The internees who arrived at Frongoch in June 1916 faced many challenges. Food was meagre, medical provision was inadequate, and the buildings in which the rebels were housed were crowded and uncomfortable. Boredom, separation from loved ones, and uncertainty about how long they would be held added to the strains of daily life in the camp. Yet, the men imprisoned at Frongoch not only found ways of occupying themselves through music, drama, sport and art, but also of turning the experience of internment to productive military, political and cultural ends. Internees kept fit with daily military drill and received lectures on the tactics of guerrilla warfare – used so effectively in the subsequent War of Independence.
Classes in Irish language, Irish history and even step-dancing were offered, so that many of those only peripherally involved in the events of the Rising became radicalised. Although the experience of internment had a negative impact on the physical and mental health of many, there were no attempts to escape: it was in many ways more useful to remain in the public eye, interned without trial and forced to endure harsh conditions by the British government, as public opinion swung increasingly in favour of the rebels. In the camp itself, small acts of insubordination, such as refusing to answer to the roll call, maintained the internees’ sense of independence, and even the alien landscape of the camp was refigured with the paths between rows of huts soon named Pearse Street and Connolly Street.
This short essay will focus on the craftwork made by internees at the camp. Internees made items such as crosses and harps from animal bone acquired from the cookhouses; coins and spoons were refashioned to make pins and brooches; and macramé and woolwork items included handbags, belts and mats. Such objects might on first glance seem to be of peripheral interest, but in fact they allow us to explore the experience of internment and the cultural values and personal relationships of the prisoners, as well as providing a moving material link with the men who made these objects.
A wooden inkstand made by Joseph Duffy illustrates the creative spirit that prevailed. When the internees first arrived at Frongoch, they were housed in a former whiskey distillery. The inkstand is made of oak that once formed part of a whiskey vat. Here, a small piece of the camp itself was repurposed and reimagined. Like many of the items made by internees, the inkstand celebrates the achievements, antiquity and sophistication of pre-Norman Irish culture in both the decorative interlace and the use of Gaelic script. Other items such as bone crosses referenced the high crosses of the Early Medieval period in their shape and decoration, while objects such as macramé belts and wool mats were worked in green, white and orange; the use of these colours is interesting as the tricolour had only just become a popular and recognisable national symbol during the Rising. Like the inkwell on which ‘Frongoch’ has been carved, items were often inscribed with the name of the camp and the year 1916. When internees returned home, such objects functioned as souvenirs around which memories could be retraced and re-ordered, and experience authenticated and mythologised.
The inkwell described above was also inscribed with the name Eibhlín, and much of the craftwork from Frongoch was made for female friends and relatives. Among other items was a macramé handbag made by Domhnall Ua Buachalla who successfully stood for Sinn Fein in north Kildare in the 1918 elections and was subsequently the last governor general of the Irish Free State. It is embroidered with the word Máthair (mother). Ua Buachalla made an identical bag for his wife embroidered with the initial S. The objects made by internees for female relatives and friends were often intimate and personal objects worn on the body, and they speak powerfully of the desire to maintain emotional bonds in the face of spatial and physical disruption. For many men, being unable to provide for their families while they were imprisoned was a particular source of pain. Domhnall Ua Buachalla had seven children, and alongside the handbags he made a set of macramé child’s reins - an evocative item that conjures an absent father’s wish to keep a small child close and safe.
Religious symbolism occurs frequently in the craftwork from Frongoch, and this is often overtly Catholic in its character. Despite the involvement of Protestants in the nationalist and independence movements of the preceding two centuries, in the months that followed Easter 1916, the Catholic Church succeeded in figuring the Rising as an event bound up with Catholic religious identity. An item emblematic of this is a bone depiction of a chalice surmounted by a monstrance (used to display the host during Mass). It includes religious symbols such as the Sacred Heart. The thorn motif references both Jesus’s crown of thorns and the barbed wire that surrounded the camp, explicitly linking the rebels with the rhetoric of blood sacrifice. The item is inscribed in memory of Seán Connolly, the first of the rebels to be killed on Easter Monday. Other religious items made at Frongoch included holy water fonts, and the camp itself was configured as a predominantly Catholic space: internees attended mass every morning, the rosary was recited in the evening, and religious images were hung over many of the internees’ beds.
In conclusion, Frongoch – like other camps and prisons of the revolutionary period – was a place in which internees experienced profound feelings of dislocation and powerlessness, so that craftwork can be seen as a productive act in what was otherwise a reductive and deeply depersonalising context. The creation of objects was an expression of intellectual freedom and personal capacity. It allowed the construction of a particular sense of cultural identity, and the rejection of the rules and ideology of internment through the appropriation and reworking of camp material culture.
The objects made at Frongoch not only provide an insight into the ideals, values and concerns of the internees; they also allow us to move beyond the polarised opinions still generated by the Rising by foregrounding the intimacy of personal experience – the small and moving stories behind larger political events that can provide us with the compassion to understand the complexities and contradictions of what is often a difficult past.
Joanna Brück is a Reader in Archaeology at the University of Bristol. Her research interests include Bronze Age northwest Europe, Irish municipal parks of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and the archaeology of the 1916 Rising. She is currently undertaking archaeological excavation and survey at Frongoch Camp with Dr Gary Robinson of Bangor University, north Wales. She is co-editor of Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the Easter Rising, (Liverpool University Press, 2015).
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