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22 July 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Unbroken and unbowed - the POWs return home

By Aengus O Snodaigh

While Sinn Féin and the Republican Movement in general were making major headway and growing rapidly in 1917, the question of the POWs (mainly those sentenced rather than interned after the 1916 Rising) was never forgotten. With the election of Joe McGuinness, the nomination of Éamon de Valera for the forthcoming East Clare by-election, and the increasing agitation of prisoner support groups, the issue of the POWs was to the fore and their release was a major political issue.

The was an ongoing and vibrant campaign calling for the release of the POWs pursued throughout Ireland. At one such meeting at Beresford Place, the site of the old Liberty Hall, a police raid on the crowd led to the arrest of two prominent republicans, Count Plunkett and Cathal Brugha. The frequency of these baton charges on republican meeting meant that people were ready for it, and one of the first crown forces fatalities since the Easter Rising occurred here when an Inspector Mills was felled with a blow of a camán.

The POWs themselves were also continuing their resistance to attempts to criminalise them. The British government knew that for their proposed convention dealing with the question of Home Rule [more on that later] to have any hope of success at all, the prisoner issue would have to be addressed, and so it was decided to release them. On 16 June, the joyous journey home for the prisoners began. While most POWs were held in various jails in England, especially Lewes, Portland, Parkhurst and the Maidstone, alone in Aylesbury was Countess Markievicz.

All through the night of 17 June, there were celebrations in Dublin as each boat arrived in Dún Laoghaire carrying the released prisoners. They were met by huge crowds in Westland Row as they disembarked from the trains from Dún Laoghaire. The prisoners were officially welcomed by a group of aldermen and a parade of Volunteers. All work in the area stopped as the procession thronged through Dublin city. Bonfires were lit throughout Ireland that night and the next as the towns and villages welcomed home their soldiers. Countess Markievicz and Éamon de Valera were among those released.

That night, a group of released Volunteer officers issued a message to the President and Congress of the United States which quoted back to him what he'd said in relation to Russia: ``Wrongs must be righted...remedies must be found...No people must be forced under a sovereignty under which it does not wish to live.''

They expressed the hope that the remedies he talked off included ``the right of each people to defend itself against external aggression, external interference and external control''. Regardless, they claimed in their message this right for the Irish people and declared: ``We are engaged and mean to engage ourselves in practical means for establishing this right''.

The message finished by stating: ``We the undersigned are officers (just released from English prisons) of forces formed independently in Ireland to secure the complete liberation of the Irish Nation.''

It was signed by Commandant Éamon de Valera, Eoin Mac Néill, Tomas Ashe, Desmond Fitzgerald and 22 others and was despatched in the charge of a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Dr Patrick McCartan, to the United States.

The remainder of the 1916 POWs were released from British jails 82 years ago last month.

(more on republicanism in 1917 next week)

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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