‘Internment’ by John McGuffin (1973)

Chapter 5


THE state of Northern Ireland was officially set up in June 1921. The Government of Ireland Act came into force on 3 May 1920 after the British Government had quailed before the threat of armed revolt by the Protestants in the North. Prior to this there had been internment in the North under the British, at Ballykinlar, County Down.
     Ballykinlar camp was then divided into two sections, each holding about 1,000 men. There was no communication between the two sections which were separated by barbed-wire fences and manned sentry boxes. All the internees were Republicans and they insisted upon organizing their own parades and exercise classes. Military-style drill, using brush handles as rifles, was carried out daily, but only inside the huts and out of sight of the guards. The Commandant of camp 1 was Leo Henderson, who had been with Sean Tracy ("the greatest fighter in Ireland" – Joe McGrath) when he was shot down by British troops and plain-clothes men in Talbot Street, Dublin, on 14 October 1920. Henderson was succeeded by Fionan Lynch. Camp 2's commandant was Joe McGrath, later founder of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes.
     Life was grim for the internees, who were not allowed any visits at all. Food parcels could be sent in but were often ransacked by the British soldiers who guarded the camp and felt their own food was inadequate. The internees had their own cook-house and organized their own cooks. One old veteran, when interviewed, said that the food had been 'pretty fair', but then anything was better than what they were to get on the Argenta. Letters out and in were permitted. Education classes were, as usual, held within the camp. The internees demanded total freedom. They even issued their own currency – large circular 'coins' made of linen-paper and printed with Irish characters in green, orange and black. The denominations went right up to a pound.[1]
     Raids by parties of British soldiers were frequent, as were searches. The soldiers, for some reason, took exception to rings the internees made from coins and often 'confiscated' them. Complaints were met with a rifle butt. There was not too much brutality though, but one man, Tadhg Barry of Cork, was shot for "going too close to the wire". Seven men did try an escape tunnel, but sandy soil foiled them. Internment lasted until the signing of the Treaty on 6 December 1921, after which the vast majority of the internees were released unconditionally. The others soon followed.
     The freedom of many was to be short lived. The pogroms of 1920-1922 in Belfast, Lisburn and Banbridge[2] resulted in the deaths of 455 people, 60% of them Catholics, although Catholics comprised only 30% of the population Thousands were injured. There was a massive discrimination and intimidation campaign stirred up by sectarian utterances such as those by Carson on 'the twelfth' and by Unionist MP's like William Coate who demanded "more vigorous action" of a vast crowd of 'Loyalists' in Newtownards (this was shortly after 5,000 Catholic workers were forced to leave the shipyards by Protestants in August 1920). Thousands of Catholics fled south.
     The press of the day could not be accused of not stating its position. The Belfast Newsletter reported "A general exodus of RC's (Sinn Feiners) [sic], some of those it may be assumed went South to join their fellow gunmen". On 25 May it added that all who had gone South obviously had "guilty consciences". The Belfast Irish News (the Catholic paper) every day carried more atrocity stories of Catholics being murdered, intimidated and beaten. The Daily Mail, not noted for its pro-Irish sentiments, was even moved to comment that the decision to form "the looters and murderers of the UVF into the Special Constabulary is the most outrageous thing they have ever done in Ireland." The Manchester Guardian was also fortright. "Whilst envenomed politicians in the Ulster Parliament are voting themselves power to use torture and capital punishment against citizens whom they forbid to defend themselves while they scarcely attempt to protect them from massacre, some of their own partisans in Belfast carry wholesale murder to refinements of barbarity hardly surpassed in the Turkish atrocities in Armenia and Constantinople."[3]
     On 7 April 1922 the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act received the Royal Assent. It was to be known as 'the Flogging Bill'. It was also to be the first of the by now infamous Special Powers Acts.
     As the violence increased, the IRA began to take reprisals. On 23 May the Belfast Newsletter reported:

Yesterday Councillor W.J. Twaddell (Unionist MP for West Belfast) was shot down in Lower Garfield Street at 10.30 a.m. Of the appalling crimes which have shocked the people of Belfast during recent months, none have sent a greater thrill of horror through the community.
Councillor Twaddell had carried on an extensive outfitting business in North Street for many years and his commercial ability and sound commonsense had gained for him the confidence of his business friends.

