Living conditions in the Curragh Internment Camp, Co. Kildare, in the post civil war years, 1923-1926, including evidence from Joe Keane.
Define and Justify
The civil war caused deep divisions in many parts of Ireland. These divisions were exacerbated by the treatment of the many thousands of anti-treaty prisoners after the conflict had concluded. I feel that the conditions in the prison camps, particularly the Curragh, warrant a special study, as the fate of the anti-treaty prisoners is unknown to many people, even within the vicinity of the prison camps, and because this mistreatment has fuelled the hatred and division which has characterised Irish politics for more than 85 years.
In conducting this research, I aim to learn a great deal about the aftermath of the Irish civil war and the conditions in the prison camps, subjects which are only briefly discussed in the Leaving Certificate curriculum. I wish to gain an understanding of the lasting hatred present between the Free State and the Irregular forces that fought each other so viciously and with such passion for almost a year. In the process of conducting this research, I hope to acquire investigative and analytical skills which will be invaluable to me in third level education as well as in my future career.
I intend to approach this study by visiting the Curragh Military camp and the museum that is maintained there today. I hope to contact Mr. Reggie Darling, chairman of the Curragh local history group. I will visit Newbridge library and the local studies, genealogy and archives department. I intend to speak with Mr. Mario Corrigan and Mr. James Durney, the local historians in Newbridge library. I intend to search for information on the history of the Curragh internment camp, particularly in the post civil war period.
1. Letters written by Joe Keane from No.3 camp, Tintown, The Curragh internment Camp to his sister Brigid Keane, Stradbally, Co. Laois, between 17th September 1923 and 26th November 1923.
2. Durney, James. The Civil War in Kildare (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)
3. McGuffin, John. Internment (Dublin: Anvil Books ltd., 1973)
4. Crawford, Hugh. ‘The Internment Camps’ in The Curragh Revisited (Newbridge: Donovan Printing Ltd., 2002) 10-14.
5. Durney, James. ‘The Curragh internees 1921-24: from defiance to defeat’. Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society 2010-2011. Vol. XX (Part 2). 6-24.
Evaluation of sources
(1) The four letters from Joe Keane to Brigid Keane were vital in my research study. They gave a clear first-hand account of the conditions and treatment experienced by the Irregular prisoners. They were a unique primary source and contained many details of life in the internment camps which were overlooked in the other sources. However, as they were a personal account, there was, unavoidably, substantial bias visible in the letters. Certain parts were also very difficult to read as the ink had faded or the pencil had smudged. Creases in the paper had also rendered some of the writing unintelligible.
(2) James Durney’s book “The Civil War in Kildare” also provided much information about the prison camps. Durney, a Local Historian in Newbridge Library, examines in a balanced and unbiased way the impact of the Civil War on County Kildare. This information is divided into thirteen distinct chapters, with chapter 11 entirely devoted to the Tintown camps. There is a detailed and comprehensive index and though this is a secondary source, it draws on a huge selection of sources, with the full bibliography and list of sources reaching almost seventeen pages.
(3) “Internment” by John McGuffin is a general account of internment in Ireland in the twentieth century up until 1973 (when the book was published). It covers a huge amount of time and therefore only a few pages in chapter 4 were relevant to my research topic. The information mostly focussed on the conditions in the camp which I found useful but the source’s author, John McGuffin, was a radical nationalist and anarchist, and, therefore, this source was very biased.
“War with the foreigner brings to the fore all that is best and noblest in a nation – civil war brings out all that is mean and base” Frank Aiken, August 1922
The Irish civil war began with the bombing of the Four Courts in Dublin on the 28th June 1922. The fighting continued for almost a year until Frank Aiken, the leader of the anti-treaty forces, ordered his troops to dump arms on the 24th May 1923. By then almost 12,000 republicans had been imprisoned by the Free State in several prisons around the country. These men and women were first interned under the Army Emergency Powers Resolution 1922 and later under the Public Safety Act 1922.
The Curragh prison camp accommodated many prisoners both during and after the civil war. The camps military governor was commandant Billy Byrne. The general organisation of the prisoners was, for the most part, left to the prisoners themselves. According to Joe Keane “there is a leader for each hut, then a leader for each 300 men and then the camp staff who deal with the entire management”. Keane was in fact a member of this “staff “and thus had no “fatigues” (menial chores) to carry out and was involved in the administrative side of the camp organisation. The prisoners elected Peader O’Donnell as their O/C, the leader of all the prisoners.
The camps in which the prisoners were held were known as Tintown 1, 2 and 3 and were opened in 1923. The prisoners were cramped together and had very little privacy. Very few of the windows had glass and there were gaps in the floor. Winter in the camp was very cold with Joe Keane describing it as “agony” and saying that it was “very cold and the rain gets in easily. It’s just the same as a hayshed”. The rations received by the prisoners were “not sufficient at all” and had to be supplemented by packages from home. Throughout his stay in the Curragh, Keane requested that the following items be sent to him: tea, sugar, tins of milk, butter, bread, onions, cocoa, meat, cheese, Bovril, eggs, brown loaf, rashers, sausages and puddings. The prisoners were allowed to cook their own food. Sanitation in the camps was “primitive”, the facilities less than adequate for the thousands incarcerated. The prisoners were required to supply their own toiletries with Keane requesting toothpaste, a hair comb, soap and razors.
