The Heroes of Ireland and Wales

How can such a small nation have so many iconic locations and modern day heroes concentrated in such a small area? I’ve just returned from a holiday in Ireland where I was also taking the opportunity to research some of the history associated with the internment of 1800 Irish prisoners in Fron Goch internment camp near Bala.

James Larkin outside GPO DublinAs a passionate student of Welsh history, I am inordinately envious of the Irish people every time I visit Dublin. I stood outside the General Post Office in O’Connell Street and looked at the statue of Jim Larkin, probably Ireland’s greatest trade unionist. Somehow I can’t see a statue of a really great trade unionist appearing in Parliament Square in London anytime soon. Straight across the road was another statue of the great Irish writer James Joyce.

Dublin is full of buildings and open spaces that are tingling with the inspirational history of people and events that have shaped that nation. Everybody knows the Post Office as the focal point for the 1916 Easter Rising, but a mile or so away is the beautiful St Stephen’s Green, anather major site associated with the Rising. Then there’s  Kilmainham Gaol and Glasnevin Cemetery, both dripping with history.

Nye BevanI could go on at length about people and places in Ireland that have inspired me. However, it always leads me to a sense of sadness that we don’t have the people and places here in Wales that cause people to be excited, motivated, energised and inspired like those in Ireland. I know there are glorious exceptions to this principle and names like Owain Glyndŵr, Aneurin Bevan and Robert Owen spring to mind – three great people who shaped this nation. If you look at the list of 100 Welsh heroes , they are numbers 1,2 and 9 respectively. There are many people whose names are near the top of the list that have achieved much in their field but have not shaped the nation of Wales. For example, number 3 on this list is Tom Jones,  Richard Burton 5, and Catherine Zeta Jones, 9 – talented certainly, but hardly changing the direction of this nation.

I probably should have included Gwnyfor Evans (4), whose political party I don’t support, but he certainly was key to bringing about S4C, the Welsh TV channel and he underpinned support for the Welsh language. Others like Dylan Thomas (7),  David Lloyd George (8) were great Welshmen, but their contribution was much wider than just the land of Wales.

There is is similar difficulty in identifying locations which are focal points for pivotal points in our history. We have a string of castles built suit to subdue the Welsh people, so they are hardly suitable, but I couldn’t think of a single place where one would make a sort of pilgrimage to salute individuals who had shaped our history.

National Mining MemorialIt was at that point a light came on. Most of our heroes have gone unmarked in history. They are the hundreds of thousands of miners that worked underground to bring coal to fuel a nation that went on to build the biggest empire the world had ever known. They are the quarrymen bringing the granite and slate to produce the cobblestones and the roofs of roads and houses throughout Europe. They are the foundry workers who worked in the iron and steel works building the ships and railways of the world. They are the true heroes of Wales, that shaped not just this nation, but the United Kingdom and many other nations.

And places of pilgrimage? A cemetery in Aberfan where many of the 144 victims of the 1966 disaster are buried; memorials in Senghenydd, Gresford, Cilfynydd, Abercarn  and in so many towns and villages where countless thousands of miners died in pit accidents or through the lingering death of pneumoconiosis, silicosis or emphysema. Yes, Cymru Bach is a land of heroes.

Dylan Thomas, a lemon, a World Record and Men in Dresses

Dylan ThomasI discovered a work by Dylan Thomas recently, that was totally new to me. Apparently he wrote the screenplay to an unremarkable film called, Rebecca’s Daughters. Despite having Peter O’Toole and Paul Rhys in the cast, the film has deservedly disappeared without trace. The interesting contribution it made to history was that it took 44 years from the time it was completed by Dylan Thomas in 1948, until its release in April 1992, which remains a world record for the longest time a screenplay has taken to be filmed.

What annoys me about the film is that it was a comedy. It was loosely based on the Rebecca riots which took place between 1839 and 1843 in mid and south Wales. Those riots were born out of poverty and injustice and were anything but funny. 

