by jdurney on November 16, 2013

No picture postcard landscape for Kildare detainees in Co. Down camp
by Liam Kenny

The well known balladeer Percy French penned a lyric entitled “Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea” which became something of a hit on the music hall circuit. It conjures up an image of the picture-postcard landscape of the south shores of Co Down where Mournes tumble down to meet the ocean. However the coastline of south Down held a less pleasing image for a group of Irishmen who were incarcerated there by the British government during the War of Independence (1919-21).  The location of their place of detention was Ballykinlar which was (and still is) a British army camp at a remote spot exposed to the icy winds slicing in from the north Irish sea.
Ballykinlar may not have the resonance that echoes from other places of detention of Irish nationalists such as the iconic Kilmainham or the internment camp at Frongoch, deep in the Welsh mountains, (used after the 1916 rising). And that is not forgetting the role played by detention camps at Newbridge in the civil war (1922/23) and at the Curragh during times of tension in the modern Irish State.
Now Ballykinlar has been put on the map for a modern readership with the publication by Mercier Press of “Prisoners of War: Ballykinlar Internment Camp 1920-1921” by Liam Ó’Duibhir a Donegal based historian and scholar of human rights.
The author traces the evolution of the camp which was the first mass internment camp established by the British during the war of independence. In December 1920 it opened its gates to receive hundreds of men from all parts of Ireland who were suspected of involvement with the IRA or Sinn Féin. The trigger for the large scale rounding-up of nationalists was Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, when an IRA squad acting on intelligence gathered by agents working for Michael Collins assassinated a number of British officers suspected of being involved in gathering information to be used against the nationalists.
The War of Independence which had been simmering since January 1919 was ratcheted up to an intense level of ferocity with the British mounting large scale sweeps to arrest those identified as having any involvement in attempts to bring down the British administration in Ireland.
Rounding up the activists was one thing but where to put them where they could not easily escape or be reached by sympathisers was the next problem for the British. The answer to the detention problem was found in Ballykinlar camp which ticked all the boxes for a place of detention. The very description of the camp by author Liam Ó’Duibhir is enough to provoke shivers even at distant remove. He describes the camp as being “Remote, desolate, surrounded by mountains, the sea, barbed wire and large numbers of British military.”
Soon this windswept place became an involuntary home for hundreds of men from all corners of the country. Men were held for up to a year in the hospitable conditions of Ballykinlar where the author says they were often subjected to “brutal treatment and poor quality food in an attempt to break them physically and mentally.” He asserts that some internees died from diseases picked up in the poor conditions or because of the failure of the camp authorities to transfer them to a proper hospital.
Among those to perish was Sean (John) O’Sullivan, a Tipperary-born Irish Volunteer who had lived at Kill, Co Kildare and who died in Ballykinlar on 5th May 1920.
Liam Ó’Duibhir’s skill at painting pen pictures comes to the fore in his account of how the removal of O’Sullivan’s remains provoked controversy. The British authorities would not send a body back to the home location of the deceased unless the family paid for the transport costs or came to Ballykinlar to claim the corpse. Sean Ó’Sullivan’s family made the wearying and sad journey to the remote camp on the Co Down shoreline. They brought with them a tricolour which was draped over his coffin in the camp mortuary. Later his fellow internees formed a guard of honour as his coffin was carried to the front gate of the camp but they had removed the tricolour before the coffin was taken outdoors. The British soldiers on guard searched the internees for the tricolour but to no avail.
Strange as it may seem in such grim surroundings there were occasional moments of humour and it is to the author’s credit that he can leaven his story of mass incarceration with echoes of a lighter note. In mid November 1920 a delegation of nationalist TDs and of GAA officials travelled to Ballykinlar to bring some moral support to the detainees. They got as far as to speak through the wires to the men in the compound. At one point an internee from Kildare shouted out for news from the GAA fields. Cork man and GAA secretary Liam O’Toole shouted back: “We gave Kildare a fine whacking there a few Sundays ago!”
 The author’s lively text is backed up impressively by a well-researched listing of nationalists who were detained in Ballykinlar.  Detainees in the No. 1 Compound at Ballykinlar included Michael Corry, Naas; Frank Doran, Rathangan; John Fitzgerald, Newbridge; Joe Havlon, Monasterevin; and Sean Kavanagh, Mill Street, Maynooth. The author lists another 21 Kildare men who were interned in Ballykinlar’s No. 2 Compound.
To study the list and to get a gripping picture of one of the bleakest places of detention ever located on Irish soil “Prisoners of War: Ballykinlar 1920-21" by Liam Ó’Duibhir and published by Mercier Press can be highly recommended.

Liam Kenny reviews “Prisoners of War: Ballykinlar 1920-21" by Liam Ó’Duibhir in his Leinster Leader column of 7 May 2013

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