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Ireland’s ‘University of Revolution’ in Wales: Fron-goch Internment Camp (1916)

Ireland’s ‘University of Revolution’ in Wales: Fron-goch Internment Camp (1916) by Paul O’Leary Aberystwyth University

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Workers at the Welsh Whisky Distillery, Fron...

Strange as it may seem, the site of a disused whisky distillery in a small, remote village in north Wales has left an indelible mark on modern Irish history. Fron-goch in Merionethshire, a few miles from Bala, was an unlikely place for nurturing Irish revolutionaries. Yet that is precisely what happened during the First World War. What took place there during 1916 helped shape the political careers of some key figures in Irish public life. The name of Fron-goch still resonates in the story of the struggle for Irish independence.

 

 

Before the First World War, the Irish were promised Home Rule after many decades of determined campaigning. ‘Home Rule’ was a form of devolution and fell far short of independence but mainstream Irish nationalists accepted it. Under Home Rule Ireland would have its own parliament but remain a part of the United Kingdom. Mainstream nationalists backed the war effort after 1914 to demonstrate that they could behave responsibly when eventually they were given self-government. Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen volunteered to fight in the British army and many died. But the events of Easter week in 1916 changed the relationship between the majority of the Irish and Britain.

 

 

An armed rebellion was organised by a small revolutionary organisation called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. Their idea for an Irish republic went far beyond the limited plans for Home Rule. It claimed ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ and promised equality to both women and men. The superior British forces in Ireland crushed the rebellion after six days of fighting and the main leaders of the rebel forces were executed. But what would the authorities do with the other rebels? Many people with republican connections (and some with none at all) were rounded up. Around 1,800 of them were transported to Fron-goch. 

 

 

So why Fron-goch? The village had one useful feature for the authorities: a disused whisky distillery. The company that owned it went bankrupt in 1910. After the outbreak of the First World War the site was turned into a prisoner of war camp for German POWs. In 1916 it was decided that this remote location would be an ideal place for the Irish prisoners. The Germans were re-located to make way for the Irish. The village was still connected to the rail network and trains brought the new prisoners to their new temporary home in June 1916.

 

 

The inmates included Michael Collins. He would become an influential figure in the IRA (the Irish Republican Army). He was an important figure in the events that led to Irish self-government. He was one of the negotiators of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and Commander-in-Chief of the army in the Irish Free State. Collins used his time in Fron-goch to cement his leadership position in the republican movement. He also honed his skills as a revolutionary at the camp. He taught other prisoners lessons in ‘guerilla warfare’. It was a formative period in his life.

 

 

Living conditions in the camp were awful. It consisted of two parts – North Camp and South Camp – connected by a road. South Camp was made up of the distillery buildings themselves, while the North Camp was composed of wooden huts. In a letter home, Michael Collins commented on the cramped conditions: ‘Not too much room to spare!’

 

 

These buildings poorly ventilated. They were insanitary and rat-infested. Even so, the prisoners taught each other lessons, including the Irish language, to keep up morale. They observed the strength of the Welsh language among local people. Some of these worked in the camp. Michael Collins befriended a local boy, Robert Roberts, and obtained a Welsh dictionary from him to learn Welsh.

 

 

Prisoners were limited to one letter a week. These were censored. But some friendly guards posted additional letters outside the camp on behalf of the men. In fact, they smuggled goods in and out of the camp in defiance of regulations. Prisoners often refused to co-operate with the camp commandant.

 

 

Other prisoners went on to hold posts in Irish governments. Among them was Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin. Later, he was president of the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, during 1922. Like many others, he had been swept up by the authorities in Dublin and interned. These people were sifted out and the number of prisoners declined sharply by August 1916.

 

Questions were asked in parliament about conditions in the camp and it became an embarrassment to the government. Eventually it was emptied in December 1916 when David Lloyd George became prime minister. The Irish presence in Fron-goch had been short lived but its consequences lasted a long time. Fron-goch became known as ‘the University of Revolution’ and was a symbol of the revolutionary period in Irish history. Few disused distilleries can boast that. 

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