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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: July 2017

‘The Black Hand’: 1916 and Irish Republican Prisoners in North Wales

Summary

Whether the Irish who came to Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came willingly or unwillingly is a matter for debate. There can be no doubt, however, that the 1,800 men who passed through Frongoch, a small, isolated village in the mountains of Snowdonia, from May to December 1916 were far from happy to be leaving Ireland. These were the men who were interned as a result of their participation in the Easter Rising. Their brief sojourn in rural Wales nurtured the seeds of modern Ireland. The name Frongoch has resonated through the decades as one of the symbols of the revolutionary period in Ireland. It was one of the few Welsh names with which Irish people were familiar, even if they found it unpronounceable. Similarly, as we shall see, to some Welsh men and women it became a symbol of national struggle, but like so many symbols it was given a significance that was not really there.

One of the tragedies of modern Irish and Welsh historiography is how little knowledge and understanding the two countries have of each other's modern past. The conspiracy myths surrounding Frongoch that have attracted Welsh people have also done much to detract from an understanding of Ireland. Similarly, terse references to Frongoch in the Irish media or in history books do not lead to further interest in Wales and its history. The view of Dominic Behan that ‘[t]heir poets are paid about ten pence a week provided no ill of England they speak/Thank God we're surrounded by water’ aptly sums up the view of many Irish nationalists towards the ‘principality’. Ernie O'Malley, one of the most active republican fighters of both the War of Independence and the Civil War, described his early upbringing at home as being so devoid of interest in his country that he might just as well have been living in Wales.

In 1916 Wales was a loyal pillar of the British Empire: its mines were fuelling the war effort and its greatest son, Lloyd George, would soon be in the seat of power as prime minister. Although its old, Edwardian confidence was under threat from the strain of war and the modernising of society, it was staunchly unionist in terms of its position within the United Kingdom.