As an epitaph it may be less than adulatory, but it was enough. The paper next day carried a statement from the Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, Bart:

The so called IRA, IRB, Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and Fianna na hEireann have been proclaimed.
General Solly-Flood is now in command over the new RUC, 'A' Specials, 'B' Specials and 'C' Specials. Suspected Sinn Feiners have been arrested and detained.

It was internment all over again.
     This time 300 men were lifted initially, and the numbers soon rose to over 500. The Irish News reported the event with remarkable calm, even sardonically.[4] "Exciting early morning drives" was the heading to their story, subtitled "Familiar Coercion":

Alarm was created in many internees when night visits were made to the rural districts of the six county area, remembering the previous outcome of many of these unusual calls. This was the serious feature of the wholesale arrests during Tuesday night. When it was understood that nothing more than arrest was contemplated, the proceedings occasioned no great moment.

The paper went on to list the names of most of those interned. Sixty-three from Tyrone, 42 from Derry, 30 from Fermanagh, 46 from Armagh and the rest mainly from Belfast. The rest of the North was held under curfew (Belfast had been for some time held to an 11.00 p.m.-5.00 a.m. curfew).
     At first the internees were kept in Crumlin jail, Larne workhouse and a camp near Newtownards, but in June their destination became known: the Argenta. Built in 1919 at a cost of £110,000, this boat had a displacement of 4,000 tons, a length of 300 feet, breadth of 50 feet. She was equipped with electric lighting – but, for the prisoners, no tables or chairs. She was moored off Carrickfergus, and visitors had to be rowed out to her. Later, internees were taken in handcuffed pairs to Larne to see relatives or solicitors in the RUC barracks.
     The interior of the boat was divided into eight metal cages. "The deck is divided into eight compartments by means of steel wire netting, so that light may shine and air circulate," was how the Newsletter euphemistically put it.[5] "The ventilation system is perfect" – that is, draughty. "The internees have three hours exercise a day on the upper deck which is enclosed in wire netting; there they may amuse themselves [sic] as their fancy dictates." Readers were assured by the Minister for Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, who visited the hulk, that "the diet is on a liberal scale." Those internees to whom I've spoken have a different recollection: 'atrocious' was the general consensus.
     Breakfast consisted of porridge, a slice of bread, and tea. Dinner was watery soup, 6 ozs. of 'fresh' meat or bacon (fish on Fridays). Supper was tea, bread and margarine, with an occasional scrap of cheese.
     For the 500 men cooped up on board, the boredom was killing.[6] They were divided into 'pro-Treaty' and 'anti-Treaty' groups by the authorities. (The guards were civilian prison warders and not soldiers). Tempers frequently became frayed and there were few educational or recreational facilities. Punishment was draconian. For example, five men – Seamus Nolan, John Boyle, Charles Burns, Robert Boyle and George Hamill – were taken off the boat and put in solitary confinement in Derry jail for 'incivility'.
     This was the only occasion on which Unionists were interned. Cahir Healy, who was elected to parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone while interned on the Argenta, recollects[7] that "a few dozen Orange gunmen" were rounded up also, "to show impartiality". They did not remain long in captivity. Feeling, with some justice, that they had been sold out, they threatened to open up a few Unionist cupboards and expose the skeletons in them – and name the 'respectable businessmen' behind the gunmen. They were rapidly released from Crumlin Road jail where they were kept apart from the 'rebels', and given enough money to emigrate to Canada or Australia.
     Dicky Glenholmes, who was interned under the alias of Armour from March 1922 until July 1924, had bad memories of the Argenta. Some of the guards were B Specials and frequently beat up internees whom they regarded as 'troublemakers'. Today, 50 years later, he could still remember the names of the worst offenders. The official reason given for the lack of tables and chairs for internees was that they might "be used as weapons" and so food was taken off the ground. The only alcohol was a peculiarly foul mixture of potato skins and meths, the latter procured from an alcoholic medical orderly. There was, as has been mentioned, no outcry about internment and no campaign to obtain releases. The Green Cross could only provide 10/- a week for dependents and times were very bad for many. Nonetheless, some at least seem to have been stoical about it all. The father of one internee, Murphy by name, was observed astern one day in a row boat. He had braved the high seas to shout up a message to his son to the effect that "business has never been so good since you went inside."
     At one stage the Argenta broke loose from its moorings and drifted over towards the Larne side of the Lough. Most of the internees were taken off and lodged in Larne workhouse which they regarded as a distinct improvement since the hated B men were no longer guards there. The Argenta'sonly escape bid was foiled when Chuck Brown succeeded in boring a hole through the side only to discover that it was below water. As punishment for his foolishness – and perhaps out of a desire for self-preservation – his shipmates made him stand there with his body blocking the flow of water until help could be summoned from the screws.
     Some internees 'signed out' by promising to leave the country for at least two years. They were driven to the border by the RUC. Many of these men, who numbered about 100, were to join the Garda Siochana. But for most of the internees it was to be a long two years. On 14 September 1922, 36 men were removed to Derry jail because of 'troublemaking', and congestion aboard the Argenta was further eased when, just before Christmas, 200 men who had gone on hunger strike in sympathy with a strike going on in Southern jails, were also moved to Derry. The transfers were effected by night and were accompanied by a fair degree of violence from the newly-formed B specials. Internees went down the gang plank handcuffed in pairs and had to run a gauntlet of boots and fists. Some were very badly beaten up.
     Health in general suffered. Two young men, Gillespie from Sion Mills and William Hyndman from Belfast, were discharged in a bad condition and died soon afterwards. Henry Carey of Toome, Terry Mackle of the Moy, Michael Keating and Billy O'Hara of Belfast were discharged due to illness. J. O'Donnell of Down and Jeremiah Tipping of Lurgan were taken to the Mater Hospital. Tipping was subsequently taken to Derry jail and kept there for five months before being released.
Derry jail was even worse than the Argenta. On 3 December 1921 a jail break by IRA men resulted in the accidental death of a warder (he was gagged and drugged) and the mood was still ugly when the first of the 1922 internees arrived. Food included potato skins and porridge served in dirty unwashed dishes!
     The Civil War in the South ended with the 'cease fire' and 'dump arms' order of 24 May 1923, but it was to be another year until the die-hard Republicans were able to hobble off the Argenta and out of Derry jail. They came out to defeat and unemployment.
     In 1938, when internment was reintroduced, only one survivor of the Argenta was arrested initially.


