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The prison where Michael Collins thrived and William Halpin went mad

Rebels imprisoned in Wales after the Easter Rising were released as Christmas approached. Many emerged as hardened revolutionaries, others as broken men

On the morning of December 24th, 1916, a Sunday, some 250 men disembarked together at the North Wall in Dublin. They were in celebratory mood, glad to be home for Christmas, but their joy had deeper roots. They had been released from an internment camp at Frongoch, in north Wales, where they were held in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Four days earlier HE Duke, the secretary of state for Ireland, had announced the camp's closure. In the intervening days the 500 or so internees suddenly began arriving in Dublin.

Their release in batches was an attempt to minimise demonstrations of support for the radical nationalist cause that the prisoners had come to symbolise. In this minor regard the strategy was almost successful. Despite the hour and bad weather a large number of “friends” did turn out to greet that Christmas Eve group. According to one reporter, however, it was a “touching scene, having nothing in it of the demonstrative – just a quiet family meeting in every instance”. The rebel internees were home – or, more accurately, most of them were.

More than eight years later, on April 18th, 1925, another crowd gathered, this time at Glasnevin Cemetery. The occasion was the funeral of William Halpin, a 34-year-old pork butcher. Halpin had died two days earlier, at Richmond Lunatic Asylum – better known now as Grangegorman – where he had been a patient since July 1917. His mother, Mary Ann, and his brother and sister led the mourners.

The family were neither well off nor well known; in December 1923 Mary Ann Halpin had been living at 12 Moore Street. Yet the presence at the graveside of delegations from the Easter Week Club and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union indicated that this was no ordinary burial.

Halpin, a member of the Irish Citizen Army, had fought in the Easter Rising and was captured and brought to Richmond Barracks, in Inchicore, which became an improvised central sorting house. In total the authorities swept up some 3,500 people.

As these numbers accumulated, the conditions in the initial places of detention were poor. Richmond Barracks, in particular, became for a time an overcrowded, fetid scrum with little bedding or opportunity for exercise, very little food, sporadic toilet facilities, and some looting of prisoners’ property.

There the authorities made their first attempt, rushed and half-informed, to distinguish the harmless from the dangerous. As a result of this, conditions gradually improved. The overcrowding eased due to some releases, but, more importantly, from May 1st the military dispatched to Britain, without trial, in group after group, 2,519 suspected rebels. Halpin was selected for transfer to Knutsford prison, near Manchester, on June 16th.

Knutsford was one of eight prisons and military detention centres to which the military first sent male deportees. (Five women were sent to Lewes prison, near Brighton, on the south coast of England.)

Halpin would not stay long at Knutsford; even as he travelled to Cheshire the authorities had begun to gather most of the men at Frongoch, where they were interned under a piece of emergency wartime legislation.

Situated at a remote spot on the railway line between Bala and Ffestiniog, Frongoch camp had been opened to hold German POWs. The Germans were moved out and the Irishmen began to arrive on June 9th.

When Halpin was transferred to the camp, on July 10th, the population was just under 1,800. The internees have left varying accounts of the conditions during the early weeks; some described them as generally good and even very pleasant; others thought them terrible and shocking.

Each internee responded to his experience differently. For some Frongoch would be the place where their revolutionary career blossomed. For others it would prove the end of the revolutionary line.

Two days after arriving at Frongoch Halpin tried to kill himself. His mind had given way under some combination of what he found there, the conditions and, perhaps, his ill treatment at Richmond and Knutsford, and the stress of the Rising itself. There may have been other factors, but what is certain is that he would never recover.

First he was transferred to the nearby Denbeigh asylum, where he was still resident when his colleagues went home at Christmas. Moving him to Grangegorman during the following July at least made it easier for his family to visit.

Michael Collins

While William Halpin declined, Michael Collins thrived in Frongoch. As 1915 became 1916 Collins had returned to Dublin after nine years working in London. He had become well known in republican circles in the south of England, but few within the republican movement back home were aware of him. By the time he left Frongoch this had changed. In that small community, which encompassed much of the future republican elite, he was unavoidable.

The first internees to arrive at Frongoch had established an elected camp council. Soon, however, more militant arrivals insisted that they were an army and that the structure should be a military one– consistent with their desire to be treated as prisoners of war.

On the other hand a significant percentage of internees had not taken part in the Rising. It did not appear to them, as it did to Joseph O’Connor (one of the military men), that “it was our duty so to organise camp life that the maximum amount of training for a resumption of the fight should be had”.

This led to considerable conflict among the internees, but the militarists, Collins among them, had their way.

In addition to networking and strategising, the internees organised “lectures, lessons in Irish, dancing, chemistry, architecture and other scientific subjects”. The camp culture also saw widespread participation in concerts, Gaelic football competitions and other athletic contests. When it came to camp sports Collins was a forceful presence.

By late August all of the internees had been brought on brief trips to London, where, over 25 days, an “advisory committee” interviewed each of them. As a result the chairman, Sir John Sankey, recommended the release of more than two-thirds. By September Frongoch’s population had fallen to about 540.

This contributed to changing the camp’s atmosphere by reducing the population to a more aggressive group. The worsening weather darkened their mood even further, as did efforts by the authorities to get them to do menial work. Even more provocative was an attempt to remove several of the internees who were liable for conscription under the Military Service Act of 1916.

This led to a strike, with most internees refusing to answer the roll so as to protect the identities of those being sought out. In response the camp commandant, Col FA Heygate Lambert, punished the protesters by denying them various privileges.

Collins was at the forefront of this conflict: he had been resident in Britain in August 1915 and was therefore liable for conscription. Encouraging the internees to stand firm, he dismissed as cowards those who considered abandoning the fight.

By December 9th Heygate Lambert numbered Collins among 15 ringleaders whom he wished to remove from the camp. Collins had by then climbed to the key position of camp secretary. Among the other identified troublemakers were several who would remain close allies of Collins, including Seán Hales, Michael Staines and Gearóid O'Sullivan.

In the event the camp was closed before Heygate Lambert’s request could be acted on. In the months that followed, Collins climbed rapidly through the various revolutionary organisations, beginning as secretary of the largest prisoner support group, the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund.

Wounded by war

Frongoch has been described as a university of revolution, because it was a place where men such as Collins forged many of the alliances that would underpin the rebirth of the post-Rising Irish Volunteers. But if the story of Frongoch is Collins’s story, then it is also the story of William Halpin.

In December 1923, when Halpin was still alive, his mother sought a pension from the new State under the recently passed Army Pensions Act. A military medical board, which visited him at Grangegorman, confirmed his condition. They wrote that he “talked volubly and incoherently, largely about troops and military operations”.

As a lieutenant general, Gearóid O’Sullivan recommended the case for “sympathetic consideration” because Halpin’s “disability was undoubtedly attributable to the conditions under which he was imprisoned”.

Nonetheless, Mary Ann Halpin was refused a pension. Insanity, she was told, did not qualify under the definition of “wound” as laid out under the Act. By the time this had changed, under an Act of 1927, William Halpin was, like Michael Collins, dead.

William Murphy, of the school of history and geography at Dublin City University, is the author of Political Imprisonment and the Irish, 1912-1921, available in paperback from Oxford University Press

A new online exhibition on Frongoch, Inspiring Ireland (inspiring-ireland.ie) includes photogaphs, analysis and a new piece of classical music, Freakshow, by Sam Perkin, inspired by the history of Frongoch

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