From 1815 Wales, like the rest of Britain, experience a post-Napoleonic war slump and agricultural prices remained volatile for many years and many farmers were unable to produce their crops profitably. At the same time a series of rent rises caused many farmers to lay off agricultural workers.  The rural counties of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire experienced a major increase in population during that post-war period from industrial workers who have had been laid off and returned to their rural roots[1].

The first of three situations which culminated in the Rebecca riots occurred in 1834 when an amendment to the Poor Law created workhouses – a degrading institution housing the poorest members of the community unable to support themselves and requiring them to do pointless manual labour.

The second factor causing anger in Wales and contributing to the riots was a government requirement to pay tithes – a tenth of a man’s income – to the established Anglican Church. As the population was almost universally Non-conformist, this was particularly resented at a time when prices were falling and people were living at subsistence level. An Act in 1836 allowed tithes to be calculated on grain prices averaged over the previous seven years. This led to an increase of 7 per cent in tithes at a time when farming incomes were at 50 per cent of their pre-war level.[2]

However, the main powder keg that exploded in south and south-west Wales related to the numerous toll gates encountered by farmers moving around their area in order to service their farms. Historians are agreed that a chaotic system in operation throughout Britain was particularly inefficient in Wales where they were numerous and operated over small districts. Even on relatively short journeys, farmers might encounter a number of toll gates, particularly near larger towns like Swansea and Carmarthen. Those who had to make longer journeys in order to buy lime to use as fertiliser, for example farmers in northern Pembrokeshire who travelled to the south for supplies from the kilns, were particularly disadvantaged by a multiplicity of tolls they had to pay on their journey.

Rebecca RiotsOn 13 May 1839, a newly erected toll gate at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire was wrecked by protesters. Although the owners rebuilt the gate, a mob of 300-400 met together on the night of 6 June 1839 and destroyed the gate again. The protesters had assembled under the identity of ‘Daughters of Rebecca’ or ‘Children of Rebecca’, many with blackened faces and wearing women’s dresses. From this beginning incidents of destruction of toll houses and toll gates began to spread westwards across the county and into Pembrokeshire. However, after a month the disturbances largely ceased and there was a quiet period until winter 1842 when a much greater wave of protests started affecting trusts in both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen. By 1844 the Rebecca rising had come to an end.

[1] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p.139

[2] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p146

North Wales’s University of Revolution and the Other Easter Rising

Easter means many different things to people. In Ireland at Easter, people think of two risings: the Christian resurrection and a different rising which happened 99 years ago at Easter 1916. It turned out that Wales was to play a major part in the aftermath of that aborted rebellion against British rule.

By 1916, many Irishmen grew tired of the failure of various Home Rule Bills in the British Parliament, the latest of which was the Government of Ireland Act 1914, which would have given limited home rule to Ireland. It was never implemented due to the outbreak of the First World War despite the efforts of Welsh minister David Lloyd George, then Minister for Munitions. On Easter Monday 1916, an insurrection took place in Dublin mounted by Irish republicans with the aims of ending British rule in Ireland and establishing an Irish Republic. The uprising was swiftly and brutally crushed by British military forces and 15 of the leaders of the uprising were executed.

Michael Collins

On 10 June 1916, Michael Collins (left) and more than 1,800 other Irishmen who had been captured following the Easter Uprising in Dublin, arrived at an internment camp in the tiny village of Fron Goch*, three miles from Bala in North Wales. None of the men had been charged with any crime and when it became clear that large numbers had been wrongly arrested, some simply being in the wrong place at the wrong moment, the number of detainees gradually reduced to between five and six hundred.

Internees at Fron Goch campThe camp was housed in a former whisky distillery which was made bankrupt in 1910. At the beginning of World War I, it was used as a prisoner of war camp for German prisoners who were subsequently relocated, except for a few who were too ill to be moved, to accommodate the large number of Irish prisoners. Initially, there were two camps at Frongoch; the South Camp and the North Camp. The South Camp was based in the former whisky distillery while the North Camp was a few hundred yards up the road in the direction of nearby Capel Celyn. Capel Celyn was another blight on the history of Wales when it was submerged, against the will of local people and all Welsh MPs, to form the reservoir on the river Tryweryn in1965. The North Camp was no longer used routinely when a major release of prisoners took place in June and the remaining prisoners were all located in South Camp. However, it continued to be used to confine prisoners charged with discipline offences.

