Is it wrong to begin with the Fenians? The republican experience of political imprisonment and internment during the Irish revolution had, of course, late nineteenth century antecedent. The Irish Republican Brotherhood’s recurrent encounters with the British penal system during this period produced a ‘literary Fenianism’ of iconic prison texts from Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s Irish rebels in English prisons: a record of prison life to Michael Davitt’s Leaves from a prison diary, or, Lectures to a “solitary” audience.
Prison memoir, as William Murphy has noted, ‘had attained a prominent place in nationalist culture’ by the early twentieth century. Indeed Thomas Clarke’s Glimpses of an Irish felon’s prison life, a classic of its genre, was serialised in the separatist journal Irish Freedom between 1912 and 1913. Clarke’s account of imprisonment at Millbank, Chatham and Portland, indeed, reads as much a didactic manual to surviving the British prison system as a memoir. Chapters such as ‘The golden rule of life for a long-sentence prisoner’, ‘Passing the time in prison’, and ‘The silence torture’, at times written in third-person narrative, are cautionary. Clarke himself would preface his recollections thus: ‘my intention was to select such incidents of prison experience as would be likely to interest readers of Irish Freedom, especially those of the younger generation’. Among those readers were rebels and civilians interned after the Rising.
Between 1 May and 16 June 2,519 internees were deported from Richmond barracks to British detention centres at Perth, Barlinnie, Lewes, Knutsford, Stafford, Wakefield, Wandsworth or Woking. The thoughts of some turned to Fenian forbearers. ‘Where we were now going’ Gerald Doyle recalled ‘the men of a previous generation who had also been held as prisoners – Michael Davitt, O’Donovan Rossa, Daly and a host of others – had also gone’. Their experience of the first month (May) in these detention centres was, by all accounts, miserable. The rations exasperated the internees. Breakfast at Knutsford comprised a wedge of bread, a ration of butter and a ‘skilly’ of oatmeal cooked on water ‘a thick sickly mess’. Dinner at the prison was even less palatable: a stew of beef, bones and a couple of blackened or greened potatoes.
At Stafford the internees’ soup contained meat, fat or gristle, depending on one’s portion. Evening meal at Wakefield, meanwhile, consisted of tea, bread and butter. ‘Memories of the famous felons, whose successors we in some measure were’, Seamus Doyle recounted ‘helped us to endure it’. The psychological imprisonment of internees was potentially most injurious to their health. At both Knutsford and Wakefield the internees were kept in solitary confinement for up to 23.5 hours a day. A silent thirty minute period of exercise offered reprieve from the desolation of daily life in one’s cell. The monotony of prison life, confined space and boredom could trigger the slide into irritability, depression and, ultimately, insanity, what the German psychologist Adolf Vischer termed ‘barbed wire disease’. The Irish internees were acutely exposed to this condition during these protracted periods of isolation. Fenian writings provided solace. ‘When sitting down alone in my cell’ Michael Lynch remembered ‘my mind immediately reverted to Tom Clarke’s “Prison Memoirs”…remembering Tom Clarke’s observations, I realised that a man could keep sane, under these conditions, only as long as he was able to keep his mind revolving on something or other. If the mind got blank, or if you started worrying about your loved ones at home, madness was staring you in the face’.
The internees’ cells were devoid of reading and writing materials, an intellectual starvation which many found intolerable. Contraband pencils became prized possessions. ‘Everything was taken except one little stump of a pencil, about one inch long, which was in my waistcoat pocket’ Michael Lynch recalled ‘this little pencil was a great friend for about five days.’ Scholars of what has been termed the ‘archaeology of internment’ have drawn attention to the potential palliative effect of objects on an individual’s internment experience. This became more apparent as the prison regimes were relaxed. Towards the end of May (prisons differed on timing), the internees began to be treated as de facto prisoners of war: freedom of association was instituted including the right to converse, (censored) letters could now be written and received, rations were increased and foodstuffs could be purchased. The sense of liberation was vividly expressed by the internees in contemporary letters. It was also frequently recalled by veterans of the period in later testimony in the form of objects. Darrell Figgis described the catharsis of his last days at Stafford prison in terms of writing materials: ‘I had books, and I was allowed foolscap on which to write. So with books, pen and blanket, the days passed with as much ease as a prison could give’.
