Following the 1916 the Easter Rising 1,800 Irishmen were arrested without charge and were taken to prisons in England from which they were transferred in June 1916 to Frongoch Internment Camp. The camp of Frongoch, which is on the edge of Snowdonia in the middle of Wales, was initially an internment camp for Germans.
The Camp: In 1897 R. Lloyd Price and Robert Willis erected a whisky distillery at Frongoch. The site was chosen because the waters of the Tryweryn river were so pure and also because the water was peaty and therefore soft to the taste. Houses were constructed for the managers and about 30 people were employed there. The venture did not survive very long and the company went bankrupt in 1910. The extensive premises were empty for a number of years until the First World War when they were converted into a camp for German prisoners. Some of the Germans died there and they were buried in the churchyard of Frongoch Church, but after a number of years their remains were disinterred and buried in England.
In the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the German prisoners were moved and it was used for the internment of the Irish prisoners. The Irish prisoners arrived in Frongoch on June 9th, 1916. Initially 1,836 Irishmen were sent to the camp at Frongoch, but some were released because they had been wrongly arrested and the number of detainees fell to five or six hundred. There were two camps, the South Camp and the North Camp. The South Camp was based in the old buildings of the former whisky distillery while the North Camp was higher up in the direction of Capel Celyn. The South consisted of the rat-infested distillery where prisoners were crammed into poorly ventilated crop storage rooms. The whisky distillery buildings were very cold at night and stifling hot by day and the prisoners were constantly tormented by a plague of rats. The North camp was made up of wooden huts in parallel rows at the far end of a muddy field. Dampness and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the huts led to breathing problems. Some of the Irish prisoners named the two camps “Purgatory” and “Siberia”. Between the two was a road leading to the railway station on the line from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog and a field which is now behind the Post Office.
Internees: Frongoch housed a veritable who’s who of the Irish Revolution. Among the internees held were high-profile republicans such as William T Cosgrave, Dick Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Dick McKee, Tomás Mac Curtain, Gerry Boland, Terence MacSwiney, Seán T O’Kelly, Oscar Traynor, Joe Clarke, Seán Russell, Tom Derrig, Domhnall Ó Buachalla, Seán Hales, Dr James Ryan, Brian O’Higgins and Séamus Robinson. In total thirty of the prisoners would become members of Dáil Éireann as the fight for freedom progressed.
Michael Collins: One of the biggest mistakes the British government made was to bring them all together in Frongoch. Michael Collins said Frongoch was where the tactics which would lead to the War of Independence were first discussed “at English expense”. Collins wrote that at least a quarter of the men at Frongoch were completely ignorant of the Easter Rising. They simply got caught up in the British authority’s national sweep. Aged just 26 when he was held at Frongoch, Collins was better able to handle the conditions than older men who had families at home. Collins wrote in correspondence: “There is only one thing to do while the situation is what it is, (and that is to) make what I can of it.”
John Roberts used to work in the camp when he was about sixteen years old and he became friends with Michael Collins. He describes the North Camp as being a much better place than the South Camp: it was a lot cleaner but dreadfully cold and damp. He describes Michael Collins as a man who dressed well. However, he did not bother with a collar and tie and his shoes were always filthy. Collins was highly respected by all and the prison staff held him in some regard. A fair man who smoked a lot. He was also very fit and was always out in front whenever the prisoners had to go on a march. Collins decided that he was going to learn Welsh and with John Roberts’ help he obtained a dictionary and the Welsh alphabet and paid for them. Collins was never short of money, Roberts recalled.
A young Michael Collins
Organisation of the Camp: When the first batch of men arrived in June of 1916, they established an internal organisation to help them through the long days. Some believed they would be held here for years. Many of the internees were teachers, linguists and academics. Irish history and language classes were quickly established and by August of 1916, the prisoners had access to French, Spanish, Latin, mathematics, short-hand and book-keeping classes. Many of the men also learned to play traditional instruments and there was even a drama society of sorts.
The men played an awful lot of sport when they could, especially Gaelic football. They were not allowed to play hurling because the prison guards were worried they might turn the hurls on them. A field by the bridge became known locally as ‘Croke Park’. Two thirds of the large field were relatively flat but an embankment rises on the final third.
