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9 December 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Usk Jail death 1918

By Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Continued from last week

Like many of the other released prisoners in June 1917, Volunteer Richard Coleman of Swords travelled to Clare to help Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers in their efforts to get Eamonn de Valera elected in the by-election (see AP/RN 12 & 19 August).

While there he addressed the first uniformed parade of Irish Volunteers to be held since 1916. For this, he was arrested and jailed for six months. While in Mountjoy Jail, he and the other prisoners went on hunger-strike, led by Thomas Ashe. Ashe's death led to such a public outcry that the remaining prisoners were first moved to Cork Jail and then Dundalk Jail before being finally released.

Richard was not to remain `at large' for long and he was again arrested, along with many of the other republican leaders who'd been active in rebuilding the Movement, as part of the British authorities' `German Plot' conspiracy.

The prisoners were assembled first in Dublin Castle on 17 May 1918 and were then divided up and sent to Usk and Gloucester Jails in Britain. Conditions were harsh in the jail and attempts were made to criminalise them with the order to wear prison uniforms. They resisted and at the direction of the Home Office the prison governor, Mr Young, capitulated. On their first night in Usk, the internees won the right to free association, the right to receive and send letters, to smoke and to wear their own clothes.

Despite their victory, the prison regime and their confinement weakened the men and with the onset of a severe winter, many succumbed to the influenza virus which had reached epidemic proportions, killing hundreds outside the prison walls. Richard was among a group of POWs struck down by the virus - they were left in their damp and cold cells for three days after the flu struck them down. On 1 December, a new prison doctor, Dr. Morton took up his new duties in the prison and immediately he diagnosed that Richard had now suffering from pneumonia and he had him transferred to hospital. He died a few days later on 9 December 1918.

Remembering the result of Thomas Ashe's inquest - that the prison authorities were culpable - no formal inquest was allowed and when Richard's brother arrived he was prevented from getting an adjournment of the local inquest so as to instruct a solicitor. The local inquest heard Richard's brother state that Richard was a strong healthy man at the time of his arrest, while three fellow POWs attested to the insanitary conditions in the jail and that improper nursing contributed to his death. These statements got good publicity in the Irish press and added to the campaign to get the POWs released.

Richard Coleman's remains were released to his brother and were taken to Dublin where they lay in state for a week in St Andrew's Church, Westland Row. Over 100,000 people filed past the coffin to pay their last respects. Volunteers in uniform formed a guard of honour during that time. A public funeral procession in driving rain from Westland Row to Glasnevin was followed by over 15,000 people. Three volleys were fired over the grave in Glasnevin Cemetery by six Volunteers despite a huge police presence. The size of the crowd prevented the police from moving against the Volunteers.

Volunteer Richard Coleman's death in an English jail, aided Sinn Féin campaign against Britain's occupation and their general election campaign which was in full swing at this stage, and two weeks later Sinn Féin won a landslide victory of parliamentary seats. A month later in January 1919 Sinn Féin MPs met as Dáil Éireann for the first time. The escape from Usk Jail (see AP/RN January 28 1999) by four of Richard's comrades on the same day saw that republican POWs were unbroken and unbowed by their comrade's death.

Volunteer Richard Coleman died of pneumonia in Usk Jail on 9 December 1918, 81 years ago this week.

(additional research by Nigel Heffernan)

An Phoblacht
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