On 10 June 1916, Michael Collins 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 Frongoch, 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 but the prisoners were 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 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 in the early 1960s. 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!
Language became a big issue in Frongoch as there were several teachers interned there who taught a number of languages including Irish (the most popular option), Welsh, Spanish, French and even Latin. There were also classes in bookkeeping, mathematics and shorthand. Welsh was a popular subject as many of the internees were impressed by local people working at the camp and their commitment to their language. 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.
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, Frongoch, became known as ollscoil na réabhlóide – the University of Revolution or sometimes Sinn Féin University. In fact, it was at Frongoch 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 Frongoch. The food was particularly poor and the camp was run by an authoritarian commandant. The camp was plagued by rats, there was inadequate heating in winter and prisoners were not supplied with adequate blankets. There were a number of conflicts with the authorities at Frongoch, 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 Frongoch 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 Frongoch 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).
Further reading: Fron-Goch Camp 1916, Lyn Ebenezer (Carreg Gwalch 2012)