It was to be 14 years before internment was officially re-introduced. This should not be taken to imply that there was peace, however. The twenties and thirties were turbulent times. Sectarianism was still rife and memories of the early twenties died hard. Many people emigrated. Most of those who had been interned dropped out or moved away, often down South. The remnants of the IRA still drilled, and B men continued to swagger about. Although people were not interned there were plenty of police charges of a very vague nature – such as 'promoting sedition' – which could be, and were, used. The charge of 'promoting sedition' was worth six months. Still, by 1930 the sectarianism was, temporarily, on the wane, and, despite attempts by some bigots to exacerbate it in 1931 in several provincial towns (Armagh, Lisburn and Portadown were worst affected), 1932 saw Catholic and Protestant marching together in a huge protest march at the cutting of the outdoor relief. The massive unemployment led to a working-class alliance (25% of all insured persons unemployed) but it was not to last. In 1932, following the banning of a hunger march for the unemployed, the police baton charged the Falls Road; Protestants on the Shankill Road rioted in support of their Catholic fellow unemployed. But it was not in the interests of the big manufacturers to see a united working class. The Orange Order stirred up again. In 1934, for example, Craigavon, the PM, said "I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician and MP afterwards ... all I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state."[1] The future PM, Brookeborough, was then advising employers not to have a Catholic employed.[2]
     Provocation was offered by bigots on both sides, culminating in the sectarian clashes of July 1935 when the 12th parade was fired on and two men killed. By the end of the month eleven were dead, 574 injured and much property destroyed. Any hopes of a working-class alliance – there had even been contingents from the Shankill Road to Wolfe Tone's grave at Bodenstown – were dashed. The IRA resorted to raiding for arms – Campbell College, Belfast's Protestant 'Public School', was the scene of a violent gun-battle as raiders were discovered at the armoury following a tip-off.
     Nor were the police idle. On 25 April 1936, 12 leading Republicans were arrested at No.10 Crown Entry. Still rather embarrassed by the National Council for Civil Liberties' hostile report of the previous year on the Special Powers Acts, the Government did not intern them – instead, they resurrected the Treason Felony Act of 1848, last used against Tom Clarke, the old Fenian, in the 1880's (see Chapter 14 – on political prisoners).