In Frongoch the men were effectively left to their own devices and assembled from the four corners of Ireland. The camp proved an excellent opportunity for networking and training for the republicans. Indeed many who had vague Republican sympathies before their incarceration returned to Ireland at the end of 1916 with much more entrenched ideas of revolution. The camp became a fertile training ground for organising against the British rule of Ireland. Able leaders gave lessons in guerrilla tactics. The camp became known as ollscoil na réabhlóide, the ‘University of Revolution’.
The Irish prisoners were guarded by British soldiers deemed too old or unfit to fight on the front line in the war-fields of France and Belgium. Had the prisoners decided to escape from Frongoch, it is likely they could have fled without capture. But given the remoteness of the camp (it was almost 20 miles away from the nearest large town), the prize for breaching the wire was considered insufficient for the risk involved.
One of the internees, Joe Clarke wrote, “After the Battle of Mount Street Bridge I was arrested and kept in military barracks in Dublin for about ten days when we were taken to the North Wall and put aboard a cattle boat and taken to Wakefield Jail in Yorkshire. We were in solitary confinement there for about three weeks and late in the month of May 1916 we were transferred to Frongoch Camp in Wales. We had between 900 and 1,000 prisoners about the middle of June. We were all brought in batches every other day to Wandsworth Jail where we spent two nights. We were then questioned by an Advisory Committee about our actions in Ireland about the Rising. A big number of us refused to answer any questions and following that, about the middle of July, half of the prisoners were released in batches every other day. Between four and five hundred, including myself, were detained until the 23rd of December when we were released.”
WJ Brennan-Whitmore, the author of “With the Irish in Frongoch” wrote of his feelings as he crossed the Welsh border on his way to Frongoch: “’It’s so like Ireland,’ I heard one comrade pathetically remark as we sped through it (Wales) to Frongoch camp. And we found all the Welsh people we came into contact cheery. I heard one comrade remark as we pulled out of a wayside station: ‘They’re so different to the English, who look at you in the way a cow looks over a hedge’.”
Release: By the end of 1916, the new British government accepted that the ploy of holding hundreds of men without charge on a remote Welsh hillside was both counter-productive and embarrassing. Some men lost their reason while there and a British doctor took his own life. The Chief Secretary for Ireland admitted that the risk of keeping untried prisoners any longer in detention appeared greater than that of releasing them. By Christmas of that year, most of the men had returned to Ireland to be with their families. But many returned as different men, some deeply affected by the conditions of their internment and the fact they were treated as prisoners though they had not taken part in any form of insurrection.
Upon release from Frongoch, many to prove their spirit remained unbroken, got out at Chester and sang “Deutschland uber Alles.” Most of us were anti-German really.” said one of the detainees, “The British are a patient people. They took no notice.”
Frongoch Today – The village of Frongoch consists of three houses, a shop, a school and a Post office. About a field’s width from the main road is an estate of single storey houses and a cluster of other houses nearby. Today there is nothing to show that a whisky distillery once stood there, nor that it had been a prisoner of war camp. The railway station has long gone, and the old line from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog has itself been dismantled — even the Church has been demolished. At the back of the site of the railway station: the signal box, station canopy, and platform of a halt on a long-vanished railway line still stand, shabby but remarkably well preserved. The north camp is now an open field. On the site of the Whisky Distillery and the South Camp stands Ysgol Gynradd Bro Tryweryn (The Tryweryn Valley Primary School), quite different to the one that was there in 1916. A memorial plaque in Irish, Welsh and English recording the time when Frongoch housed the 1916 prisoners was unveiled in Frongoch in the summer of 2002.
The project was undertaken by the Liverpool branch of Conradh na Gaeilge / The Gaelic League with the support of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg / The Wesh language Society. Each year on Easter Monday, a small ceremony is held at the plaque.
Meathmen In Frongoch: Patrick Bradley, from Fordstown, Kells, fought in St. Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons. Arrested 28th April 1916 Bradley was interned in Knutsford and Frongoch.
Patrick Lynch Johnsbrook, Fordstown, fought under James Connolly in the GPO and was sent to Stafford Detention Barracks. From there he was sent to Frongoch Internment Camp.
