After The Rising … 'Fron-goch and the Birth of the IRA'

Review by Kieron C. Punch /

After the British army suppressed the Easter Rising 90 years ago, authorities loaded their take of nearly 1,900 prisoners onto cattle boats and shipped them across the Irish Sea to Britain. This action has occasioned several histories, including the newest title "Fron-goch and the Birth of the IRA," by Lyn Ebenezer, a Welsh journalist, broadcaster and self-confessed "unashamed Hibernophile."

In the title, released in February, Ebenezer relates how a former Welsh whisky distillery, at Fron-goch, became a concentration camp for 1,863 Irish internees. Their experiences there, Ebenezer makes clear, helped transform prisoners such as Michael Collins, Dick McKee and Richard Mulcahy into the driving force behind the subsequent Irish War of Independence.

British authorities had previously executed 15 of the prisoners, including Rising masterminds Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, within the first two weeks of the insurgents' surrender. Once in Britain, the surviving leaders were weeded out and sent to high-security prisons, while the junior officers and rank-and-file were interned in Frongoch, in north Wales.

Ebenezer's book differs from previous histories of Fron-goch in its Welsh perspective, making full use of Welsh language sources to place the camp firmly within the context of the Welsh-speaking, nationalist stronghold of north Wales. Indeed, the first third of the book is a fascinating and accessible history of the Bala area and the Rhiwlas Estate where the Fron-goch camp was located.

Fron-goch was transformed from a prison for a defeated, leaderless, rebel army into a "University of Revolution"

In "Fron-goch," we learn that although Wales was a loyal pillar of the British Empire, and Welsh soldiers had fought and died on the streets of Dublin during the Rising, the region of Wales in which the Irish prisoners found themselves ironically bore many similarities to Ireland. While the barren, mountainous countryside surrounding the camp was reminiscent of rural Ireland, the local population had also suffered from evictions and enforced emigration at the hands of greedy landlords. Ebenezer describes how, in the late 1800s, nationally minded Welshmen drew inspiration from their Irish counterparts, establishing a Land Commission modelled on the Land League, and daringly inviting Michael Davitt to address a meeting at Blanau Ffestiniog.

It is with justifiable pride, therefore, that Ebenezer recounts how, in turn, the stubborn streak of independence displayed by the people of the Bala area, many of whom worked in the Fron-goch camp, inspired and impressed the Irish internees. 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." It is with little surprise that we learn, therefore, that when the prisoners' General Council began to organize lecture classes on military tactics, guerrilla warfare, and other subjects, the study of the Welsh language was added to the curriculum.

Although life in the camp was arduous, with prisoners forced to endure malnourishment, unsanitary conditions and a constant battle of wills with the British authorities, readers may be surprised to learn that not one escape attempt was undertaken. On the contrary, when prisoners were permitted to extend their exercise with route marches across the Welsh countryside, some of the internees volunteered to carry the guns of the tired guards, who were either veterans recuperating from war wounds or too old to fight in France.

The interior of Fron-goch prison.

Ebenezer provides an explanation for this apparent passivity in his narration of how Fron-goch was transformed from a prison for a defeated, leaderless, rebel army into a "University of Revolution," the graduates of which were "… the hard core of people who led the subsequent guerrilla war campaign in Ireland." By concentrating the cream of the Irish Volunteers in Fron-goch the British had inadvertently advanced the cause of Irish republicanism. Men from Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht, who under normal circumstances would never have met in Ireland, were gathered in Wales, where they exchanged ideas and worked out the blueprint for revolution. Irish National Party M.P. Tim Healy rued the establishment of the concentration camp at Fron-goch, saying the Home Secretary had created a "Sinn Fein University" for the inmates, with their education paid for by the British.

Ebenezer's account of how new life was breathed into the post-Rising Republican movement at Fron-goch should be compulsory reading for all students of the Irish War of Independence. His liberal use of internees' personal recollections provides fascinating biographical information about many of the men who were destined to dominate the Irish political and military arenas both during the war and in the decades that followed.

As well, Ebenezer, a student of the Irish republican movement, also finds harbingers, or perhaps the inspiration, of the types of resistance seen in recent decades.

He writes: "One event occurred that was to have widespread repercussions sixty years later. Some prisoners who were serving out their punishment in the South Camp for failing to identify themselves refused to wear clothes and went around wrapped in blankets …" That response was repeated during the "blanket protest" in the early 1980s by Irish republicans in Northern Ireland prisons protesting the withdrawal of their political status.

Fonc-goch sprinter Michael Collins

A wealth of anecdotes is also effectively employed to illustrate the prisoners' day-to-day existence in the camp and the series of events they organized to break the tedium and maintain morale. These ranged from fancy dress competitions to open-air concerts and from seasonal games at Halloween to sporting challenge matches. A typical example was the athletics day held August 8, 1916, when Michael Collins won the 100 yards in 10.8 seconds, "a feat, writes Ebenezer, "that was quoted in the House of Commons to refute the charge that the prisoners were under-nourished."

Lyn Ebenezer's sweeping history of Fron-goch should have concluded with the camp's closure and the repatriation of the prisoners in December 1916. Unfortunately, however, Ebenezer devotes the final quarter of his book to an unnecessary, poorly organized and disjointed description of the subsequent careers of the leading internees. This falls somewhere between biography and history lesson, but fails in both. This section of the book not only repeats previously raised issues, leaving readers with an unsettling sense of deja vu, but is also riddled with serious historical errors, including a gross overestimation of Michael Collins' role and importance during the War of Independence.

