Sunday 18 March 2018

Inside the University of Revolution - Frongoch

Rebels interned at Welsh prison Frongoch had to deal with grim conditions which extracted a brutal toll from at least one prisoner, Paul Callery tells our reporter

Paul Callery pictured in City Hall where his grand uncle fought in 1916. Photo: Bryan Meade.
Paul Callery pictured in City Hall where his grand uncle fought in 1916. Photo: Bryan Meade.

Celine Naughton

This month 100 years ago, 1,800 Easter Rising rebels who'd earlier been herded on to cattleships, Dublin-bound for various British prisons, were marched under armed guard on to trains and transferred to Frongoch internment camp in North Wales.

Frongoch - until then used to detain German prisoners of war - would play a pivotal role in the ensuing War of Independence. It was here that influential figures like Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, William Cosgrave and others planted the seeds of further rebellion in the minds of receptive young men for whom the camp became known as 'Ollscoil na Réabhlóide,' or 'University of Revolution'.

But while the internees learned about strategy and guerrilla tactics, they did so in appalling conditions. Those in the North Camp were crammed in damp, cold wooden huts, while those across the road in the South Camp found themselves in rat-infested rooms with poor ventilation. Freezing, hungry and not knowing what was to become of them, many prisoners struggled to cope. One who fared particularly badly was Willie Halpin, a 23-year-old pork butcher who'd fought in the City Hall garrison in Easter week.

"Willie suffered what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," says his grand nephew Paul Callery, a former artillery soldier who served 25 years in McKee Barracks.

"Rumour has it that he was standing next to Sean Connolly when Connolly was shot in the head. That in itself would have been a shocking thing to experience, but just a few hours later, he was asked to take over a building across the road.

"He and his fellow Volunteers were under intensive sniper fire from Dublin Castle and Dame Street, and at first they couldn't get into the building, but Willie broke his rifle bashing through the door and they gained entry and later reported back to City Hall. Three days later they surrendered."

Willie's cousin John Halpin took part in the occupation of the Four Courts and the GPO during the Rising and was also interned in Frongoch - he in the South Camp and Willie in the North. But while John managed to keep up his spirits as best he could, Willie was not so fortunate.

"Willie suffered terrible beatings from the prison guards," says Paul. "He was so troubled by the events of 1916 and conditions in Frongoch, he became suicidal. Soldiers are trained to take advantage of weakness and it's possible those in charge saw him as vulnerable and bullied him. And despite the beatings, Willie did not receive the medical help he needed.

"Doctors in the camp were under orders not to treat patients who refused to give their names, but one of them, Dr Peters - the same doctor who attended Willie and failed to treat him - broke under the strain and drowned himself in a nearby river."

He wasn't the only one who broke. On August 3, Willie tried to cut his own throat, and was transferred to North Wales County Lunacy Asylum in Denbigh. When he returned to Ireland in 1917, he was confined in the Richmond Lunatic Asylum in Grangegorman, where he died in 1925.

"The word 'lunatic' was used right up to the 1930s," says Paul. "There was no history of mental illness in the family, and it's heartbreaking to think this man who took up arms and clearly suffered PTSD as a result of what he witnessed both during the Rising and in his time in Frongoch, came to such a sad end.

"His mother Mary wasn't the same after it."

Willie's cousin John was released from Frongoch in December 1916. Four years later, he was involved in a riot in Dublin after a memorial mass for Eamonn Ceannt and suffered brain injuries when the RIC baton-charged the protestors. He was taken to hospital and a steel plate was inserted into his head.

"In 1934, he developed headaches and was taken to Grangegorman," says Paul. "The same year, he was awarded a medal and a military pension of £20 a year. However, on his death in Grangegorman in 1938, the family had a hard job to get his pension paid to them. At that time, pension payments depended on who was in power. Whether they were pro- or anti-Treaty, they tended to favour their own; others would have to wait.

"John's funeral cost £26, including the white robe he was buried in, the coffin and the grave in Glasnevin cemetery. But his father was worried they'd have to exhume the body and bury him in a pauper's grave, because they didn't have the money to pay for it. Eventually, the pension came through and John was able to rest.

"Willie never received a pension or, more importantly, a medal to recognise his role in the Rising, but I haven't given up trying. It may be a hundred years later, but I'm determined to get that medal to honour the sacrifice he made.

"The men and women who fought in 1916 took on one of the biggest empires in the world and they deserve recognition for that."

As a member of the Dublin Brigade Irish Volunteers History Group, Paul has visited Frongoch a number of times and describes it as a "spiritual place".

"The atmosphere is really poignant," he says. "I walk around it with a sense of pride, knowing that this is where the War of Independence really began. We're going back at the end of this year to mark the centenary of the last prisoners to be released. It's a symbolic trip and, for us, an important one: we want to take them home."

Paul Callery's tribute to the Halpin Brothers can be seen on YouTube

Irish Independent

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