There was much discontent voiced at the mistreatment of prisoners in the internment camps. Several high profile pro-treaty senators, such as W.B. Yeats, Lord Granard and Sir Bryan Mahon voiced concerns about the treatment of the internees. General Richard Mulcahy, commander in chief of the national army rejected all allegations of ill-treatment. One prisoner, Alfred McLoughlin, was interned for a year without being informed why he was being detained. In a letter which he wrote to the Irish Times he describes his treatment at the hands of the guards: “I slept on bare boards in the Curragh military prison for 5 nights… I was handcuffed night and day… I was threatened, with a gun, several times that I would be shot. In April 1923, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that the prisoners were treated like prisoners of war. However, there was a major flaw in this report – no prisoners were interviewed during the investigation.
On the 10th Oct 1923, prisoners in Mountjoy jail began a hunger strike against conditions in the jails and their continued internment 5 months after the hostilities had ceased. Within a matter of days, the strike had spread with 7,033 prisoners on strike around the country, including 3,390 in the Tintown camps. Many prisoners came off the strike prematurely, but some continued until the bitter end: Andy O’Sullivan and Denis Barry both died on hunger strike. The Free State government was not sympathetic to the strikers – Ernest Blythe, Minister for Finance, told them that they “will be put into orange boxes and you will be buried in un-consecrated ground”. Joe Keane himself was on the strike and he came off it on the 2nd Nov. The hunger strikers were not offered much “special treatment”. Coming off the strike, they received for their first meal 1 pint of Bovril; their next meal consisted of tea and stale bread and after that, normal diet.
Religion played an important role in the prisoners’ lives. Joe Keane mentions a Fr. D. (possibly Father Donnelly, chaplain to the troops on the Curragh) several times whom he seemed to be very close to. “Fr. D.” heard confessions on Sat in the dining hall and mass was said there on Sundays. However the institute of the church was not well liked by the prisoners – it was strongly pro-treaty and condemned the actions of the Irregular forces. When Denis Barry died on hunger strike on 11th November 1923 his body was refused entry into his local church in Blackrock, Co. Cork. He was buried at St Finbar’s cemetery, Cork and no clergymen were permitted to attend his funeral. Keane, at one point, condemns religion as a “money making scandal” and says that he cannot “warm to any clergy”, clearly reflecting opinions in the prisons at the time.
Communication with the world outside the prison was also very important for the prisoners. In April 1923 the Free State removed a ban on parcels and letters, and the prisoners were allowed one letter each week. It is clear from his letters that Joe Keane relied on his sister Brigid for toiletries, stationery, clothing items and food supplies, and also on letter writing as a distraction from the monotony of the daily life in the camp. Several remarks made in his letters, particularly in the second of the four, seem to imply that the letter was being smuggled out of the camp via an unofficial route. This is supported by the fact that security in the camp was not fool-proof – in Dec 1923 Corporal Joseph Bergin was murdered for allegedly carrying “information” to republican prisoners inside the camp. This leads me to believe that Joe Keane and many others were not solely relying on official lines of communication for information.
The morale in the prison camps was very low. Towards the end of 1924, the prisoners had abandoned all structure within their ranks. There seem to be several reasons for this. The powers of the Free State to enforce internment were far greater than those of the British, leading to many more internees being imprisoned; and there seemed to be no end to their continued incarceration. While the British controlled the camps there were no fatalities amongst the interned. However, under the Free State there were 17 deaths among the internees, fuelling the fall in morale amongst them. There were also many more executions carried out under the Free State than under British rule – between Dec 1922 and April 1923 77 executions were carried out nationwide compared to 24 under British rule. In Dec 1922, 7 men were executed in the Curragh, the largest single execution between 1916 and 1923. The higher level of executions had a negative effect on the already weakening morale of the prisoners.
In late 1923, the Free State introduced the “dribble policy” – a policy of phased releases. This was introduced as a direct result of the 1923 hunger strikes, as the Free State feared a repeat of it the following year. By 1926, all internees had been released. Joe Keane was released in late 1923. He passed away on Dec 20th 1929 as a result of lung and bronchial problems, more than likely exacerbated by his time spent in the cold, damp and unhygienic conditions in the Curragh.
Review of Process
My interest in this topic was fuelled by the discovery of a series of letters written by Joe Keane, my great-granduncle, an irregular soldier who was incarcerated in the Curragh from mid-1923 to late 1923. These letters were written to his sister Brigid, and paint a detailed picture of camp life at the time. After several careful readings of Joe Keane’s letters, I realised that they focussed mainly on the daily life and conditions in the camp, rather than the political situation at the time. It was therefore clear to me that my project should focus on the day-to-day happenings in the Tintown camps.
I encountered several problems while researching this topic. After several Internet searches, I had discovered very little new information. My local library had no material relating to this topic. I could only find sources with the help of Mr Reggie Darling of The Curragh Local History group who supplied me with “The Curragh revisited” and Mr. Mario Corrigan of Newbridge Library who gave me access to several other sources. The museum in the Curragh camp did not hold their archives on site. These were only available in the Military Archives in Dublin, which I was unable to visit.
I believe that I achieved the aims set down in my outline plan. I broadened my knowledge of not only the internment camps, but also the political situation immediately after the civil war. I also believe that I acquired several skills in the process of this investigation – finding and structuring relevant information, note-taking, proof-reading and editing. These skills will hopefully be valuable to me in the future.
If I was to begin this study again, I would make several changes. I would begin earlier and set earlier deadlines for myself. I would be less hesitant in editing the first draft of the extended essay. I would attempt to visit the national Military Archives in order to access the administrative records of the camp.
An outline plan and essay by student Ciara Lacey on living conditions in the Curragh Internment camp in the post civil war years. Our thanks to Ciara