Review by Kieron C. Punch / TheWildGeese.com
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.
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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.
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