On 22 December 1938 the Northern Ireland Government resorted to internment again. It announced that a dastardly Republican plot had been discovered[1] to destroy property and possibly life over Christmas and the New Year. Thirty-four men were lifted at 4.00 a.m.; 33 in Belfast and one in Ballymena, and the numbers were soon to swell. Many more were picked up in twos and threes all during World War Two and all the IRA men already serving sentences – including the 'Treason and Felony' prisoners – were interned upon completion of their sentences.
     It was a most dispiriting period of internment. The internees knew that their chances of getting out before the war finished were nil. Men like Frank McGlade, who was taken in the first swoop, were to spend seven years inside. Conditions were poor. Three places of detention were used: Derry jail, Crumlin Road jail, and a hulk, the Al Rawdah. The hulk, which was used only for five months, was moored off Killyleagh in Strangford Lough. Exercise conditions were terrible and there was so much barbed wire that there "was no use wearing any decent clothes", as Frank McGlade put it. Visitors had to come out in boats after braving the hostility of the local people who resented having the Al Rawdah anywhere near their village. Food was described as 'abominable' by survivors. McGlade still remembers braised gosling and dry biscuits being given as a special treat. Even the sea-gulls would not eat it! Conditions got so cramped that the prisoners were eventually moved to either Derry or Crumlin. Before leaving, they literally stripped the boat to make souvenirs. The 'skipper', in a farewell speech, told them that it was well that they were leaving, since another month and he would not have any boat left, Jimmie Drumm recalled.
     There was one abortive escape attempt from the hulk. Five internees managed to get onto the water-ship but were spotted by a guard who at first mistook them for Germans. Forced to retreat, they knocked out one guard and four of the five returned undetected to their cells. The one who was caught was released on orders of the captain when the internees threatened to set fire to the hulk. No one was sorry when the Al Rawdah experiment was ended. One internee, Jack Gaffney, died while on the boat.
     Not that conditions in Derry were much better. It was an old jail (now in the process of being demolished). Grey, dirty and decaying – the sandstone window-sills frequently fell into the yard. The cells were tiny and choking with dust. The first action of the internees was to smash the bottle-glass windows to let in some air. Since the war was on, the food was even worse than usual, but food sent in from friends outside was pooled amongst ail the prisoners, although money was short and many dependants could not afford to travel to Derry. One man even got his budgie sent in, and the temptation to cook it was successfully resisted. Indeed, the internees, if they had any money, could get the screws to go out and do messages for them. For several years the jail almost became a miniature Gaeltacht where only Irish was spoken, even by some of the screws. A regular handball league continued for five years. Before Christmas 1939 the internees had agitated and got their own cookhouse and some of the old hands began to utilize the boiler-house to make poteen out of the old potatoes. Pat Scullion was the chief distiller, but one of his accomplices, Paddy Morrison, a devout Catholic, had a fit of conscience and confessed to the prison chaplain. To his horror, he was told that poteen-making was a 'reserved sin' and that he would have to go before the bishop – a somewhat difficult task. He had to sit out the war before his conscience could be eased, to the general hilarity of the more irreverent internees.
     But the happy memories, by and large, were few and far between. There was a fair bit of brutality from the warders, most of whom were B men. This led on Christmas Day 1940 to the famous Derry mutiny. The internees had prepared for the mutiny and stored up food in advance. On Christmas Day 120 of them took over an entire wing, blocked the doors with nails and built barricades. The warders were locked into cells with their own keys, but no violence was used against them. In an attempt to draw attention to their protest the internees hung up a mattress at one of the top-floor windows and set fire to it. Although this succeeded in bringing crowds out into Bishop Street, it proved to be a bad mistake. The fire brigade was called and hosed out the small fire. Then they lent their hoses to the RUC men, B men, warders and a couple of military officers who also used an acetylene burner to effect on an iron door. All the prisoners retreated into a double cell and, jammed in there, were no match for the guards who smashed in the door and turned on the hoses. On and off, this lasted for almost half an hour and the men were very badly buffeted by the powerful jets and almost drowned. They were then dragged out individually and forced to run the gauntlet between two rows of B men who batoned them on the head, the O/C, McArdle, getting a particularly severe hammering. No medical treatment was given for almost a week. Jimmie Drumm recalls ruefully that immediately after this, while the men were lying about with bleeding heads, the chaplain appeared and spoke to them. "How dare you behave this way to my friend the captain (governor)," he said. Attendances at his services dropped noticeably for a time!
     The Derry internment was most famous, however, for 'the Great Escape'. The number of internees had risen: Enno Stephan claims that as many as 300 were in the jail, but the figure, in fact, was nearer 200. During March 1943 the warders were treated to an almost continual 'concert'. Everything from mouth organs to bagpipes was used every day in a bid to cover the noise of tunnellers intent on escape. Earth was secreted in pillow-cases and pockets and spread around in the jail. Soon the toilets were blocked by too much dirt flushed down them, but repeated visits by the plumbers did not alert the warders.
     At breakfast time on Saturday 21 March, the Logue family of Harding Street, which abutted the jail, were startled to see 21 men clamber out from a hole which appeared in their tiny back garden, dash through the house, out into the street and into a parked furniture van in Abercorn Place. The driver was Jimmy Steele, himself on the run after his escape from Crumlin.
     The tunnel extended from the floor of Liam Graham's cell on the ground floor and had taken five months to dig. Twenty-one escaped, the last being Brendan O'Boyle. More should have got out. Jimmie Drumm, the next man in line to go out, was halfway towards freedom when he heard someone shouting that the tunnel had been discovered outside. He crawled back only to find that it was a false alarm, but by then it was too late for him to get out.
     Although of tremendous propaganda value, the escape had little practical use. Steele and Harry White had mobilized 25 men on both sides of the border and the majority of the escapers passed over into the Donegal side without trouble. There they felt they would be safe, but it was not to be. Within 24 hours 18 had been re-captured and interned in the Curragh. It was a bitter blow, only slightly mitigated by the fact that in the Twenty-six Counties internment ended two years before it did in the North.
     Jimmie Drumm was particularly bitter. "I'd reckoned that Dev would do something like that and so I was to go to Belfast with Jimmy Steele," he confided. He was to sit out the rest of the war in Crumlin. Liam Mulholland was more shocked about the escapers being interned in the South, but claimed that the escape was "great for the morale anyway. We were all caught trying to escape after that. Everyone was at it."
     The internees needed something to raise their morale. There was no campaign going on for their release during the war.[2] Their dependents had a particularly rough time – the relief organization, the Green Cross, paid only 12/6 a week, and there was no dole. Those with girlfriends were conscious that the period of the internment was going to be a long time to expect anyone to wait, and in Derry, in particular, the presence of American soldiers, loaded with money (in local terms, that is) and anxious to have female company to help them spend it, meant that many internees were tortured with rumours about their girlfriends and wives – mainly untrue – but that did not help matters. Those with young children were particularly affected, and as time wore on increasing numbers agreed to 'sign out'. (It is interesting to note that in all the periods of lengthy internment I have only been able to discover one single incidence of homosexuality – in the Curragh).