Brian O’Higgins, left the GPO when it went on fire. O’Higgins was imprisoned in Stafford jail and Frongoch Camp. O’Higgins, told of the psychological impact of internment at Frongoch: “There is no more deadly, more cruel punishment, than the ‘freedom’ of a prison camp. There is absolutely no privacy. Nerves become frayed, tempers out of control, and all the meannesses of man come to the surface. The mind becomes dull, the body enervated, the heart hopeless or hardened, and selfishness displays itself unashamedly in every direction and at all hours of the day.”
Patrick Cole lived at Arodstown, Summerhill from the 1930s until his death in 1965.
Cole served in North King Street and Church Street, Dublin during the Rising. Arrested Cole was imprisoned in Stafford Prison and Frongoch.
Joseph Kennedy lived at Raystown, Ashbourne in the 1930s and 40s. Kennedy took part in barricading the street at North Brunswick Street and was transferred later in the week to the Four Courts Hotel. He was interned at Knutsford and Frongoch.
William Joseph Murphy was at the Athenum, the headquarters for the Enniscorthy Volunteers during the Rising. Murphy was arrested at work on Tuesday, interned in Richmond Barracks, Wormwood Scrubs, Stafford Gaol and Frongoch Camp for fourteen weeks. Murphy later moved to Navan.
Galway born, Pádraic Ó Máille, was mobilised at Gort on April 24th but when he arrived he was told the review was called off. Arrested by British forces in Galway on Tuesday 25 April he was imprisoned on a British Naval vessel. He was taken to Cobh where he was disembarked and sent to Richmond Barracks, Dublin. He was transferred to Wandsworth Prison and then to Frongoch camp. He settled in Ratoath.
Michael Commins lived at Kilgraigue, Dunboyne/Killeaney, Maynooth, Co. Meath from the 1930s until his death in 1979. Commins took part in the capture of Clarenbridge RIC Barrack, Co. Galway, under the command of Liam Mellows in Easter Week. Arrested on 3rd May Commins was imprisoned in Arbour Hill, Stafford Prison and Frongoch until 17th August.
Desmond Ryan, from Navan, took part in the Easter Rising serving under Pearse’s command at the GPO in Dublin. He was deported to Stafford Gaol and Frongoch. When he came back to Ireland he returned to his studies and achieved a B.A. from UCD.
Patrick Dennany, a native of Tuberfinn, Donore, was a member of the GPO garrison during 1916. He was imprisoned in Richmond Barracks until 30 April when he was transferred to Stafford Gaol and from there to Frongoch Camp. He was freed on Christmas Eve 1916. Dennany was a friend of Patrick Lynch, another Meath man who fought in 1916.
John O’Brien from Tankardstown, Rathkenny, took part in the occupation of Lambe’s Public House at Ballybough Bridge. On Tuesday the men retreated to the GPO where they remained until the surrender. Deported to Knutsford and Frongoch O’Brien was released in September 1916.
Liam O’Regan was one of a group from Maynooth who marched from Kildare to Dublin in 1916 to join the Rising. His name is associated in records with Climber Hall, Kells. O’Regan served in the GPO and was given a position there until the evacuation on Saturday evening. O’Regan assisted in the breaking through the walls in Moore Street. He surrendered on Sunday and was interned at Frongoch until the end of August or the beginning of September.
Sean Boylan’s house was surrounded by Lancers on Tuesday afternoon following the surrender of the rebels in Dublin. Boylan, his three brothers and Christy Lynam were arrested and taken to Richmond Barracks. The men were marched to the North Wall and despatched to England on a cattleboat. They were taken to Wandsworth Prison. The prisoners were transferred to Woking Prison and after a month they were sent to Frongoch where conditions were good. There were education and language classes and the prisoners had their own canteen. It was here that Boylan met Michael Collins. He was later to be described as “Mick Collins right-hand man.” After three months Boylan was released and made his way back to Dunboyne.
In 1916 Richard Mulcahy joined with the Fingal Battalion, with whom he seized control of the RIC barracks in Ashbourne, Co. Meath. Interned in Knutsford and Frongoch, he was released in December 1916. Another veteran of Ashbourne, Joseph Lawless, was interned in Frongoch until December 1916.