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Extract: How Eamon de Valera & the Irish rebels lived in English prisons

Drinking whiskey, cooking meals and helping their fellow-prisoners – Declan Dunne describes the lives of Dev and his fellow-rebels in an English jail.

Declan Dunne

During the years 1918 and 1919 Irish Republicans including Éamon de Valera were imprisoned in Lincoln Jail in England. In an extract from his book Peter’s Key – which details three Irish rebels’ daring escape – author Declan Dunne describes how de Valera and his associates turned the prison regime to their own ends.

They also lent a helping hand to their fellow-prisoners – including English pacifist Fenner Brockway, jailed for his anti-war stance:

FENNER BROCKWAY was an Englishman of high honour and principle. A dedicated pacifist, he opposed conscription and consequently was the recipient of white feathers from women whose boyfriends or relatives had enlisted to fight in the First World War. He was not moved by this – remarking, after a while, that he had accumulated enough white feathers to construct a fan.

He was imprisoned for his beliefs and for eight months up to April 1919, was placed in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day. No other prisoner was allowed into the exercise yard while he was taking his one hour of fresh air. He was subjected to one month of ‘bread and water treatment’ until a doctor would not allow any more. He made friends with a robin which, as he recalled, flew into his cell one ‘wonderful day!’ to feed from crumbs from his punishment rations.

It was during this time at Lincoln prison that he first made contact with the Irish internees. A prisoner who worked as a handyman and therefore could wander about the complex doing odd jobs appeared at his window one day. His name was ‘Trusty’. He was a remarkable-looking man: tall, broad and straight, with a leonine head of waving grey hair and a flowing beard.

‘We are Irishmen’

The following day Trusty delivered a little brown packet in which Brockway found a note, a pencil and a sheet of paper on which to reply. The note read: ‘Dear Brockway – Just heard you are here. What can we do for you? De Valera, Milroy and sixteen other Irish rebels are interned. We are Irishmen and can do anything you want – except get you out. Have your reply ready for “Trusty” when he calls tomorrow. Cheerio! Alasdair McCabe.’

When a number of Irish prisoners were released, one of them delivered a letter from Brockway to his wife, Lilla, who was looking after their two young daughters and living in hardship in a caravan. It was the only communication she received from her husband during his imprisonment.

Brockway also made out a list of newspapers he wanted; the Manchester Guardian, Labour Leader, New Statesman, Economist and Observer. Three days later, the deliveries began. Brockway lowered twine from his cell window, waited and hauled up the papers. Following a bout of illness, he was moved to a first floor cell where he worried that the paper round would end. When he went to the toilet the following day, he found a note projecting from a crevice between two bricks which instructed him to lift the cover from a drain-pipe.

There he found an edition of the Manchester Guardian. Cleaning the lavatories was one of Trusty’s duties and he always timed this task to ensure he could leave a newspaper for Brockway. This continued until Brockway’s term in prison ended.

Another Irish prisoner, Michael J Lennon, described Brockway as ‘a goodly man’ and dared not say how they had communicated with him. However, communicate with him they did. Lennon wrote a letter to Brockway when their prison ordeal was over saying, ‘Probably, you don’t remember me but I was in C14 [Cell 14] in Lincoln with you and read your weekly notes to A McCabe’. Indeed, Brockway did remember, recounting thirty-five years later, ‘It is true to say that [the Irish prisoners] saved my mind.’

Regime barbarity

This episode illustrates the gulf that existed, not between Brockway and the Irish prisoners, but between all of them and the barbarity of the prison regime that was honed and kept inhumane by the British government.

The Irish prisoners advanced their skill at subverting the prison system, identified its weaknesses and exploited them. James J. Dobbyn said that the warders treated the Irish internees as ‘arch enemies’ when they first arrived, believing that they were in league with Germany.

Dobbyn recalled that, as time went by and the prisoners were refused a public trial, the prison guards came to the conclusion that there was no German Plot and ‘turned the other way’.

The warders on patrol through the corridors of Lincoln prison at the time would have witnessed Seán Milroy puffing a cigarette and sketching in his cell; the flamboyant Paul Dawson Cusack, who on occasion cooked for the prisoners, complaining about the quality of vegetables; Samuel O’Flaherty explaining the synthetic inflectional forms of Greek verbs; Michael J Lennon calling ‘students’ to their Irish or Spanish classes; preparations for a musical evening with the performers rehearsing their recitations; Seán Etchingham elaborating on the finer points of horse-racing or yachting; Alasdair McCabe deep in thought while attempting to finish a chapter of his book on the economy
of Ireland; de Valera standing beside his gramophone and typewriter showing his profound knowledge of mathematics by studying quaternions – a number system that extends to complex numbers; and Laurence Lardner arguing with Thomas Ruane about a controversial point in Irish history in between games of handball.

John O’Mahony was inclined to invite the warders into his cell to give them a quick ‘snifter’ of one of the many bottles of whiskey he had squirrelled into the prison, while recounting a humorous yarn about his work as a travelling salesman and hotelier. The warders now had six MPs and a mayor under their charge. They could have been forgiven for thinking that planning a premature exit was not one of the prisoners’ preoccupations. They were wrong.

Peter’s Key: Peter de Loughrey and the Fight for Irish Independence, by Declan Dunne, is available now published by Mercier Press.

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Declan Dunne

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