Saturday, April 16, 2016


Frongoch Internment Camp by Robert Ballagh
Click on any image for a larger version

You may have seen the above illustration of a concentration camp in the centre of Dublin city and wondered what on earth it had to do with the 1916 Rising.

SIPTU 1916 Wrap on Liberty Hall

It is one of a number of panels on a 1916 wrap currently adorning Liberty Hall, Dublin's first skyscraper, built on the site of an older and lower Liberty Hall which was once the HQ of Jim Larkin's union and of the Irish Citizen Army mobilised by James Connolly in the 1916 Rising.

The top panel shows a wounded James Connolly being executed by a British firing squad after the Rising. This event was known by every Irish schoolchild from time immemorial but the role of Frongoch has only become more widely known as this year's 1916 commemorations have taken off.

Frongoch Camp & historic environs
Click on map for a larger version

Frongoch is located to the east of the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales and it is close to two other important Welsh sites which will be referred to in this post: Tryweryn and Trawsfynydd.

Frongoch Camp

But first the concentration camp at Frongoch where a large group of Irishmen were interned immediately following the 1916 Rising. Not all of them had taken part in the Rising but they were interned anyway. The internees included many names which resonate today such as Michael Collins and two future Lord Mayors of Cork, Thomás McCurtin and Terence McSwiney.

German prisoners in the camp

At the beginning of WWI the abandoned Frongoch distillery was turned into a German POW camp. When the Irish internees arrived after the 1916 Rising the Germans were shipped off elsewhere.

Internees being searched in the South Camp's main compound

Frongoch Camp, and the internment which gave rise to its occupation by Irishmen, was very much a British own goal, just like the executions which followed the 1916 Rising. Like the Curragh Camp at a later period, it was a university of revolution. There were classes in everything, including the new style of guerilla warfare which subsequently became the core tactic of the War of Independence. While many of the internees had not participated in the 1916 Rising, or were not actively involved in the revolutionary movement, a lot of their number were either politicised or reinforced in their politics in the Camp.

The internees were not supposed to have prisoner of war status but they were very much organised on military lines. Discipline was strict and loyalty almost absolute. This was very much brought out when their captors were trying to isolate those internees who had previously lived in England with a view to conscripting them into the British Army. The internees refused absolutely to cooperate, to the point of refusing to identify themselves to their captors.

One of the great advantages the Camp conferred on the revolutionary movement was the bringing together in one place of activists and potential leaders from all over Ireland. This would have been almost impossible for the movement itself to have organised at home.

While conditions were tough and very insanitary, and the internees had a hard time of it from some of their captors, there were some benign and even humorous encounters between internee and captor.

Some camp officers & wives. Officer Bevan sitting on the ground
is the censor referred to in the text below

For example, letters were censored both on the way in and on the way out. However, correspondence in the Irish language posed an additional problem for the authorities as it had first to be translated.

Séamus Ó Maoileoin was getting letters in Irish from his very republican mother. The relevant officer did not know of the mother's leanings and assumed "She is probably urging you to obediently beg for forgiveness for your crimes and to promise to be true to your King from now on and to return to Ireland". Ó Maoileoin comments "He didn't know my dear mother. He was loath to keep my mother's letter from me. He himself had a mother. But rules were rules and he had no translator."

Ó Maoileoin jokingly volunteered to translate the letter himself. To his surprise, the officer agreed, and Ó Maoileoin translated it honestly. Every time he came across a doubtful sentence he pointed it out and the officer would then snip the offending phrase off with a pair of scissors. He ended up with a pocketful of snippets. This was to happen to every subsequent letter Ó Maoileaoin received or sent, and on his release, the officer returned to him all the snippets he had removed. On the envelope containing the offending snippets he had written, "Clippings from the letters of a she-wolf".
[Incident recounted in Lyn Ebenezer's book - see below]

Waste not, want not

When the military were finished with the camp, the huts were sold off.

Former Frongoch hut in someone's garden

It reminded me of the old trams being sold off, many of which also ended up in people's gardens.

Tryweryn District School

The site is not exactly abandoned today with Tryweryn District School on the site of the old distillery and south camp.

Ye Olde Frongoch Shoppe

And, of course, the inevitable wee shop.


