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