was hugely useful. It allowed rebel leaders to recruit and indoctrinate willing combatants.

The Ireland the men would return to had changed as well. Where once aspirations of freedom, liberty and complete self-governance were deemed fanciful, these now appeared much more attainable.

Having left behind their Welsh prison camp, the graduates of Frongoch's University of Revolution were now ready to put what they'd learned there into practice.

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