     Lifelong Republicans like Billy O'Neill claimed that those who stayed true to what they considered to be essential principles did not hold any grudge against those, especially family men, who signed out; O'Neill himself did not, but certainly, even 30 years afterwards, rancour still existed for some. Of those internees who signed out in the forties that I spoke to, only one was prepared to have his name mentioned. Their reasons for signing out, in the vast majority of cases, were readily understandable: a death or sickness in the family usually, or, in some cases, a break-down of an internee's own health. Nonetheless, a stigma did exist, and the bitterness lingered on after release.
     Crumlin Road jail was used for a longer period than Derry. Conditions there, too, were harsh, to begin with. All the gains of the past, in terms of being accorded 'political status', were disallowed and had to be fought for again. The food was really bad. "They once gave us a rasher of bacon and two men fainted from shock," claims an old man. Silence was at first enforced on the prisoners: 123 men had to shuffle round the small exercise yard in C wing, three paces apart, without talking. Conditions did improve as time wore on, but the improvement was achieved only by hunger strikes and 'non co-operation': some prisoners remained in their cells 14 weeks at a stretch without communicating in any way with the authorities. Today, food can be augmented by parcels sent in, but during the war prisoners' dependents had not the money even to feed themselves adequately. Occasionally, a little alcohol was smuggled in, generally in tins of 'fruit juice', and there were attempts to make alcohol by fermenting prune juice – the ubiquitous breakfast. Jars of this juice were stored under the beds in the cells and regularly exploded, often in the middle of the night.
     Entertainment was scarce. Frank McGlade recalls with amusement 'stag ceilis'. Half the men wore armbands and danced the womens' part. The usual education classes did something to break the monotony, but many men could not take the boredom and futility. Dissension led to frequent changes in leadership. People would brood for a few days and suddenly the cry of 'election' would go up and someone would be deposed. Some tried to escape, but Crumlin was tougher than Derry. A tunnel was started under the dining hall, and to drown the noise of tunnelling, regular sing-songs were held around the manhole that led to it, but it was soon discovered. This time there were no reprisals.
     Some men did succeed in escaping. Eddie Keenan, then a youth of twenty, was interned in February 1941. He did not like it, and was determined to leave. With four others – Gerry Doherty ('The Bird', who later escaped from the Curragh and Donegal jails and survived a 50-day hunger strike), Liam Burke (who was to figure with Jimmy Steele in the Derry escape), Phil McTaggart and Billy Watson – he went over the wall on 6 May 1941. They had attempted a similar escape the week before. At 4.00 p.m., while the guards were changing, they had pulled aside some corrugated fencing, sprinted across the yard and thrown a rope with a wooden hook on the end, over the wall. The hook had broken and they had had to run back when spotted. Despite this setback, exactly the same plan was used the week after, this time at noon and using a metal hook made from a table support. This hook held and, while two guards were held back by two 'ordinary' prisoners who happened to be passing, the five got over the wall and through the grounds of St. Malachy's School. By sheer coincidence, as they ran out onto the Antrim Road a car stopped and the driver turned out to be a friend of one of the men. Three of them were driven off, while Keenan and Doherty separated and ran in different directions. Keenan was soon in a safe house, but Doherty, a Derryman, lost his way. Eventually, he ran into the "first house in the Queen Street area that I saw with a Sacred Heart lamp in the window."
     "Do you know any Republicans, missus?" he asked a woman inside.
     "Aye, there's one working on the roof now," she told him. Within two days, like the others, he was safely across the border.[3]
     The most famous escape from Crumlin Road at that time, however, was not by an internee but by Jimmy Steele, Hugh McAteer, Paddy Donnelly and Edward Maguire, all sentenced IRA men, who got over the wall on 15 January 1943. This, too, was turned to propaganda value, and Steele and McAteer, before their recapture, were to appear at the Broadway Cinema in Belfast on Holy Saturday. IRA men held up the staff and held an Easter commemoration for 'the Dead who died for Ireland', to the cheers of the cinema-goers.
     This was certainly good for the internees' morale, but seven years was a long time. Jimmie Drumm called it "a terror sentence". Seven years' internment is equivalent to a ten-year sentence. With internment there is no remission. Murderers get out after eight years. "I'm a political prisoner who has served nine years without ever being charged with anything," said Drumm, who has no criminal record and completed his tenth year of internment, this time in Long Kesh. He was released in June 1972.
     The lengthy internment had a very bad effect on the health of many. Some relatively young men died shortly after release. Four contracted TB. P. Graham of Belfast, who had to be released because of ill-health, died within a few months of getting out. John McGinley, Dickie Dunn and Mickey McErlean were others who died very soon after release. At least six men ended up in lunatic asylums.[4]
     Bad health was not the only problem to affect men. The fact that they had been interned was noted on their papers at the Labour Exchange. Internees lost their pension rights, and could not get even the lowliest jobs. Patsy Quinn recalls how the RUC frequently called and exhorted released internees to emigrate: "If you don't, we'll see you don't keep a job here." Small wonder that over 80% of the Republicans who had been interned dropped out of the movement in 1945. They came out – the last release of internees was on 30 July 1945 – to a movement that had failed and was in financial and organizational ruin. It is true to say, as Lord Brookeborough did, that internment had been partially responsible for this. In 1945 many Unionists believed that they would not need to use this 'distasteful weapon' (Brian Faulkner) again.
     The Special Powers Acts remained on the Statute Books, however. In 1951, for example, they were used to 'detain' 13 men for a week on the occasion of a royal visit. This became a regular occurrence. Art McMillen recalls wryly that he used to keep looking at the calendar of royal events to see when he had to pack his suitcase. Men, generally not more than a dozen, were arrested, often at work, kept for a week and then released when the royal personage had departed. The fact that these men were neither criminals nor had any record of threatening the royal family made no difference.
     Internment was next brought in on 21 December 1956. The doomed 'machismo' border campaign of the IRA had begun ten days previously, and in the early hours of the morning of the 22nd, 30 men were taken from their homes. This was but the beginning. Before long, 400 had been detained and they awaited 'processing'. This was supposed to take 28 days at the most and, indeed, many were given internment orders after three weeks; but some, like Gerry Maguire, were detained nine weeks before being officially interned. One Roslea man was kept detained for nine months and then released. 256 were eventually formally interned[5] and of these 89 availed themselves of the chance to sign out. The remaining 167 who had refused to compromise their consciences were in Crumlin for the duration.
     There were the old problems. What had been regarded as 'rights' to decent treatment, last won by hunger strikes and attitudes of non co-operation, from 1938-1945, were not automatically accorded. They had to be fought for yet again. Internment was the same mixture of frustration and boredom, laced with hardship for the dependents. Art McMillen was a typical example. A furnace operator, he was married with three children, the youngest being six months. He and his wife were buying a house. He was interned in January 1957 and wasn't released until March 1960. During that time his wife received only £4 a week from the National Assistance,[6] and had to rely on help from relatives as well as taking a part-time job.
     As usual, escape was the predominant thought in many minds. Gerry Maguire,[7] then a married man of 25 with two young children, described an attempt at tunnelling, in which he was an active participant:

It (the tunnel) went from D1, dead opposite the room where the PO, Johnny Smith, was. We tunnelled for 12 months without him knowing a thing. Three shifts a day. Regular as clockwork. It began as a hole in the wall into the ventilation shaft and then down and along. We had gone 90 feet and were just over half way when the tunnel was accidentally discovered. A screw happened to knock against the mirror on the wall which concealed the hole and the game was up. Four men were discovered in the tunnel and locked in a cell to await a beating; we discovered this and broke down the cell door with a crowbar one of the men had concealed in his mattress (most of the tools had been obtained from workmen doing repairs in the prison) and rescued them. Then we all returned to our calls with hostages. After a parley we released the hostages unharmed on the understanding that there would be no reprisals, and no loss of privileges. Next day, however, 15 March 1958, a force of commandoes (special riot police) led by Hood came, six into every cell, and beat up everyone. We didn't have a chance. One Lurgan man in C wing got a broken leg and broken ribs. Frank Cards and Billy O'Neill of D wing got beaten very badly too:[8] The commandoes also broke up the jail furniture and photographed it, claiming the bits were 'weapons'. Private property, like gramophone records, was also smashed. Four or five men were hospitalized, but there was no medical treatment given the other injured until three days later. 'Privileges' were withdrawn. Jimmy Steele led the men in protest strikes and eventually conditions returned to 'normal'.

