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424 Irish borstal boys chose war over internment - many died hoping for redemption

British authorities saw institutions as fertile recruiting grounds for the army.

Troops during World War 1, a conflict that claimed millions of military and civilian lives.
Troops during World War 1, a conflict that claimed millions of military and civilian lives.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

WORLD WAR I decimated the young male population of Europe and claimed millions of military and civilian lives. In the context of that scale of death and destruction, it is understandable that many stories of individual groups and soldiers have remained hidden 100 years on since the conflict.

It is known, for example, that many Irish men were discharged from prisons to join in the fighting from 1914 to 1918. What is less known is the connection between the Irish borstal institution and the Great War. Over 400 Irish male juveniles were released into the British forces to fight – and around 70 of them lost their lives. 

When James K, originally from Anglesea Street in Dublin appeared before the Southern Police Court on Saturday 24 July 1915 he was already free on bail and awaiting trial on charges of shop-breaking and larceny. He now faced further charges of stealing a bicycle, a gentleman’s cape and a parcel of books from a property in Merrion Street.

With his bail revoked, James remained in Mountjoy prison until his appearance at Dublin City Commissions on 4 August when both sets of charges were tried on the same day. He was sentenced to two terms of three years, running concurrently, in Clonmel borstal institution for juvenile-adult male offenders. A baker by profession, he was nineteen years old and lived with his parents and six siblings.

James did not serve his three-year sentence and never returned to Dublin. Neither he nor the sentencing judge were to know that his detention in Clonmel would merely be a detour on his journey to the battlefields of France where, in April 1916, he was killed in action while fighting with the British armed forces during the First World War.

James was a private with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 8th Battalion when he was struck down. His journey from urban street criminal to war veteran was one that was replicated dozens of times for young men who made that detour through the Ireland’s only borstal institution at Clonmel in south Tipperary.

The world’s first borstal institution was established in the village of Borstal in Kent in 1901 for the punishment and reform of a newly-established category of 16- to 21-year-old male criminals known as ‘juvenile-adult offenders’. The experiment was extended to Ireland in 1906 where a borstal was opened in a disused wing of the county gaol in Clonmel in south Tipperary.

In 1910, the remaining adults vacated the gaol in Clonmel and the complex was converted to become a full-scale borstal institution with an initial capacity for 110 inmates. With some interruptions for the Civil War and Emergency, the institution which later became known as St Patrick’s Borstal remained in operation until 1956 when it was transferred to the North Circular Road in Dublin. After decades of criticism St Patrick’s Institution discharged its final inmates in April 2015.

From borstal boy to soldier

From the beginning to the end of the Great War, in excess of 400 boys from the Irish borstal were discharged to join the British forces. At the Spring 1919 Court of Assizes in Clonmel, the well-known magistrate Justice Thomas Moloney paid tribute to 424 inmates that he estimated were enlisted to fight. He further claimed that around seventy of these boys made the “supreme sacrifice”.

For the willing borstal offender the war presented an opportunity to bring forward his release.

Enlisting in the army directly from borstal was not necessarily straightforward. In order to be accepted for consideration the inmate was required to obtain permission from his parent or guardian. For many reasons, ranging from anti-British sentiment to a fear for the safety of their sons, this permission was not always forthcoming.

If parental consent was granted he then had to obtain the approval of the visiting justices and the statutory aftercare body for the institution, the Borstal Association of Ireland (BAI). After clearing the internal institutional hurdles he was interviewed by the local army recruiting officer on his next visit to the borstal as well as undergoing an examination by the army medical officer.

The battle for borstal hearts and minds

Those who remained in the borstal were not shielded from exposure to the war. Whether it was because the British authorities saw such places as fertile recruiting grounds for the army or because war-related events were seen as useful tools in the reform of the boys, they did play a significant part in institutional life.

Borstal authorities were particularly welcoming of visitors with first-hand experience of the war. In December 1916, Reverend Dr Rentoul, Chaplain-General of the Australian armed forces met with the institution board, the BAI and a party of 53 inmates.

Rentoul’s brother was the Presbyterian chaplain of Clonmel borstal. At the time of his visit he was on a six-month tour of Australian military camps and hospitals abroad. According to the borstal governor at Clonmel he gave the inmates “a most interesting but very brief sketch of life in The Trenches” while encouraging them to take advantage of their opportunity to reform and become valuable members of the community.

Daily newspapers were not permitted in the Irish borstal in the same way that they were in those of England and Scotland. This was the result of a decision by the British authorities in Dublin Castle to prevent the spread of any subversive material or quell any nationalistic sentiment among the inmates.

