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.

The Future of Wales in a Broken Britain

general-electionSince 1970, which was the first year I could vote, I am proud to say I have voted at all 11 general elections and seen nine prime ministers come and go. The 2015 general election, however, is the first one I haven’t been excited about. I predict that it will produce confusion, division and weaken the United Kingdom hugely. 

In Wales, we have a number of choices of political parties – all of which are deeply flawed. As a committed socialist, I don’t believe there is an option that is good for Wales. My “in-depth” analysis of the options on offer are as follows:

  • Conservatives – a bunch of self-interested political elite, financially insulated from the realities of life that working people face. They are incapable of making policies that affect the vast majority of the population who live from month to month.
  • Liberal Democrats – an ineffective bunch of lying politicians who are not to be trusted with any promises more demanding than to get up in the morning abd who will vanish almost without trace anyway at this election.
  • Ukip – A bunch of racist, homophobic, bigoted Tories in another guise who make up policy on the hoof and who have no understanding of the implications of quitting the EU. They seem to forget that the open borders requirement is mandatory for countries like Norway who are not members of the EU but have a trading relationship. Deputy Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, said at a meeting in Porthmadog recently, “We are one country, the majority of people in Wales speak English, if people come here they should learn English.” Not the best way to win Welsh votes!
  • Green Party – I would have some sympathy with this broadly socialist party who have some good policies but no skill or experience (remember the leader’s recent radio debacle). The heart of the problem is that parties that are born out of a single issue attract people from left and right of centre but founder when their membership has conflicting ethos. Plaid Cymru has the same problem. The Greens are almost invisible here in Wales.

After dismissing four of the parties, we are left with Labour and Plaid Cymru which I believe are the only parties that offer anything for Wales. Unfortunately, I’m uninspired by both of them.

  • PartiesLabour – I have been a member of the Labour Party for many years and am clinging on by my fingernails, but not for much longer. I shudder to think what Nye Bevan and James Keir Hardie would make of today’s wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, appeal-to-all-people policies and their willing embracing of austerity. They support renewing Trident at a cost of £15-£20 billion, despite foodbanks having to deal with record numbers of clients. If the predicted rout of Labour in Scotland takes place, they will be decimated and I wonder if they will ever be a truly national party again.
  • Plaid Cymru – again, they declare themselves to be a socialist party, but I don’t see a great deal of evidence of this. They have three MPs at present and may pick up a seat in May. The problem is that they will only have a handful of MPs and in a hung parliament they may be able to do some good in a coalition. However, this is where my fear of divisiveness comes in. With a large SNP presence plus a few Plaid members and the strident Unionists from over the water, the national parties will require huge concessions which will contribute towards divisiveness and cause many English people to question if they really do want to be part of a United Kingdom. Plaid up here in its heartland is very negative towards non-Welsh speakers in general and England in particular.

As an aside, was a total advocate of proportional representation until I realised that it would mean that Ukip would have a lot of seats and that thought fills me with horror. Now I am not quite sure whether I think it’s a good idea or not to ditch the first past the post system. At least that will spare us from more than a handful of Ukip fruitcakes. Whatever happens in May, we are going to have a government which two-thirds of the population does not want and England is going to be full of resentment at the concessions that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will demand.

I’m going to keep banging the drum for the need for the UK to move towards a federal system, devolving almost everything except foreign policy and defence to the nations. We can but dream.

Craig yr Undeb – Snowdonia’s trades union place of pilgrimage


CerdynUndeb1921bWe look towards the Welsh Valleys when we think of  Wales Trade Union history but in the heart of Snowdonia a significant event in Trades Union history took place.

Slate was king in the 19th century and North Wales quarry owners had grown rich through supplying roofing slate to the rapidly-growing urban communities in the UK and abroad at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, this was at the expense of the quarrymen who endured poor wages and appallingly dangerous working conditions. !n a situation where the quarry owners ruled absolutely, there was no provision for the workers to register their dissatisfaction over their working conditions. In the face of continued victimisation, the only course open to workers was collective action. The impetus for founding a Union came not from Penrhyn, Bethesda, despite many disputes and an earlier attempt to form a union in 1865, nor from Dinorwig in Llanberis. the other large quarry in the area, but from the nearby smaller Glyn Rhonwy quarry.

In the early 1870’s 110 quarrymen from the Glyn Rhonwy quarry declared themselves to be union members and were promptly locked out by the quarry owner. He soon realised he was losing money and within three weeks the workers returned and were recognised as union members.

However, the owners of the other quarries were alarmed by this development and attempted to stop the spread of the trade unions by refusing permission for any meetings within the quarries or on any of the extensive lands belonging to the large connected with the quarries.

Union rockThis is where the story takes a strange twist. Lord Newborough, owner of the Glynllifon estate west of Caernarfon owned some land near Llanberis on the shores of Llyn Padarn. He allowed the men to use a rocky outcrop (providing natural shelter) which became known as Craig Yr Undeb (Union Rock) to plan secretly the formation of a trade union. It’s fascinating to speculate his motives – perhaps he was in dispute with his aristocratic neighbours. Whatever his motives were, these secret meetings led to the creation of the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union.

Men at Union Rock
However, Dinorwig’s owners were unwilling to recognise the union. As a resut, 2,200 quarrymen were locked out of Dinorwic Quarry in June of that year, but after five weeks the managers agreed to recognise the union. This was followed by a dispute at the Penrhyn Quarry, which resulted in a great victory for the workers and their new union.

Conditions at Dinorwig were rapidly getting worse and in 1885. 53 men were suspended from working because ten men had broken a local rule. A mass meeting was held at Craig yr Undeb where strikers passed votes of no confidence in the manager, John Davies, as well as the chief manager, Walter Warwick Vivian.Neither had experience of the quarrying industry, having spent their training in the hard world of business. They were not in the least knowledgeable about how to improve inefficient customs and practices and had no interest in improving the working conditions of its employees. At that meeting, the striking quarrymen were led in a march to Craig yr Undeb (Union Rock) by the Llanrug Band whose patron was the owner of the Dinorwig quarry, G.W.D. Assheton Smith. He had presented them with new uniforms, a practice room at Gilfach Ddu in the quarry itself, as well as a new set of silver instruments worth £400. They were ordered to return their instruments forthwith to the band room at Gilfach Ddu and to leave them there until further notice. Marching back, they were persuaded by some of the onlookers to play a couple of marches. They obliged, and in so doing gave Assheton Smith the excuse to confiscate their instruments permanently.  He then took the opportunity of presenting them to a newly formed band in Llanberis and employed a conductor and tutor from England in 1886.

Centenary plaqueThe North Wales Quarrymen’s Union was initially not led by miners but by radical Liberals who later became supporters of David Lloyd George‘s Cymru Fydd. It merged with the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1923. One hundred years after its formation, a plaque was unveiled by Jack Jones, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union to commemorate the centenary of the formation of the quarrymen’s union.

 

 

 

downloadMoral dilemma

If you look carefully on the rock which is the end of the outcrop, you will see that somebody has painted ‘Cymru am Byth’ (Wales for ever!) on the rock. This has now almost faded away and every time I walk past I am sad because if ever there was a place such graffiti was appropriate, it is here. The Welsh Government have preserved the graffiti near Aberystwyth which says “Cofiwch Dreweryn” (Remember Treweryn!) – a reference to the valley that was flooded to provide water for Liverpool despite universal opposition in Wales. Should I go out with a pot of paint and a brush early one morning and renew the graffiti?