Little remains of Frongoch prison camp as locals prepare to mark centenary of 1,800 Irish men’s arrival after 1916 rising
From the road, the house is just the first in a row of nondescript bungalows, set against a backdrop of Welsh woodland and the hills marking the edge of the Snowdonia national park. The back of the building, however, is startlingly different from the sloping gardens and washing lines of its neighbours: the signal box, station canopy, and platform of a halt on a long-vanished railway line still stand, shabby but remarkably well preserved.
The Irish writer Val Mulkerns shivered, and not just in the rain and the gale blowing down the valley. Elwyn Edwards, local county councillor, historian, poet and Welsh language enthusiast, one of the locals planning to mark the centenary of their village’s role in Irish history, put a reassuring arm around her shoulder.
“This place still has a very strong atmosphere of the past,” he said, “for those with the patience to feel it, even though there is so little to see.”
It was Mulkerns’s first visit, aged 90, to a place of legend in her family. Her father, JJ Mulkerns, was one of the prisoners. He left a tooth in the camp – the dentist told him firmly he only did extractions, and knocked it out without anaesthetic – but won the nickname he carried for the rest of his life, the Rajah of Frongoch, from his role in the entertainments he devised for the prisoners.
“I never even knew there was a railway, but I always wondered how they all got here,” said Mulkerns. “It’s an eerie thought of them all arriving here, young men, far from home, packed in together, probably hungry and cold, frightened, not knowing what would happen to them.”
The prisoners included young farm boys and labourers, but also teachers, poets, artists, authors, arty types such as Mulkerns’s father – who worked on the railways but was a trained actor and songwriter noted for his beautiful voice – trade unionists and military strategists including Michael Collins.
With most able-bodied British soldiers away in the first World War, the place was run by the prisoners. So many classes were organised that it became known as ollscoil na reabhloide, the university of the revolution. They learned reading, writing, languages, crafts – and military organisation and discipline.
“It was here that the war of independence was won, before the men even went back to Ireland, ” Edwards said.
Most locals knew nothing of their village’s curious history until quite recently. The distillery buildings, and the huts of the second camp built nearby as the numbers grew, were all demolished, and Beeching took away the railway.
A year ago, a couple demolished a scruffy brick shed on the edge of their garden, and unwittingly destroyed the surviving guard post. A few stories were still told, of the farmer who fattened his pigs on swill from the camp, of the 16-year-old boy sent out by Collins to buy Welsh language text books, and the elderly guard who became so exhausted taking the men for a walk that the prisoners carried his gun back to camp for him. A more tragic story was of Dr Peters, the camp medical officer, also a poet, who is said to have drowned himself as controversy spread over conditions in the camp, leading to questions in parliament (“The Irish have a notorious aptitude for making their grievances audible,” the Manchester Guardian commented).
However, interest has been growing steadily over recent years, particularly since an Irish society in Liverpool installed a memorial plaque. There are plans to mark the centenary with wreath-laying ceremonies, flagpoles flying the Welsh and Irish flags, and a series of information panels explaining the story of the vanished buildings. The cafe, recently taken over by 21-year-old chef Mathew Evans – whose father went to the school on the distillery site, but never knew his playground was the prisoners’ exercise yard – keeps a range of souvenir items including chocolate wrapped in a photograph of the valley, for the steady trickle of curious Irish visitors. They are expecting many more this year, and Evans is planning to gather up all the archive photographs and cuttings they can find to create a small museum display.
The area is now strongly nationalist – more than one local referred to “the so-called government in Cardiff” – almost entirely Welsh speaking, and many feel kinship across the century with their Irish visitors.
The old distillery, a local industry that failed abjectly within five years, was converted into a prison in 1914 to hold German prisoners of war, and then emptied again to hold the Irish. The stone buildings were damp, freezing and overrun with rats; a bitter joke among the prisoners was how close the place name was to the Irish word for rat, francach.
Even today Frongoch is a remote village, little more than a crossroads, the cafe and a scatter of farms. In 1916 the prisoners, most of whom had never left Ireland before, had only the haziest idea of where they were after being shipped across the Irish sea, held first in prisons including Knutsford – the Rajah’s ballad, The Nuts of Knutsford, though far from his finest, was a big hit in the camp – and moved on again by rail. Mulkerns said that as they learned of the execution by firing squad of all the surviving signatories of the 1916 proclamation of an Irish Republic, read aloud on the steps of Dublin’s general post office on Easter Monday, many of the prisoners including her father expected the same fate.
The executions turned the tide of public sympathy. A handful of the prisoners were tried, but most were simply released just before Christmas 1916, and many then followed Collins into years of guerrilla warfare in the fight for Irish independence.
Like many Irish contemporaries who joined the British army in the first world war, Mulkerns’s father rarely spoke of his experiences. Her short story Special Category is her only work based directly on her father’s memories. It tells of the time he was stripped to his underpants and locked up in an abandoned part of the prison without food or water for 24 hours, for insolently singing one of his own satirical ballads as a refusal, yet again, to sign the pledge never to raise arms against Britain.
It retells her father’s own conviction that his time had come: “He realised for the first time the significance of the large, almost comfortable cell, and the remote empty wing. This was where they sent men to be away from the rest of the prisoners at the end. This was the condemned cell and these were his last hours. It was all nonsense what he had heard about the fags and the good food you got before they shot you. He had been jailed without trial and now he would be dispatched without food and worst of all without the stub of a pencil to make his farewells or write his testament.”
In fact he was freed when discovered by a shocked superior officer, and finally given the writing materials he had begged for.
Mulkerns was interned again in 1920-21, this time in Ballykinlar, Northern Ireland, in the roundup after the original Bloody Sunday, when Collins’s IRA men killed 14 British intelligence agents, and in retaliation the British forces opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park stadium. He was soon back on the boards in the camp theatre, and toured in later years with the Ballykinlar Players, “the company from behind the wire”.
He lived until 1956, never losing his sympathy for the nationalist cause, but increasingly bitter about the deeply conservative and church-dominated state that emerged from the struggle. When President Eamon de Valera – whom he detested – presented medals to the veterans marking the 25th anniversary in 1941, his wife had to persuade him to accept his. His newspaper obituary was headed “Death of ‘Rajah of Frongoch’” and the same splendid title is carved on his gravestone, to the bemusement of visitors to the small north Dublin cemetery. Across the Irish sea, the locals hope the name of their village, and its strange role in Irish history, will be more familiar to many by the end of 2016.