The All-Ireland Football Match Behind Barbed Wire, Frongoch Internment Camp, June 1916

It is a century after a unique All-Ireland football final between Kerry and Louth was played among the men interned in the wake of the 1916 Rising in Frongoch in north Wales. Over 1,800 Irishmen were rounded up and detained without trial under the Defence of the Realm Act at the prisoner of war camp near the Welsh village of Bala, in the rolling hills of Snowdonia from June 1916 onwards.

In 1914, an old distillery in the village was converted into a prison to hold German prisoners of war, and then emptied to hold the Irish until December 1916 when it closed. Interest in the camp’s history has grown in the village over the last few years, particularly since the Liverpool branch of Conradh na Gaeilge/The Gaelic League with the support of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg/The Wesh language Society, installed a plaque with inscriptions in Irish, Welsh and English, in 2002, as a memorial.

They spent months in Frongoch, which later became known as Ollscoil Na Réabhlóide or the ‘University of Revolution’ as the internees were radicalised, and learned how guerrilla tactics to ensure the mistakes of the Rising were not repeated. The whole camp was infested with rodents, earning it the nickname Francach – a pun on the Irish word for rat.

Internees like: Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Richard Mulcahy, Frank Shouldice, Terence MacSwiney, Gerry Boland, Frank Shouldice, Tomás Mac Curtain, Joe Clarke, Batt O’Connor, Sean Hales, Arthur Shields and Sam Maguire, formed deep bonds of friendship while sharing their knowledge and skills. In total, 30 would go on to become TDs in the State they had created.

The field used as the football pitch in Frongoch was named ‘Croke Park’ after the stadium in Dublin on Jones’ Road which the GAA had only just purchased for £2,400 in 1913 using record gate money generated by the Croke Memorial Tournament between Louth and Kerry that year. With so many of the detainees having played intercounty football, they decided to hold a GAA intercounty football championship. Posters advertising the Wolfe Tone Tournament final match in Frongoch between old rivals Kerry and Louth informed fans that ‘admission was 5 shillings and wives and sweethearts should be left at home’!

Tom Burke captained the Louth side and refereed the first All-Ireland played for the Sam Maguire Cup in 1928. Dick Fitzgerald captained the Kerry team. It was Fitzgerald who penned How to Play Gaelic Football, the first handbook of its kind in the GAA, and after whom Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney is named. Dick Fitzgerald and his colleagues were not only GAA players but among those who raised funds and built many of the pitches and playing fields which remain to this day. They were also very much involved in the events that led to 1916 and among the Volunteers.

During his internment in Frongoch, Joe Stanley, who acted as Pearse’s and Connolly’s press officer, printing the Irish War News from the GPO during the Rising, kept notes of this unique football match and a report was published on it in July 1916 in his newspaper The Gaelic Athlete as well as other Irish papers. He also kept notes of other football games and events in the camp including Michael Collins’ successes in the athletics field. Michael Collins would emerge from Frongoch and become, undoubtedly, one of the most important Irish revolutionaries. The reformation of the IRA took place within the camp. One of the biggest British mistakes was bringing them altogether in Frongoch, as the seeds of revolution which lead to the War of Independence took root “at English expense”.

The Louth vs Kerry game was held as part of the Wolfe Tone challenge in Frongoch and Louth was defeated by just a point. Between June and December 1916, batches of internees were permitted to return to Ireland. Only those considered most dangerous were detained right up until Christmas week. Among the last batch to be released were Joe Stanley and Tom Burke.

The last Irishman in Frongoch on 23 December 1916 was Dublin priest Fr Laurence Joseph Stafford. When World War I broke out in August 1914, Fr Stafford asked to become a military chaplain and the following March he signed up. This proved a difficulty when he was appointed to Frongoch because he wore the military chaplain’s uniform. The men looked at him as being a sort of ‘Khaki chaplain’. Even though he knew some of them, they didn’t take to him initially. But through his good work and his perseverance they finally did accept him. In a letter from dated 23 December, written to Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Fr Stafford writes, ‘Five months ago when they were releasing the men interned here in hundreds, I said I should be the last Irishman left in Frongoch; and today I am.’ Outlining to the archbishop how he lobbied the British authorities for the prisoners’ release he had argued ‘that Christmas was Christmas’. Today the gates of the compound are thrown open and tonight there will not be a single Irishman (save myself) left in Frongoch.

There was a parade, a GAA match and a commemoration ceremony in June 1916.

RTÉ aired a documentary, first Broadcast 26th March 2016, entitled: The All-Ireland Behind Barbed Wire.

Photo: The Frongoch Internment Camp Memorial stone and plaque.

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