Diarmaid Ferriter: The 1916 prisoners released on Christmas Eve
Hundreds of internees from the Rising returned to an already changing Ireland
A card from the Frongoch camp: ‘In Frongoch, Michael Collins had became a dominant figure in what has been described as the ‘university of revolution’.’ Photograph: © National Museum of Ireland
Prisoners at the Frongoch interment camp. Photograph: © National Museum of Ireland
On this day one hundred years ago, those untried prisoners returning to Ireland following their internment after the Easter Rising had every reason to look forward to a merry Christmas.
On December 26th, The Irish Times recorded soberly: “Most, if not all of the young men who were arrested early last summer for having some connection, more or less, with the disastrous rebellion which has made last Easter week a landmark in the history of Ireland, have been released from the internment camps in which they were detained in England and Wales . . . they have been coming home in small parties, and it is hardly necessary to say that they are glad to be at liberty to return to their homes and friends for Christmas.”
They were mostly from the south and west of Ireland and, it was reported, “There was no demonstration at the Railway Station and the parties rapidly dispersed for their various destinations.”
The same morning, some 300 men, many from Dublin and its environs, came from Frongoch internment camp in Wales by steamer to the North Wall; there was a low-key reception from friends and relatives, in contrast to the more jubilant scenes that would be witnessed with the release of convicted prisoners six months later.
Still, the internees were undoubtedly feeling emotional; as was recalled later by Seán T O’Kelly: “The joy in our hearts when we caught sight of the Irish coast from the mail boat can easily be imagined.”
The previous month, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had intensely lobbied the British government in support of the releases.
He argued an amnesty was inevitable and, if done quickly rather than dragged out, would “strengthen the position of the constitutional party”. Delay would allow momentum to build for the “Sinn Féiners and extremists”.
It was a misplaced optimism, but not without foundation. Éamon de Valera, for example, while in prison at this time, was opposed to Sinn Féin’s participation in electoral politics, but openness to elections began to gather pace after the release of the prisoners at Christmas.
De Valera’s caution was underlined by his insistence that “as soldiers”, Irish Volunteers “should abstain officially . . . and no candidates should in future be officially recognized as standing in our interests or as representing our ideals”. He would change his tune, much to the detriment of Redmond and his colleagues, in 1917.
Those the Irish Times report singled out for mention at Christmas 1916 included the actor and trade unionist Helena Molony and Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith, a reminder the group interned after the Rising included both those who had and had not participated in the Rising.
‘Taking up the gun’Molony, who had been attached to the Irish Citizen Army contingent around the Dublin Castle area, was one of five women interned in England after the Rising. Molony recorded in her statement to the Bureau of Military History that “after our release our activities were more or less routine. For us, it was only a matter of taking up the gun again”.
However, “routine” for Molony was quite the mix: by February she was back on stage in the Abbey for the first Irish production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. She was also to serve briefly on the executive of Sinn Féin and resumed her post with the Irish Women’s Workers Union.
In April 1916, Griffith had carried to Bray a countermanding order that sought to prevent the Rising.
He took no part in it but was rounded up in its aftermath. His party was now set to benefit substantially from the fact that the Rising was so often referred to as the “Sinn Féin rebellion”.
Michael Collins was also included in the releases and returned to Cork just after Christmas.
In Frongoch, he had became a dominant figure in what has been described as the “university of revolution”, leading discussions on military tactics, confronting authority over prison conditions, and participating in Irish-language classes, although he had no official rank.
As biographer Peter Hart noted, it was in Frongoch “that he began to break out of his orbit as clerk, secretary, treasurer and aide. It was here that other men began to fall into orbit around him.
It was here he was first called ‘Big Fellow’ and we can trace his subsequent rise in the evolution of its meaning from derision to respect to, ultimately, blind loyalty.”
Collins enjoyed festivities in Woodfield and was watched by the police, who reported that he “lived what may be considered a retired life, and no notice was taken of his presence in this locality by anyone”.
What a false sense of security that turned out to be.