ISBN: 086381977X 
Price: £7.75
Published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch
12 Iard yr Orsaf, Llanrwst, Conwy, Wales, LL26 0EH
Tel: 01492 642031

For example, Ebenezer writes: "When it was restructured in the spring of 1918, the Republican Army was still generally referred to as the Irish Volunteers. Dick McKee and Michael Collins began forming army divisions across the country." In fact, the IRA only began forming army divisions in 1920. As well, referring to the arrest of 73 leading republicans in May 1917, in connection with the so-called "German Plot," he states, "Perhaps not coincidentally, most of those arrested had been elected to Parliament as Sinn Fein members." In fact most of those republicans would not be elected to parliament until the December 1918 General Election.

Despite such failings, Ebenezer has crafted a highly readable and informative book. He greatly enhances our understanding of the processes by which a disparate band of rebels was irrevocably welded together at Fron-goch into an efficient and effective revolutionary movement. Readers will also be left with a greater understanding of the relationship that existed between Wales and Ireland, two small nations struggling to survive on the Celtic fringe of the British Empire.

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

More on the Irish War of Independence

Irish Rebel Maurice Meade: May You Live in Interesting Times

"The Blacksmith" Hammers the Auxies at Clonfin, Longford

Dillon’s Cross Ambush and the Burning of Cork City

Corkmen Capture Mallow Barracks

Ballymahon Barracks Attack: Arming the Boys of Longford

The Listowel Mutiny: “Shoot on Sight”

The Ballymacandy Ambush: "I would not turn off my road for any Shin...

Seán Treacy at War: Tipperary 'Far Away'

“Paddy” O’Brien and the Rathcoole ambush: Vengeance Is “Mine”

The Scramogue Ambush: Roscommon Steps Up

The 1st Brigade Cork Volunteers and the Coolnacahera Ambush

Michael Brennan and the East Clare Brigade at the Glenwood Ambush

100 Years Ago: The Piltown Ambush (1 November 1920)

Liam Lynch, Civil War Martyr: “It never should have happened”

Tipperary’s Dan Breen: The Hardest Hard Man.”

'Greyhound on Train': Rescuing Seán Hogan at Knocklong

The Clonbanin Ambush: “To Hell With Surrender!”

George Lennon: Waterford Rebel

George Lennon & the Piltown Ambush

The Kilmallock Barracks Attack: Burning Down the House in Limerick

The Tureengarriffe Ambush: Cork & Kerry Strike a Blow

The Tourmakeady Ambush: Shrouded By the “Fog of War” in Mayo

The Headford Ambush: Time Runs Out in Kerry

Cataclysm in Cork: The Battle of Clonmult

“The Scourge of Tralee”: Stalking the “The Major”

The Dromkeen Ambush: Down Into the Mire in County Limerick

The Rineen Ambush: Hell Comes to County Clare

The Carrowkennedy Ambush, June 2, 1921: Revenge is a Dish Best Serv...

Tom Barry: 'We May Have Great Men, But We’ll Never Have Better'

The Battle of Crossbarry: ... 'Who Piped Old Ireland Free'

The Kilmeena Ambush, May 19, 1921: Seeds of Victory in a Defeat

'Nigh Comeragh's Rugged Hills': Ambush at The Burgery

The R.I.C. In An Untenable Position, Part 1: Trauma at The Burgery

The Lispole Ambush -- Averting Disaster on the Dingle Peninsula

Patrick White: A Clareman's Tragic Death on Spike Island

'And To Watch the Sunbeams Dancing O’er the Wicklow Mountains High'

Always Remember ~ Cumann na mBan

War of Independence -- How the Nuns of Kylemore Saved My Father's Life

Terence MacSwiney: Irish Martyr

Walking to Work Through a Battle Zone

Review of 'Emmet Dalton - Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pionee...

Ballinalee, County Longford: The Village of Generals

The Anglo-Irish Treaty: Seed of 'The Troubles'

Shot While Attempting To Escape

Easter Rising to Irish Civil War Archive Available Online

Michael Collins: Saga of Heroism Against Daunting Odds

A Short History of Michael Collins, Ireland's 'Big Fellow'

Great Irish Romances: Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan

Kitty and Michael: a revolutionary courtship

The Tan Who Was Hanged By His Own Side

Liam Lynch: Victim of the Irish Civil War

1916 and the Rebels' Priests

After The Rising … 'Fron-goch and the Birth of the IRA'

Ernie O'Malley: Mayo-Born Freedom Fighter and Writer

The Wild Geese Virtual Síbín with Cormac O'Malley

Evidence Abounds: British Leaders OK'd Mayhem

The Price of Freedom

The West Cork Trail: Scenes From the Anglo-Irish and Civil Wars, 19...

How I Learned That Grandad Executed Erskine Childers

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Éamon de Valera

Erskine Childers: Author, Irish Gunrunner, Churchill's Bête Noire

The Scum of England, or Ordinary Men? A Review of DJ Kelly's 'Runni...

The Forgotten Ten:

Views: 1758

Tags: Book, Fron-goch, IRA, Prison, Review, Wales, War


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership

Start a Business Today!

Adobe Express:
What will you create today?


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2024   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service