Covert Photography in Rath Internment Camp, Joseph Lawless, 1921

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

In December 1920, at the height of the War of Independence, the British authorities established the first internment camp on Irish soil at Ballykinlar, Co. Down. The British policy of interning any man in any way suspected of being involved in the republican movement led to many hundreds of men being detained without trial, and soon a series of internment camps were built around the country, though Ballykinlar remained the largest and probably the most famous. One such centre was the Rath Camp at the Curragh, Co. Kildare, where I.R.A. member and internee Joseph Lawless took this series of unique photographs illustrating life in the camp. He donated them to the National Museum of Ireland in 1950.

IMG_1332

Joseph Lawless at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph was involved in the movement for Irish independence from an early stage, along with his father Frank and brother James Lawless . He joined the Irish Volunteers as a member of the Swords Company in about 1914, and was involved in the Howth gun-running of that year. In his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History he gives a full and detailed account of the Battle of Ashbourne in Co. Meath during the 1916 Rising, describing the military engagements and the gun battle that led to the deaths of 12 people. Joseph was a keen amateur photographer and was in the habit of carrying a camera, and states that he took photographs of this day with his Vest Pocket Kodak camera. Though the Battle of Ashbourne was a successful engagement for the Volunteers, they gave themselves up to the military when the word came from Dublin of Pearse’s general surrender. Joseph was interned in Frongoch until the general release at Christmas 1916. On his return to Dublin he went to retrieve his camera, rifle and binoculars which he had hidden in a stone wall near Ashbourne – he found the rifle and binoculars, but sadly the camera, and the only photographs of the events at Ashbourne, was missing.

Row of prisoners' huts at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Row of prisoners’ huts at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

He later set up a business in Parnell Street which was to become a bomb factory, and later established a private car hire business which was used by IRA parties, including Joseph, to carry out raids on RIC barracks. He was arrested in December 1920 and interned first at Collinstown Aerodrome (now Dublin Airport) and Arbour Hill, and was transferred to Rath Camp at the end of February 1921. He agreed to be elected as the prisoners’ vice-commandant under Peadar McMahon.

Sentry tower at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sentry tower at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

The camp was built to hold between 1200 and 1400 men, and was comprised of four series of huts (A, B, C and D), a canteen, cookhouses, baths, latrines, wash houses, stores, a hospital, a chapel and an excerise yard, all surrounded by fencing of barbed wire and sentry towers, lit at night by flood lights.

Washing clothes at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Washing clothes at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Taking exercise at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Taking exercise at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Although cameras were prohibited in internment camps and prisons, Joseph had managed to smuggle one in and photographically recorded the details of the prisoners’ lives. They cover everyday activities such as taking exercise, washing clothes, attending mass, cooking meals and tuberculosis patients being treated in the camp hospital. These activities contrast with the background in the photographs which depict watch towers and barbed wire, reminding the viewer that the people in the photographs are under constant armed guard and threat to their lives.

Prisoners in the hospital hut at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners in the hospital hut at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners attending Mass at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners attending Mass at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sergeant Roper and Ed McEvoy at Hut 1, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Sergeant Roper and Ed McEvoy at Hut 1, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

One image in particular also makes us consider the conditions of the British soldiers guarding the camp. The soldier photographed is Sergeant Roper of the Black Watch, to the left in the foreground is Ed McEvoy, another I.R.A. prisoner. The camera is hidden on Joseph’s person, most likely under his jacket at around hip level, as he stands inside prisoners’ hut No. 1.   In the information accompanying the collection, Joseph stated that Roper heard the click of the photograph being taken but did not know who had the camera. He became very alarmed when McEvoy told him that the photograph would be used to identify him to the prisoners’ friends on the outside. The threat of retribution from the friends of the internees must have been a real fear for the soldiers.

Trenches being dug after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Trenches being dug after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Any chance of escape from Rath was slim, but opportunities were taken when they were found. From the early stages of the camp escape tunnels were being dug by the prisoners, and a plan was put in place that would enable the escape of most of the prisoners in the camp. In September 1921 the tunnellers digging out from a hut in D section decided to break through to the surface earlier than was expected by the camp leaders, and a number of men escaped. However, the plan to communicate the escape route failed and the first many knew of it was the next morning when the British soldiers rounded up all the prisoners to be counted. Later that day they were paraded on the field for a more detailed check, and the grounds searched for more escape tunnels. Within a couple of days a deep trench had been dug around the fences to cut off any further routes of escape.