Capel Celyn village

We should not lose site of the later "imperial" significance of the area, when the nearby Tryweryn river was dammed in the early 1960s to make a reservoir to supply water to the English city of Liverpool. In the course of this a local Welshspeaking community at Capel Celyn was expelled from the valley and its village inundated.

"Capel Celyn rising again"
Graffiti painted on remains of village when revealed by severe drought.

Dafydd Iwan included a verse on this in his powerful protest song "Daw, fe ddaw yr awr" (I remember the time). The general gist of it is that the protest was too late and ineffective:

Wyt ti'n cofio Cwm Tryweryn pan agorwyd argae'r trais,
A dialedd hwyr y Cymry yn boddi geiriau'r Sais
Wyt ti'n cofio - Rhy hwyr, Gymro !
Daw fe ddaw yr awr yn ôl i mi.

"Remember Tryweryn"

This piece of social and cultural vandalism became a rallying cry for the language movement with the slogan "Cofiwch Dryweryn" (Remember Tryweryn), much on the lines of "Cuimhnigh ar Luimneach agus feall na Sasanach" (Remember Limerick and English Perfidy) in Ireland over two hundred years earlier.

Catherine Duigan has a wonderful description of the opening of the dam in her book Rivers of Wales in a short section on the politics of Welsh rivers.


Hedd Wyn's statue in Trawsfynydd

But long before this the conflict between Welsh Wales and the wider British interest was starkly illustrated in 1917. The nearby village of Trawsfynydd became famous for the posthumous award of the Eisteddfod Bardic Chair to Hedd Wyn who was from there and had fallen in Flanders between the submission of his winning poem and the award of the Chair. The Chair was draped in black on the Eisteddfod stage. That Eisteddfod, one of the few ever held outside Wales itself, took place in Birkenhead, sister city of Liverpool.

Bilingual plaques with differing dates

The bilingual plaques in front of the statue give slightly differing accounts of the poet's final moments.

Lyn Ebenezer

Lyn Ebenezer

Lyn Ebenezer has written a great book on Frongoch. Lyn gives credit to Seán O'Mahony who had written an earlier book on the Camp and without which Lyn says his own book would not have been written. The originality of Lyn's book is that it looks at the Camp from a Welsh perspective and Seán credits him with filling a void he did not deal with in his own book.

The book is a fascinating read. It is written in an easy journalistic, almost gossipy, style which engages the reader. This is not surprising as Lyn Ebenezer is a fine journalist of long standing. He also has a deep understanding of Welsh Wales, being a Welsh speaker himself, having been very active in the Welsh language movement and having revealed a well developed sense of humour in his involvement with some of Y Lolfa's more marginal publications in the distant past. He also very much empathises with the Irish republican tradition.

I had been familiar with the term Frongoch to the extent that I knew it was a prison camp in Wales where Irish rebels were interned after the 1916 Rising. But this book was a revelation and cast a whole new light on the place.

I owe Lyn for what I have learned about the camp. The pictures of the camp and of Capel Celyn are nicked from his book, but I'm sure he won't mind. So when you've finished reading this post, if you have retained the slightest interest in the subject matter do get a copy of Lyn's book. It's on Amazon where I have reviewed it and from which review I have reproduced much of the material above..

2016 Commemoration of Rising

A number of organisations, including the Conradh, commemorated the Rising at Frongoch on 28 March 2016.

The event was organised by Adam Phillips of Balchder Cymru.

Flowers were laid by, among others, Kevin Fahey of Hawarden.

And this looks like Padraig Yeates reading the Proclamation?

I'm told attendance was about 100, from Wales and Ireland, and visitors from USA and Australia with Irish connections.

Photos of the commemoration courtesy of Stacey Oliver and the Daily Post

Update: You can read about the commemorations held in Frongoch in June and the upcoming GAA final, as reported in the Denbigh Free Press, here and here.

Update: Catherine Duigan tells me that a highlight of 2016 for her was attending the ceremony at Frongoch. She has posted a photo (below) of a ceramic image of the Tryweyn river made by the children from the school on the site of the camp. She also informs me that the children tried to run as fast as Michael Collins.

Update: (20/11/2018) Military Pensions have have just tweeted the item below on life after Frongoch.

Click on image for a readable version

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