Thursday 21 October 2010, 09:41
In the wake of the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, when Irish republicans, many of them members of the Irish Volunteer Army, seized the General Post Office in the centre of Dublin and held it for five days, the British government was frightened into the worst type of knee-jerk reaction.
Hasty courts martial saw the immediate execution of the rebellion's leaders; James Connelly was even taken to the firing squad strapped into a chair because he had been so badly wounded.
And then the government realised that they had a more significant problem - what were they to do with all the rest of the rebels? Many of the more senior surviving officers were sent to high security British prisons but 1,863 of the rank and file republicans, along with men such as Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith who had managed to play down and hide from the British their involvement in the uprising, found themselves incarcerated in an old whiskey distillery in north Wales.
This was Frongoch Prison Camp. Situated two miles to the west of Bala in Gwynedd, the Frongoch Distillery had been founded by R Lloyd Price in 1897, allegedly because of the purity of the water from the nearby river. However, by 1910 the enterprise had gone bankrupt and when war was declared against Germany in 1914 the old buildings were taken over as a prisoner of war camp. Several German prisoners died there and were buried in the village churchyard; their bodies were later disinterred and moved to other sites.
Following the Easter Rising it was decided that this remote location would be the ideal place to incarcerate the rebels. There were two parts to the camp. South Camp was located in the old distillery buildings, whereas North Camp was based in wooden huts a little higher up the hillside close to Capel Celyn. The two camps were connected by a road that passed a large field - here the first ever game of hurley to be played in Wales took place when two teams of prisoners battled it out in the autumn of 1916.
Conditions at Frongoch were never easy. The old whiskey distillery buildings were bitterly cold at night, very hot during the day, and the prisoners - soon reduced to about 500 in number - were plagued by an infestation of rats.
The prisoners themselves kept order within the camp with the result that, to the later chagrin of the British government, what was created was, literally, a 'University of Revolution' where the ideals of independence and the discipline with which to create it were forged. Interestingly, not one escape attempt was ever recorded at Frongoch, even though prisoners sometimes carried the rifles of their guards (usually men too old to serve on the Western Front) when walking across the hills or between the two camps.
Although the camp was guarded by soldiers, many locals worked there, in the kitchens and barrack blocks, and came into regular contact with the Irishmen. They had much in common. As one prisoner later commented: "We marvelled at the fine national spirit of these men and their love for their native tongue."
Indeed, the General Council of prisoners soon added study of the Welsh language to the subjects that were taught, unofficially of course, to the inmates - subjects such as guerrilla warfare and military tactics.
Other activities included open air concerts, fancy dress parades, cross country walks or route marches and sporting events. It is recorded that Michael Collins won the 100-yard sprint in an athletics event held in August 1916. His time, it seems, was just under 11 seconds.
Although obviously hating the conditions in which they were held, many of the Irish prisoners soon grew to love the wild Welsh countryside around Frongoch. It was very similar to the hills of southern Ireland and must have caused more than a few degrees of homesickness in the minds and hearts of many.
The camp at Frongoch was closed and the Irish prisoners discharged in December 1916. It had been a short lived and misguided experiment where the ideals of Irish Republicanism were forged and hardened rather than broken down.
Yet it remains a fascinating and little-known moment in Welsh history. Nothing now remains of the old distillery or the prison camp. A school sits on the site and perhaps that is as it should be: looking towards the future rather than the past.
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