Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

8 January 2004 Edition

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Free State planned to transport Republican prisoners to St Helena


"To end my lamentation, I'll make this declaration, None want for recreation until the days do dawn, For without hesitation, we're charged with combination, And sent for transportation from the hills of Mullaghbawn." — late 18th Century ballad, The Boys Of Mullaghbawn

From the Cromwellian Wars of the 17th Century, right through to the Easter Rising, transportation of Irish political opponents of British rule was a common form of punishment. Jacobites, United Irishmen, Fenians and Irish Volunteers had at times of crisis been sent to far distant prison camps across the seas. The theory seems to have been that: "Out of political sight, is out of political mind?"

Whereas such a cruel response to political agitation might have been the norm in previous centuries, it seems incomprehensible that a native Irish government could ever consider such an option for its political foes.

Not so!

Within a year of the Irish Free State being set up, the newly-formed Cosgrave administration found itself with a large number of Republican prisoners. In late 1922 they had close on 12,000 internees held all over the 26 Counties. What was the new administration to do with all these prisoners?

At a Free State Executive Council meeting on 19 September 1922, the new administration decided to approach the British to make the Isle of St Helena available as a detention centre for captured republicans.

Just six miles by eight, St Helena is a tiny volcanic island south of the Equator, lost in the vastness of the South Atlantic Ocean. The nearest land is Ascension Island, 700 miles to the north. Africa lies a thousand miles to the east, South America a thousand to the west.

Britain's tiny island colony's best known political prisoner was Napoleon, who died there in 1821, but it had also held the Zulu chief, Dinizulu and his family, after their wars against the British in the 1870s.

But from 1900 to 1902, during the Boer War, over 6,000 Boers were held in a prison camp at Deadwood Plain in the northeast of the island. The prison camp idea obviously appealed to the Free State leaders, and Desmond Fitzgerald, the External Affairs Minister, began negotiations with Alfred Cope, the British Colonial Secretary.

Cope, who had formerly been Assistant Under Secretary for Ireland until 1921 and Mark Sturgis, another former high-ranking civil servant at the Irish Office, made extensive enquiries and at a meeting on 20 November 1922 they put forward plans they had drawn up for transporting and housing the Irish prisoners. A complete camp near Derby was to be dismantled and then sent to Liverpool. It would then be shipped to St Helena at a cost of approximately £3,000. On reporting back to Cosgrave and O'Higgins, Fitzgerald was then asked to follow up this lead by obtaining an estimate for the work involved.

In early December, Mark Sturgis arranged with Lt Col PN Nissen, the inventor of the famous Nissen Hut, to discuss the practicalities involved with the Free State administration. Desmond Fitzgerald took MJ Burke, the Board of Works official responsible for maintaining Irish prison camps, with him to London. Within a week, Burke had drawn up a lengthy report that was both enthusiastic and optimistic about the St Helena project:

"I feel St Helena would be a pleasanter place of detention than Arbour Hill, Mountjoy or Limerick. The climate is ideal for most of the year, with little variance between summer and winter conditions, making the provision of heating virtually unnecessary."

MJ Burke quite obviously held Lt Col Nissen's opinion in the highest regard. Nissen had been a prisoner during the Great War, and later as an engineer he had helped to construct large-scale prisoner of war camps. He now conceived a plan for the construction of internment camps, with 500 prisoners in each.

The Free State administration was presented with three reports, one from MJ Burke and the Board of Works, a second from Lt Col Nissen's company, with an estimated costing of some £77,000, and a third from St Helena's governor, stating that the island could quite easily hold at least 4,000 prisoners.

It was thought that the natural resources of St Helena could support the large number of detainees envisaged in the plan. When Fitzgerald had first contacted the British Colonial Office, he had been in negotiation with Lloyd George's Coalition Government. However, once Bonar Law and the Tories took over in late 1922, the cosy relationship between Fitzgerald and Cope came to an abrupt end.

Now Colonial Office officials explained to their Free State counterparts that as a strong military guard would be needed for the republican prisoners, at an estimated cost of £200,000, this cost would have to be met by the Irish Free State.

Given the exorbitant cost involved, the Free State Executive's ardour for the plan quickly evaporated. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Cosgrave, Fitzgerald and O'Higgins gave long and detailed consideration over many months through late 1922 and 1923 to the transportation of many thousands of unfortunate republicans to a distant British crown colony in the South Atlantic.

Thankfully for the prisoners and their immediate families, this particularly bizarre plan never came to fruition. The opprobrium that would have been heaped upon the heads of Cosgrave and his cohorts had the transportations actually taken place can only be guessed at. Republican prisoners would have been ferried to St Helena in British ships, to a 20th Century version of Van Dieman's Land, to be held there under guard by British soldiers.

An Phoblacht
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