Despite questions being asked in Parliament about the status of the prisoners, they were not properly treated as prisoners of war. For instance, POWs could write letters (subject to censorship) and they would not require a postage stamp. This privilege was not extended to the Irish prisoners. The censors of the camp were disadvantaged in that some of the incoming mail was written in Irish and prisoners were placed in the farcical position of having to translate their own letters aloud for the censors!

The Irish prisoners had considerable contact with Welsh people working at the prison camp and they were both inspired and impressed by their love for their language. One Irish prisoner, Batt O’Connor recalled,

“We marvelled at the fine national spirit of those men, and their love for their native tongue, that they should have been able to preserve it, and they living alongside the English without even a bay between.”

Many of the Irish protesters were highly educated men and started classes in the Irish language and also in Welsh, Spanish, French and even Latin. Welsh was a popular subject, second only to Irish. Many of those interned were ashamed that they could not speak their native language and one of the key leaders of the Easter Rising, Michael Collins, was a keen student of Welsh obtaining a dictionary from John Roberts, a 16-year-old who worked at the camp who subsequently became a great friend of Collins.There were also classes in bookkeeping, mathematics and shorthand. as well as in many other subjects for all those imprisoned at Fron Goch. It’s encouraging to think that Wales may have played a part in a renaissance of the Irish language.

Most significantly, because the men were left to their own devices during the day, it gave Michael Collins and the other leaders the opportunity to train men in guerrilla warfare and military strategy. Subsequently, Fron Goch, became known as ollscoil na réabhlóide – the University of Revolution or sometimes Sinn Féin University. In fact, it was at Fron Goch that the name Irish Republican Army was used for the first time, instead of the Irish Volunteers or Irish Citizen Army.

The prisoners were treated badly in Fron Goch. The food was particularly poor and the barracks were run by an authoritarian commandant. The camp was plagued by rats, there was inadequate heating as summer moved to winter and prisoners were not supplied with adequate blankets. There were a number of conflicts with the authorities at Fron Goch, on one occasion when they attempted to force prisoners  to clean the British guards’ quarters. The prisoners refused and several were taken back to North camp where they lost all privileges. There was a long stand-off but eventually the authorities capitulated and the men were sent back to the main camp. Another attempt was made to undermine morale when the authorities stated that although the Irish were exempt from conscription, those who had lived in Britain would not be exempt. Fortunately, the ludicrous position of forcing men into an army which they had already fought against was realised and the proposal was not followed through. The primary reason, though, was that the men had gone on hunger strike and a local doctor reported that because of the poor diet at Fron Goch many would not survive.

Public opinion was very much against the internment of the Irishmen and on the day after he became Britain’s first and only Welsh-speaking Prime Minister, 23 December 1916, David Lloyd George signed the order for the men to be released and all were back in Ireland for Christmas. History has shown that Fron Goch was a huge blunder and in Michael Collins made the point that the Irish were trained in military tactics at England’s expense. Thirty of those detained would go on to become TDs in the Irish Dail (Parliament).

Wales’s own Guantanamo Bay turned out ultimately to have created a huge problem for the British Government 60 years later.

Next year there will be huge celebrations in Ireland to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising and I hope that there will be a ceremony at Fron Goch to mark this significant Welsh connection with Irish history.

-oO0-

Further reading:

“Fron-Goch Camp 1916 and the birth of the IRA” by Lyn Ebenezer (Pub Garreg Gwalch, 2012)
“Frongoch: University of Revolution” by Sean OMahony (Pub TDR Teoranta, 1987)
“With the Irish in Frongoch” by W J Brennan-Whitmore (Pub Mercier History, 2013. Reprint of 1917 original.)

BBC Piece on Fron Goch
Some documents related to Fron Goch
Irish TV programme about Fron Goch on YouTube

*Fron Goch is the usual Welsh spelling for the village, but it is alternatively written as Frongoch or Fron-Goch in other documents.