By early June, however, the internees were on the move. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s directive for the ‘combing out’ of innocents had already seen 650 men released and returned to Ireland. Twelve internees who were judged ‘specially dangerous’, Figgis included, were removed to Reading Jail. From 9 June, meanwhile, the remaining 1,863 detainees were relocated under Regulation 14B of the Defence of the Realm Act. Confirmation arrived in the form of an internment order for Frongoch. Unlike the clinical prison regimes, the Frongoch authorities expected the Irish internees to regulate the day to day running of their camps. ‘Messes’ (groups) of thirty to forty were to be organised by a mess leader, responsible to a head leader, who in turn was to answer to the camp authorities. Frongoch, however, also bore the trappings of what the psychologist John Davidson Ketchum has termed ‘a prison camp society’. Unconfident of early release, but encouraged by their relative liberation within the camp, the detainees set about creating and maintaining a normal existence. Disused rooms in the inner yard of the South Camp formed a mall of shops: barber, tailor and shoe maker. Internees themselves provided essential services: ‘Our postman was Mick Brennan…Jimmy Mallon was our barber…“Comrades” O’Mahony was a kind of welfare officer’. The men could initially write letters to, and receive letters from, outside the camp as prisoners of war but this censored correspondence was later charged by the camp authorities. Community activists offered other amenities. Henry Dixon established a library, while Jeremiah Purcell introduced a course in shorthand. Evenings, meanwhile, were to be devoted to study. A litany of classes was provided by the internees including architecture, chemistry and bookkeeping, in addition to the provision of French, German and Spanish language tuition. However, the most popular subject was the Irish language. The prevalence of Irish teachers at Frongoch has often been commented upon but statements from the internees attest to the widespread interest in learning the language. Frongoch would function for many as an internment camp society.
Many of the later accounts attest to the inculcation of a comradeship and connectivity at Frongoch, particularly among those who had been geographically dislocated in pre-Rising Ireland. This was borne out in the wealth of autograph albums designed by internees before their release from the camp. Images of sites across the camp(us) were annotated with jailmate humour; republican references were written; while internees from as far afield as London, Liverpool and Glasgow signed with name, date and forwarding address. If Frongoch was a ‘university of revolution’ these were the college yearbooks for the class of ’16. However, these albums also evince the conscious continuation of a literary (Fenian) prison tradition. Internees composed their version of the internment experience and vision for the Irish independence movement within their pages for posterity in the form of poetry. Verses such as Jack Mooney’s ‘Night in Frongoch’, Brian Ó hUigínn’s ‘To Éirinn’ and Seán MacMahon’s ‘Roisin Dubh’ rhymed republican resistance to British authority at Frongoch with past prison rebellion. More prosaically, Hugh Holahan inscribed future revolution: ‘we’ll try again’.
W.J. Brennan-Whitmore’s published memoir With the Irish in Frongoch would present the internment experience in resplendent republican narrative. Released in November 1917, only eleven months after the release of the remaining internees themselves, it promised ‘the most thrilling and inspiring story of an incident in Irish History that has happened since the Irish Republic was established on Easter Monday, 1916’. The book chronicles the internees’ daily regime at Frongoch, offering a penetrative account of life behind barbed wire and colourful profiles of a host of characters from Sergeant Major “Jack-knives” Newstead to John “Comrades” O’Mahony. Indeed Michael Collins, already initiating covert military operations in late 1917, was suitably angered by the reveal-all exposé. With the Irish in Frongoch, further, illustrates well-worn tropes of republican captivity: deprivation, resilience, solidarity. ‘During all these seven months’ Brennan-Whitmore maintained ‘not a single quarrel ever occurred amongst us’. More recent scholarship, by Peter Hart and William Murphy, however, has evidenced the ‘politics and jockeying for power’ among internees at Frongoch, introducing a refreshing critique to the established contemporary narrative.
Historical writing on the Irish revolution and the internment experience continues to stimulate academic discussion, debate and disagreement. This is a sign of a healthy historical memory. For some of its participants, however, the Irish revolution was already written.
Dr. Darragh Gannon is a Research Associate at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks. He was a Curatorial Researcher to the Museum’s ‘Proclaiming a Republic: the 1916 Rising’ exhibition. He is a scholar of modern British and Irish history with particular research specialism in the Irish in Great Britain and the Irish revolution, and is the author of Proclaiming a Republic: Ireland, 1916 and the National Collection, (Dublin, 2016).