Frongoch Interment Camp was situated in Frongoch in Merionethshire, Wales. It was a makeshift place of imprisonment during World War 1. It housed German prisoners of war in an abandoned distillery and crude huts up until 1916, but in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland, the German prisoners were moved and it was used as a place of internment for approximately 1,800 Irish. Notable prisoners included Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. They were accorded the status of prisoners of war. The camp became a ground for the spreading of the revolutionary gospel. The camp became known as ollscoil na réabhlóide, the “University of Revolution” or sometimes “Sinn Féin University”. The camp was emptied in December 1916 when David Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister.
The conditions in Frongoch were poor. There were two reported cases of insanity and one attempted suicide.
There were two camps, the North and South camps. Prisoners stayed in poorly heated huts in the North Camp. The huts were badly insulated and the floors were just planks of wood. The paths between the unpaved and when the weather was bad the outdoor conditions were terrible. Michael Collins described the camp as “slippery shifting mud”. When the camp was inspected inspectors noted that there was no covered area for patients waiting to see the medical officer.
The South Camp was an old whiskey distillery. The insides had been changed from places to store grain and distil into five large dormitories. It also contained the prison hospital, a dining room, a kitchen, the doctor’s surgery, the barbers shop, various workshops as well as the punishment cells. The camp was described as “somewhat rough”.
Inspectors said that three out of the five dormitories were unsuitable for humans to live. They were ill lit and poorly ventilated. One dormitory was considered unsuitable for humans to sleep there. The prisoners said that the inspectors did not give an accurate evaluation of the camps conditions. They described the camp as “more or less objectionable…to depressing for use unless demanded by necessity”.
The inmate organisation condemned the camp in letters that were smuggled out and therefore uncensored by the officers in command. These letters stated that the camp was unfit for humans and that conditions were far worse than the inspectors said in their reports. According to prisoners, rats infested dormitories one, two and three. Each dormitory contained a lavatory inside the dormitory. Alongside the poor ventilation the lavatories made a stench that remained in the dormitories until about midday everyday. Men fainted, lost appetites and woke up drowsy and unwell because of this. “Men have fainted in the morning and one morning three men fainted”.
Eamon Martin, a prisoner in Frongoch, was in a dormitory that contained two hundred men. It was completely overcrowded. Beds were so close it was not uncommon for men to wake up lying across their neighbour’s bed. There was not enough space between the beds to stand up while making them.
In the middle of October 1916, the numbers in Frongoch dropped to below six hundred men. This meant it would have been possible for the men in the South Camp to move to the better conditions in the North Camp. The interns applied for this move to be made but as the commanding officers saw the South Camp as a punishment for prisoners this move was never made.
During October 1916 trouble erupted in the camp when the authorities discovered that two of the prisoners were liable to conscription due to the fact that they had lived in Britain for a period of time. Because of the remote discipline the two prisoners appeared on the nominal roll everyday and the officers knew the men were in the camp but could not put a face to the name. Prisoners refused to give up their comrades to the authorities. They all refused to give names, numbers or answer to a roll call.
Prisoners that refused to answer the roll call were moved to the South Camp while those who answered stayed in the North Camp. The officers in command claimed this was to keep the two groups apart because of tensions between them. This claim was later proved a lie when men who decided later on the answer the roll-call were moved back into the North Camp.
Many of the men that arrived in Frongoch in the seven months it was open arrived from other prisons in terrible conditions. Some men had not been able to change their clothes. The filthy condition caused those in charge of the admissions of interns to fear an epidemic. Relatives and friends sent clean underclothes to these prisoners. Somehow these were held up and never got to the prisoners. The officers in command had not got the clothes, or would not provide a change of clothes for the prisoners. Some men may not have changed in over a month.
The Inmate Council appointed a doctor from among their number. The doctors role was to organise sanitation in the camp, give lectures about hygiene and within a few weeks the problems of the feared epidemic were solved.
During the seven months in Frongoch the prisoners sent many letters of complaints over the conditions. Sympathetic MP’s in the House of Commons aired these complaints. The inspectors assement of Frongoch ensured that the conditions in the camp would not change. It was concluded that the conditions were adequate for prisoners of war. “is all that is necessary – as good in fact as is possessed by many battalions in training in England or is provided for internment purposes in other parts of the country, and very much better than can be given to many thousands of loyal Irishmen who are bravely fighting against our enemies in foreign lands” – ‘Conditions of Frongoch Camp’, a document submitted the day after the camp was emptied by the Christmas release.
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