Held captive

In the context of current debate about how to secure Australia against terrorist threat, it is interesting to reflect that Australia has been integrated in the history of modern terrorism for a very long time. Way back in April 1876, six Fenian prisoners, all of whom were serving life sentences, escaped from the colony of Western Australia on board the barque Catalpa. Their escape was the fruit of ‘secrecy, careful planning and financial control’ and its achievement a persuasive argument in the minds of a particular segment of Irish nationalist militants for the application of the same organisational principles to the dynamiting of British cities. ‘Scientific warfare’ is what they called it, back then, out of confidence in the capacity of a well-placed stick to eliminate legislators instead of ‘innocent soldiers’. Ironically, the planning, fundraising, recruitment and training for the 1880s Dynamitards campaign to destroy the centres and symbols of power in Britain all took place on United States soil.

Who now knows about the climate of fear in England, the emergency Bill to control the possession and use of explosives, and the attacks on train stations, the Home Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office, the Local Government Board, military barracks, Scotland Yard, London Bridge and The Times. The name of the Bin Laden-like figure, O’Donovan Rossa, and the organisation he directed has disappeared from public memory; in British cities, the ‘deep and profound disgust with Ireland and her people’, which in the 1880s displaced a growing sympathy for Ireland, has in turn given way to a mood that accommodates Irish theme pubs and Irish rock stars, even when it tires of events in Belfast.

Whatever about repeating itself, history certainly echoes, and you can hear those resonances in a recently published account of Irish political prisoners in British jails during the three quarters of a century leading up to the declaration of the Irish Free State in 1922. Sean McConville’s Irish Political Prisoners, 1848–1922: Theatres of War surveys the crimes, the prison experiences and the penal ideas that governed the treatment of these prisoners. The book arrives, at least implicit at a recommendation to democratic governments: locking up (and/or executing) your political opponents is not inevitably a good idea, because that way you grant them political longevity and even, possibly, political triumph. As a rule of thumb it seems to hold, when you consider not just the Irish Free State and Eamon de Valera but also Nelson Mandela and Xanana Gusmao, along with Aung San Suu Kyi in her domestic prison and Yasser Arafat confined by checkpoints and security fences. The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have yet to prove it but the United States Government might well attend to the observations Sean McConville makes of the Irish Free State’s attempts to punish generations of Irish rebels—and the State’s obliviousness to the lessons taught by its own historical experience.

Irish Political Prisoners begins with another Australian connection, in the sentencing to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land of the 1848 Young Irelander leadership, who had imagined that their self-sacrifice would awaken demoralised people to political ambition. Of course they failed spectacularly but in their story, McConville says, he found a nascent theory: that ‘the closer one gets to a proper democratic state, proper popular representation and so on, the more intolerant the state will become. The stronger the mandate of the state, as validated through the ballot box, the less room it has to compromise and the less reason it has to compromise’. In the case of the Young Irelanders, the government was astute enough to avoid creating martyrs, commuting the traditional death sentence for treason (hanging, beheading, and quartering), to transportation for life. All were gentlemen of one degree or another, and having spared them from the gallows it behoved the government to treat them as such. ‘I suppose removing somebody from their everyday life, especially if they have an interest in politics, to a remote corner of the earth, was a punishment, but in terms of material punishment, they weren’t really punished.

They sailed out to Van Dieman’s Land in better conditions almost than anybody apart from a colonial governor. They had their own cabins: do you know what it would have been like to have your own cabin on one of those little sailing ships?’ McConville makes much of the comparative privilege the Young Irelanders enjoyed, and of the ‘ingratitude’ of some of them. He points out for example that John Mitchel’s partial fettering as he boarded the convict ship became the myth of ‘Mitchel, bound in chains’. A footnote records that this ‘myth’ was given life in the first instance by Gavan Duffy immediately after Mitchel’s transportation, and regenerated by Mitchel himself five years later, when he hit the speech circuit in America as a liberated man. Even if the British authorities were not prepared to treat the Young Irelanders as ordinary convicts, it was rhetorically useful to invoke the image of such degradation.

This is a big book, 820 pages, with copious footnotes, and for a good part of it McConville’s theory seems to stand up. ‘As we advance through the story, he says, because of changing political circumstances, because of the changing class nature of the people who came, the types of punishment also changed. It is fair to say that by the time the late Fenians are imprisoned, they were imprisoned under extremely arduous conditions.’ Those conditions were the terms of ordinary imprisonment of criminals during the 1860s and one of the Fenians was Michael Davitt, who later testified before the Kimberley Commission to the grotesqueries of the British penal regime, designed as it was to crush the spirit. McConville’s recounting of Davitt’s experience (and of the Fenians’ generally) makes for unpleasant reading, in the descriptions of terrible deprivation and cruelty and in its tale of the recruitment even of medical personnel to the administration’s implacable logic of suspicion. (Prisoners in Irish jails were allocated much smaller bread allowances, just in case Famine victims sought prison as a solution to their hunger.) The prison doctor at Mountjoy in Dublin was an exception: in a suppressed report he insisted on the connection between insanity, prolonged confinement and severe discipline, and when his report made its way into the public domain, forcing some improvements in the prison regime faced by the Fenians, he was removed from his post on a pretext.