This was the only example of brutality during the 1956-1961 internment. Many of the men interned then and who were lifted again on 9 August 1971 maintain that the behaviour of the arresting troops in 1971 was much worse than they had ever experienced.
     The memories of the 1956-1961 men weren't all grim. Some recall the 'Ghost of D wing' in Crumlin with pleasure. An Armagh man had been tunnelling and emerged covered in dirt. Next day the papers reported a warder swearing that he had seen an apparition.
     For a period, gambling became all the rage: the prison's bookies were all cleaned out on Grand National Day, but the gambling got too heavy and had to be stopped. This time there were better organized seminars on Irish history. At length the men were granted their own cookhouse. Some, like Art McMillen and Ciaran O'Kane, began to study history. O'Kane got a degree. There was one successful escape, as well, which cheered them up.
     Internment had ended in the South on 15 March 1959 when it became clear that the border campaign had failed and was fizzling out. In the North, however, the Unionists didn't feel like taking any chances. Not until 26 January 1960 did they let anyone out – Ciaran O'Kane. Others followed, but by Boxing Day 1960 there were still 11 men left inside. There was a sleet storm raging outside and most of the men were drunk on smuggled liquor, but two decided to go over the wall. Using a hook at the end of a line, Donnelly got over and safely away. John Kelly, however, fell and was recaptured. The last of the internees were released on 25 April 1961.
     Once again they came out to failure. The Republican movement had not succeeded in its aims, the people had not responded and many IRA men became disillusioned and drifted away. Not as many as the 80%-90 % after the war, it is true, but a substantial number. One consequence, however, was to have tragic repercussions. This was the myth which led to the Unionist belief that internment was responsible for the defeat of the border campaign. Brian Faulkner was to claim this, and, ten years later, reintroduce internment. In fact, the IRA campaign failed because the Catholic people in the border areas did not support it The IRA were forced to admit this formally on 26 February 1962 when its 'Statement to the Irish People' concluded:

Foremost amongst the factors motivating this course of action (the abandonment of the campaign) has been the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people – the Unity and Freedom of Ireland.[9]

The announcement was a very belated recognition of reality. Most members had recognised the truth years ago. In fact, internment played a relatively small part in the defeat of the campaign which was an essentially rural one. Most internees were urban men and Belfast, because of the vulnerability of the Catholic ghettoes to Orange mobs, had been left out of the action altogether.

Footnotes Chapter 5:

  1. A set of these 'coins' can be seen in the National Museum, Dublin.
  2. The entire Roman Catholic population of Lisburn and Banbridge was forcibly 'evacuated' by 'Loyalists'.
  3. DOROTHY MACARDLE, The Irish Republic, London (Victor Gollancz), 1937, p.620.
  4. The Northern Whig, Belfast, was more excited: "Rounding up the Rebels." "Sensational Coup by Northern Government." "Several Actually attempted to escape and were wounded."
  5. Newsletter, Belfast 21 June 1922.
  6. The Catholic minority in the North seems to have been so inured to Coercion Bills that internment provoked neither surprise nor great indignation. 'Wee Joe' Devlin, Nationalist MP, expressed far more indignation in Westminster about Cardinal Logue's car being halted at a roadblock than about 500 men being rounded up and interned.
  7. Sunday Independent, Dublin, 1 July 1956.


  1. Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 16, Cols. 1091-1095 (24 April 1934)
  2. Fermanagh Times, Enniskillen, 13 July 1933; and Londonderry Sentinel Derry, 20 March 1934.


  1. "The fact having come to the knowledge of the police that plans had been prepared by the IRA for attacks upon persons occupying prominent positions and upon Government and other property during the Christmas and the New Year period, the Government decided that in order to prevent the perpetration of such outrages and serious breaches of the peace which would result therefrom, there was no alternative other than to arrest and intern well-known leaders and prominent members of this illegal organisation" - Ministry for Home Affairs statement, 23 December 1938. According to Stormont figures 827 people were detained between 1938 and 1945 - not all of them were held for the duration of the war.
  2. On the day after it was reintroduced there was hardly a mention of it in the local press. The Belfast Newsletter didn't even have one line about it, concentrating on Happy Christmas greetings from various clerics, aldermen and the PM.
  3. Both Keenan and Doherty were later interned in the Curragh camp.
  4. Someone who didn't, but who obviously underwent some 'surrealist experiences' was Charlie McDowell. Realizing that tunnelling was impractical (no tunnel escape has succeeded from Crumlin) and "having a fear of heights" he decided to escape by creating a space ship, using old tins. "He almost had the ship finished but was having problems with the fuel," said a bewildered friend who claimed that McDowell was so convincing that some men actually believed him. McDowell also claimed to have invented a miracle paste which when smeared on the bars would dissolve them. There was even an attempt to get out using this!
  5. BERESFORD ELLIS, in History of the Irish Working Class, London (Victor Gollancz), 1971, says 187, but this is incorrect. The official Stormont figures, quoted by BARRITT and CARTER in The Northern Ireland Problem, Oxford (University Press), 1962, give 613 men detained between 1957 and 1960. The actual words of the oath which internees had to take in order to sign out were either: "I ... solemnly declare that although I was a member of ... from ... to ... I have now severed all connection with it and I do not intend to have anything further to do with that organisation, or assist them in any way in the future." OR: "I ... hereby declare that I have never been, am not now, and never intend to become a member of the IRA or any other illegal organization, or to assist any such organization in the future, and I am prepared to go before a court, if necessary, and swear that this is the truth."
  6. If David Bleakley, the Labour MP and future Minister for Community Relations, had had his way she wouldn't have got even that. Bleakley, who was to resign in 1971 (five days before his term of office expired) "over the use of internment", in 1957 advocated that no payments be made to internees' dependants on the National Assistance, "since", he claimed, "the IRA would look after them." In fact, the Prisoners' Defence Fund run by Republicans could give only 50/- a week to families.
  7. Maguire, who served four years, was subsequently arrested on 9 August 1971 and, after two days at Girdwood barracks, was taken to Crumlin Road. There he found himself "after ten years back in the very same fucking cell on C3".
  8. In fact, Cards and O'Neill took an unsuccessful court case against the prison.
  9. United Irishman, Dublin, March 1962.

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