Prisoners being counted after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners being counted after after tunnel escape, September 1921, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Mail being taken to be censored, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Mail being taken to be censored, Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Joseph and a Northern Irish man called Tom Glennon came up with a new plan of escape in October. The refuse from the cookhouse was sold to a local merchant as pig swill, and collected in a donkey cart which Tom thought could conceal two men. They formed a plan, gained 10 pounds from another prisoner, the camp chaplain Father Paddy Smith from Tullamore, and Tom arranged the bribe with the soldier who took charge of the cart from its young drivers once inside the camp. They raided the camp censor’s hut for two large mail sacks and waited for the cart to arrive on Sunday evening. With the help of their commrades at the cookhouse the bribe was arranged and Joseph and Tom hid themselves in the mail sacks, covered with swill. The cart was driven out the gates and returned to the young boys to be delivered to the merchant, who got quite a shock down the road when they realised what their cart contained. They left the boys’ cart at the edge of the Curragh and made their way back to Dublin, at one point meeting two British officers from the Rath Camp, who were fortunately too drunk from their activities on their day’s leave to recognise them. Joseph continued his activities in the Republican movement on his return to Dublin. He later became a Colonel in the Irish Army in the Free State. Two months after his escape, on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Rath Camp was closed and its remaining prisoners released. The Rath Camp came into being as a centre of internment again a year later during the Irish Civil War, when it housed around 1200 Republican prisoners being held by the Irish Free State.

Prisoners at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Prisoners at Rath Internment Camp (NMI Collection)

Advertisements

16 Days of Internment; Alderman James J. Kelly, 1916

 

 

 In 1942 Maeve Cavanagh; poet, wife of composer and revolutionary Cathal MacDowell and sister of political cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh, deposited their souvenir album of postcards and photographs in the National Museum of Ireland. These cards were produced mostly between 1913 and 1922, and covered topics such as the Labour war of 1913-14, the 1916 Rising, the Irish Volunteers and National Volunteers, conscription and various propaganda cartoons, many of them drawn by MacDowell and Kavanagh themselves.  

 

Among the postcard photographs were two very different images of Alderman James Joseph Kelly, which he personally sent to his friend MacDowell, each with a message of explanation on the reverse.  One photograph is of James Kelly, taken in Dublin in 1916 before his arrest. The other is of the same man, taken in London after his release from prison after just 16 days.

 

James J. Kelly, a 45 year old merchant, owned a tobacconist shop on the corner of Camden Street and Harrington Street, also known as ‘Kelly’s Corner’. He was a Dublin Corporation Alderman, a Justice of the Peace and had previously held the office of High Sheriff of Dublin.  Kelly was a Nationalist, but not a member of either Sinn Fein or the Irish Volunteers, believing more moderately in self-determination for Ireland. However, on the 26th April 1916, the third day of the Rising, he found himself suddenly linked to the rebels and to the story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington.

 

Sheehy Skeffington, journalist, suffragist and pacifist, was arrested on 25th April and detained in Portobello Barracks, not far from Camden Street. He had not taken any part in the Rising, and he had been in the city appealing for peace and trying to prevent looting. British Army officer Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles was at that time attached to the 3rd Battalion stationed at the barracks. On the 26th April he decided to lead a raiding party into the city in search of Sinn Feiners, using Sheehy Skeffington as a hostage. As he marched into the city he shot 19 year old mechanic James Coade on the Rathmines Road, and 40 year old bricklayer Richard O’Carroll as he reached Camden Street. As the people on the streets fled from the gunfire, Thomas Dickson, editor of The Eye Opener, took shelter in Kelly’s shop, which Bowen-Colthurt’s party was heading towards in the belief that Kelly was a member of Sinn Fein. Patrick McIntyre, the editor of the Searchlight and a friend of Kelly’s, was already inside. Dickson and McIntyre were both arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks, where they were shot alongside Sheehy Skeffington.  Kelly himself was not present at the time of their arrests, but was arrested later and sent to Richmond Barracks.  His sister gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry which investigated the events, stating that the soldiers wrecked the shop, then bombed it with hand grenades.

 

Kelly spent from 26th April to 8th May in Richmond Barracks, from where he was deported to Wandsworth Prison in London on a cattle boat along with 196 other men. He appears on the Released List for the 12th May, so spent a total of about 16 days in detention before his release, unlike the many men who would spend up to eight months in prison camps. However, what Kelly suffered in those 16 days is evident on his face; apart from the tough conditions in prison, on close inspection there are also signs of his being beaten, evident in the black eye visible in the photograph.

 

On the 15th May 1916 during the Commons sitting on the Disturbances in Ireland, the Under-Secretary of State for War was questioned about Kelly’s case, in particular on ‘what charge, if any, was made against Alderman Kelly; and if he will be compensated for the loss sustained by the action of the military authorities?’ The Under-Secretary replied that ‘Mr. Kelly was arrested on suspicion, but, on investigation of the facts, it was determined that no charge should be preferred, and he has been released. The Government cannot recognise any claim to compensation’.

 

 

Kelly returned to politics after the Rising, and ran as an Independent nationalist candidate in the 1918 General Election in the St. Patrick’s Division of Dublin. He ran against the Irish Party candidate William Field who had held the seat since 1892, and the Sinn Fein candidate Countess Constance Markievicz.  Markievicz won, but refused her seat in the British Imperial Parliament in Westminster and joined the newly formed Dáil Éireann in January 1919.