Once the war started the governor decided to hang newspaper cuttings on the wall of the mess room where inmates dined. The purpose of this was two-fold. On one hand he felt ‘the present crisis’ warranted such action while on the other, it was believed that the gesture would increase his standing among the boys. There might even be an added impetus to reform as they absorbed tales of battlefield heroics on a daily basis.

Over time there was evidence that some boys became restless to leave the institution and join the fight against a common enemy. In a letter to his mother in October 1915, inmate George T. expressed his hope that “the Germans are getting a good licking”. He wished he was out “at the Front giving the Tommys a hand”.

The arrival of cinematic technology meant new sources of entertainment for the borstal inmates and this took on a heightened significance during the war. In November 1916, the owner of the local ‘Theatre of Variety’ provided the film, the equipment and a cinematic operator for a presentation on ‘The Battle of the Somme’. Fifty-three inmates, all of the staff and the governor attended the showing and all took a keen interest because so many “had relatives in the great push”.

Allowing the inmates to view such material had a number of potential benefits. At one level it showed the British forces that were also occupying Ireland at that time, bravely fighting a common enemy. By 1916, many inmates were discharged to fight with that same army and allowing those in detention to view this footage meant that they would see the ultimate in bravery and honour.

Young men from among their own peer group were prepared to lay down their lives for a just and noble cause. The borstal idea was originally conceived to instil just such ideals into young male criminals.

‘Smart, clean and nice mannered young men’

The surviving accounts of the conduct of former Clonmel borstal inmates paint a picture of a class of soldiers who acquitted themselves with excessive courage and diligence. The BAI, a body largely dependent on charitable donations, used examples of the most heroic and self-sacrificing of the boys.

William C. was almost eighteen years old when he was convicted of four counts of larceny at Dublin City Commissions in February 1914. Born in Longford he was employed as a clerk and was sentenced to three years in Clonmel. By November 1914 he was discharged to the army where he “joined the colours” and was subsequently “granted Commission as a 2nd Lieutenant” as a result of his bravery. The association emphasised the fact that by the end of the war he was a fully commissioned officer.

From a public relations perspective, William’s was a positive story and the outcome an example of the worth of the borstal system which no doubt played a role in his development as a man and an officer.

Seventeen-year-old James R. was one of the few Tipperary-based inmates of Clonmel borstal and he was convicted of the larceny of five pounds in June 1913 at the town’s Quarter Sessions. He too was singled out for special mention. In November 1914 he was discharged to the army where he achieved rank of Private with the 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was killed in action in France on 6 September 1916.

James is memorialised at the Thiepval Memorial in France, having been awarded a parchment testimonial by his divisional commander.

A tragic irony for James, who was the son of a bailiff and had no prior convictions, was that borstal was not intended for first offenders but for those who were already well on the path to habitual criminality.

Unpublished correspondence from the battlefield indicates that Clonmel boys were well received in the army. One senior officer approached a former inmate to enquire if he had received physical training elsewhere. When the boy felt obliged to reveal the truth the officer paid tribute to Clonmel borstal pointing out that he had trained many fine soldiers from there and none had ever presented a problem.

In 1915, Colonel Findlay of the 4th Royal Irish Rifles wrote to the borstal governor from his base in Co Down. He wrote of a positive first impression of two boys recently received from Clonmel, both of whom he hoped would be quickly promoted through the ranks. He requested that the governor send him any amount “of such smart, clean and nice mannered young men”.

While such praise for the Clonmel borstal soldiers was surely welcome for the institution, the BAI and the prison authorities it should not be over-stated. These bodies will only have published positive accounts and the armed forces were in dire need of receiving new and healthy recruits, wherever they came from. A borstal was an obvious recruiting ground for the army because they were only permitted to detain healthy boys who could withstand the tough regime of drill-instruction, training and education, all of which began before dawn.

As for the boys themselves, it can be assumed that at least some were incentivised by more simple promises such as a pair of boots, a uniform, a wage and of course, their freedom. Their attitude to the potential dangers and threat to their lives is almost impossible to gauge from this historical distance. The personal war stories of those Irish borstal soldiers lucky enough to come home have not survived. Given the silence that surrounded the detention of young people in institutions, none will have wanted to admit to the route through which they joined the fighting in the first place.

Conor Reidy is a professional historian specialising in crime and punishment. He is the author of Ireland’s ‘Moral Hospital’: The Irish Borstal System 1906-1956, available from the Irish Academic Press here, and of Criminal Irish Drunkards – an examination of the inebriate reformatory system in Ireland in the early 20th century (published by the History Press Ireland).

His third book, Mutiny or Murder, will be published by the History Press Ireland in 2018. 

“Your borstal is a disgrace”: A grim century of St Pat’s>

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Conor Reidy

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