Among Michael Davitt’s achievements was his escape from the madness that in the end afflicted or threatened so many of his fellow nationalist prisoners, and McConville credits him with ‘a touch of the Mandela’s’: ‘Somebody who had gone through this great ordeal but with no bitterness, no exaggeration, no hysteria, no self-magnification, and quite apart from his influence on Irish nationalism, he had an influence on English penal measures to deal with ordinary criminals because he could speak humanely and decently, but not sentimentally, about criminals.’ Irish nationalist prisoners invariably found their encounter with the general run of the English prison population distressing—it became an element of their ‘martyrdom’ and, as some British authorities recognised, ‘led to a higher and even exaggerated sense of [their] position’. After the 1916 Rising, however, that encounter was minimal, as the state compromised in its treatment of nationalist prisoners while not admitting them to political prisoner status. (A War Office memo did describe them as ‘prisoners of war’.) This is the point, McConville says, where his nascent theory came undone. ‘The thesis that I started out with, that the closer we get to popular democracy the more repressive, is turned on its head. They [De Valera, Michael Collins, etc.] certainly weren’t treated oppressively. Eamon de Valera in particular managed to turn the prison inside out.’ McConville is unsure whether De Valera’s inventive disruptiveness was ‘out of a spirit of natural rebelliousness, or as part of a strategy to continue the struggle in prison’ but he is certain about its disabling impact on the prison system. With De Valera ‘inside’, the prison commissioners found themselves negotiating with a prisoners’ committee, an unprecedented event in English prison history.

Nevertheless, only a few years later when the Anglo-Irish War had broken out, more than 2000 men were held in Irish internment camps and a spate of executions was under way. The closer we get to popular democracy, it may be, the more incoherent is government response and the more surely public sympathy is engaged. On 14th March 1921, a crowd of 20,000 people fell to its knees outside Mountjoy Prison as the bells tolled for each execution.

Three or four thousand documents, says McConville, provided the ground of his book. This assiduous poring over the archives enables him to pin his characters often to their flaws, but occasionally to their grandeur (as in the case of Michael Davitt), sometimes to their political nous (William Gladstone recognised that imprisonment alienated moderate opinion) and sometimes to the truly unexpected:

recently released documents show that King George V intervened repeatedly in the case of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, urging the government to exercise clemency. MacSwiney was on hunger strike in Brixton Prison (where he was visited by Archbishop Daniel Mannix) in protest at his ‘illegal’ arrest in Cork on 16 August 1920. While the government was determined not to give in, the King’s concern was the ‘increasing spirit of retaliation and revenge’ that prevailed and the ‘misery which at the present time casts a shadow over the daily life of the Irish people.’ MacSwiney died on 25 October, after a hunger strike lasting 74 days. From his perspective, writes McConville, the contest had been one not of vengeance but of endurance. He quotes a speech by MacSwiney: ‘it is not they who can inflict most but they who can suffer most can conquer. …Those whose faith is strong will endure to the end and triumph.’

In the extraordinary accrual of reference and fact it is difficult to always discern continuing motifs. McConville leaves the task to the reader since his book comes abruptly to an end with the release of prisoners following the signing of the Treaty in December 1921. (A second volume is intended, dealing with post-independence Irish prisoners to 2000.) But there are some threads: through the 75 years from 1848, the authorities invariably found the Irish bothersome, and the limits were almost invariably—in the end—stretched. The Irish were always determined to distinguish themselves as political prisoners and the authorities to cast them as common criminals. Those detained were mostly younger men, middle class and at least reasonably educated. Many of them had committed acts of violence or had conspired to commit acts of violence. Often they distinguished themselves in prison by their discipline, character and bearing. Their sense of purpose validated suffering and self-sacrifice. In varying and increasingly focused ways they invoked a distinctive Irish identity. By De Valera’s time, in the words of one British authority, ‘they are bound together [in large numbers] by the common tie of their race and ideals, their cause, and their suffering, and they are permitted to study Gaelic which alone feeds their enthusiasm for their cause.’

The overriding continuing motif is the question of justice and the capacity of politics, as distinct from law, to deliver it. Sean McConville admires Gladstone’s commitment to politics as a way of translating the ethical nature of the State into everyday life. He didn’t vote for Tony Blair but, he says, ‘I think of all the British Prime Ministers in the 20th century, he has taken the most Gladstonian approach to solving the Irish problem: I think politicians very often have to deal with a scale that doesn’t balance and they have to be satisfied with that and the frustrations of that and Tony Blair has been prepared to take a view that the solution has been its own morality in a way. [It] somehow or other justifies all that could be portrayed as shoddy deals with violent and wicked people getting away with their deeds—there is a greater good coming at the end of it if I can write an end to this story.’ It’s hard not to admire that breadth of view.  

Held captiveIrish Political Prisoners, 1848–1922, Theatres of War, Sean McConville. Routledge, 2003. isbn 0 415219 91 4, rrp $200

Margaret Coffey is a journalist and broadcaster, presenting Radio National’s Encounter program.



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