Reading Elwyn Edwards’ feature on Frongoch, a translation of which appeared in number 4 of The Green Dragon, reminded me of my efforts during the late 60’s and early 70’s to find out more about the history of the internment camp on the banks of the Tryweryn river.
Having been deeply interested in recent Irish history since my schooldays I visited Dublin during Easter 1966 for the 50th anniversary of the Rising. While there I determined to make an effort to contact some of the Frongoch ex-internees. It took me two years before I managed to strike it lucky. And it was through pure luck that I met Joe Clarke, hero of the Battle of Mount Street Bridge.
I happened to call in a bookshop just off O’Connell Street. The bookseller, Dermot Fitzpatrick, recognising my Welsh accent, introduced me to one of his customers who had done time at Frongoch.
The customer in question was a short man who peered through pebble-lensed spectacles while perching precariously on a pair of crutches. He was the least likely-looking soldier that I had ever seen. Yet this was Joe Clarke, described at his funeral in April 1976 by Éamonn Mac Thomáis as “the greatest of the Fenians, greater even than Patrick Pearse.” He was 94 years old when he died.
At the Battle of Mount Street Bridge Joe and twelve of his comrades kept at bay over 1,000 Sherwood Foresters for over five hours before they were forced to surrender. Six of the Volunteers were killed while the Foresters suffered 220 casualties either killed or wounded. Four of those killed were officers.
One of his captors took Joe’s revolver and fired it at his head. Joe ducked just in time and his life was spared by the arrival of a doctor.
In a letter dated November 8 1967 he wrote to me, “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. This camp was formerly occupied by German prisoners as their names were written in the German language on the walls.
“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.
“I got to know Michael Collins for the first time in Frongoch. He organised all the men for future activities on their release. He was a powerful organiser but unfortunately, in 1922, he went the wrong way. I worked with Collins very actively up to the time of the signing of the Treaty. Then, as you know, we took different sides.”
I corresponded regularly with Joe, who kept the Irish Book Bureau in No 68 Upper O’Connell Street and met him on numerous occasions. He remained an uncompromising Republican and espoused the Provisional cause following the split. Ever the rebel, he stood up and protested at the 50th anniversary of the Dáil and was forcibly ejected.
Joe despised de Valera. He would often tell me that de Valera had promised to dispatch reinforcements from Boland’s Mill to Mount Street Bridge but had never kept his promise. With even only six extra men, Joe sincerely believed that they could have held out and forced the Foresters into retreat.
Joe had little time for WJ Brennan-Whitmore, the author of With the Irish in Frongoch. I managed to make contact with Brennan-Whitmore in the Summer of 1971 and subsequently met him in Dublin where he guided me around the various strategic points in the vicinity of the GPO where he had fought. A small, dapper little man dressed in a pinstripe suit, sporting a bow tie and wearing a Homburg hat he was quite a showman who became very agitated when reliving his part in the fighting.
In a letter written to me prior to my visit he wrote of a possible second edition of his book. His comments make interesting reading.
“The first edition is out of print for years and years.; and it’s impossible to get a copy. As the publishers, The Talbot Press, was an offshoot of the Educational Company of Ireland, which had large Govt. (British) contracts, and as things were beginning to hotten up, so to speak, they were afraid to chance a second edition.”
Though he was 85 years old at the time he was busily writing his memoirs and had, according to the letter, completed four volumes. In that same letter he 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’.”
He went on, “I was very glad to read that a school is being built on the site of the South Camp, and we would all be proud if a room in it were called the Collins Room.”
Brennan-Whitmore was the last managing director of An tÓglach, the official journal of the old IRA and the National Army. During his latter days he was a prolific correspondent writing regular diatribes against the European Union in the Irish Catholic.
My best-known contact was Dick Mulcahy, who succeeded Michael Collins as Chief of Staff and became the Free State Minister for Defence in the first Dáil. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to contact him, he was too old and sick to be of much help. But he went to the trouble of replying to my letter in which he referred me to Brennan-Whitmore and also to Tom Sinnott of Wexford who had written of Frongoch in the Wexford Free Press.
One who proved to be a very valuable contact, though not regarding Frongoch, was author and historian Thomas O’Flaherty who wrote to me from London in 1971. He even lent me his personal file on Michael Collins. Unfortunately he knew little of Collins’ time at Frongoch that I didn’t know already.
His most interesting comments were aimed at de Valera. In his letter he justified his condemnation of Dev:
“In particular, I would say, because of the fact that the Government of the day debated the Treaty, voted on it, and passed it, de Valera seeing his political future in jeopardy, refused to accept that decision. He resigned as President of Dáil Éireann and expressed his readiness to accept the decision of the people (i.e.) through a general election.
“Refusing to take part in the interim Government, without prejudice to his principles or those of his followers, or their right to oppose the ratification of the Treaty at the election, de Valera and his supporters availed of their ‘independence’ to move about the country planting the seed of strife and discontent. They did not find it possible to accept this offer of patriotic service. They would not cooperate in keeping the army united, free from political bias, so as to preserve its strength for the proper purpose of defending the country in the exercise of its rights. Instead they attempted to stampede meetings by revolver shootings, to wreck trains, the suppression of free speech, of the liberty of the press, terrorisation and sabotage of a kind which the Black and Tans had subscribed to and which Collins, through military genius and acumen, had repelled.”BR>
He went on, “The policy of de Valera and his mob now became clear – to prevent the people’s will from being carried out (the people had demonstrated in favour of the Treaty) because it differed from their own, to create trouble in order to break up the only possible national government, and to destroy the Treaty with utter recklessness as to the consequences.
“Eventually the election did take place with the people accepting the Treaty overwhelmingly. The power-crazy de Valera, however, again persisted, and so followed the shameful Civil War…
“…The calamity was unnecessary. There lies the wrong to the nation. A simple acceptance of the people’s will! That was all that was asked of them. What principle could such an acceptance have violated? Where were those lofty principles after the death of Arthur Griffith and the disposal of Collins, when de Valera accepted the Treaty? And so, the triumph of Griffith and Collins was squandered by the perversity of de Valera.”
The responses of Joe Clarke and Thomas O’Flaherty underline yet again the complexities of Irish politics. Yet, although on different sides, they were united in their condemnation of de Valera.
Joe Clarke was also dismissive of Brennan-Whitmore’s book, With the Irish in Frongoch. To him it was too fanciful an account, full of myths and half-truths. His advice to me was,
“Don’t believe everything Brennan-Whitmore tells you.” And, with a wry little smile he added, “And never trust a hyphenated Irishman.”
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.