The Enemy Alien by Brendan Jenkinson
It is a strange fact that a mere twenty-five miles from where I was born and where I attended school lay the setting of my great-grandfather’s incarceration during World War I, and that until recently I knew very little of it. Furthermore, it is an odd thing that the setting of my great-grandfather’s wartime imprisonment was the Oldcastle Famine Workhouse in Co. Meath which ceased to exist in 1920 and which history had, until very recently, largely forgotten about.
In 1914, The British War Office acquired the local famine workhouse in Oldcastle, Co. Meath and swiftly began making improvements to the security of the camp. Barbed wire five feet high and fourteen feet wide ran along the camp perimeter, while nine sentry boxes were placed throughout the grounds. The structure of the workhouse made it an ideal holding camp, while a railway line linked the camp directly with the port in Drogheda. In late 1914, in the dead of winter, the first trains carrying prisoners of war rolled into Oldcastle.
Four months earlier, on August 5th 1914, the British Parliament passed legislation permitting police officers to arrest German and Austrian men of military age, since they feared these men might engage in sabotage, spying and generally act as a threat to British war interests. German and Austrian men living in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales were all immediately under suspicion as ‘enemy aliens’. The men were arrested and interned in various camps throughout Ireland and the UK. Among these men was Heinrich Joebges, my great-grandfather. Heinrich and many other civilians were brought to Oldcastle, Co. Meath where the British War Office was preparing themselves for the prisoners’ arrival.
Major Robert Johnson, the camp commandant, was eager to maximise the use of the workhouse as a detention centre and by June 1916 there were 579 internees at Oldcastle. In total, 760 internees would pass through the workhouse between December 1914 and May 1918. These internees came from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions, and many were skilled tradesmen. My great-grandfather was a hotel manager who had emigrated from Germany to Ireland in 1906. He had moved to Ireland to take up a post at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney where he met Irish girl, Mary Ann O’Brien. Heinrich Joebges married Mary Ann O’Brien in the pro Cathedral in Dublin in 1913. The couple had a daughter and were living in London at the time of Heinrich’s arrest and imprisonment.
One of my great-grandfather’s fellow inmates, Aloys Fleischmann, was a well-known musician and conductor living and working in Cork up until his arrest and incarceration in 1916. In my family’s attempts to uncover some of the facts surrounding the internment camp, the personal letters of Aloys Fleischmann proved to be pertinent. The letters addressed to his wife Tilly, offer a unique view into the austere daily grind the inmates faced during their detention. In one letter he writes, “The days are long; the nights interminable.” He creates a vivid sense of his anguish: “I feel as if I have lead in my bones and poison in my veins. Sleepless nights. A twilight life of torpor. An existence without substance, without aim.” In a letter to his son, Fleischmann reveals he suffered from seven illnesses during his four years of internment and we learn of the strict control enforced by the British military in depriving the detainees of medical aid: “We had 26 doctors in our camp who were strictly forbidden to have any professional dealings with us.”
Adjusting to the monotony of camp life and the restrictions entailed therein was enormously challenging. These men had all been in gainful employment before their imprisonment, and many were married with children. They suddenly found themselves imprisoned without cause, and rendered ineffective and idle. For able-bodied men of working age, the boredom and monotony was the most difficult adjustment. The prisoners strolled around the camp, sat on benches, and leaned out windows watching as boredom grew around them. Four men were sent to a mental asylum in Mullingar over the period 1915-1917. They were also kept under constant surveillance; the sentry boxes surrounding the camp offered the prison guards an elevated view of the camp grounds. Armed soldiers patrolled the grounds day and night.
However, despite the severe boredom, or perhaps because of it, culture slowly began to spring up in the camp. Huts were built to accommodate dramatic performances and two musical ensembles were formed in the camp. Aloys Fleischmann found some personal consolation conducting a choir and an orchestra. In his letters he describes his arrangement of a Christmas Day concert. The performance was Fleischmann’s own setting of Gollar’s Mass in G for male voice choir and string orchestra with solo clarinet. He writes, “In spite of the over-full room, it sounded good. But the rehearsals, in which the sound was beautiful, gave me more pleasure.” Later, a concert was given in dedication to local curate Fr. J.F Tallon by the camp choir in appreciation for his care given to the Oldcastle inmates. Heinrich Joebges is among the names of the singers listed in the programme note for this concert.
In addition to the improvement of culture in the camp, the prisoners began communicating with the local people of Oldcastle. Many of the inmates were highly skilled carpenters and craftsmen and traded their craft with the Oldcastle locals in return for luxury food. The Germans produced toys, jewellery and furniture. Heinrich Joebges was adept at carpentry and produced many fine pieces of furniture which are prized family heirlooms today.
There were of course the inevitable escape attempts. Some had limited momentary success, while other failed attempts resulted in death. On the night of August 14 1915, two prisoners, Carl Morlang and Alphonsus Grein, were discovered missing at roll call. The two men had fled to Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, disguised as clergymen, with Morlang passing himself off as Rev White from Templemore. From there, they headed to Denn where they treated all in the local pub to free drinks. Next they moved on to Cavan town where they stayed in the Farnham Hotel. The following day, en route to the local train station, the two were captured and returned to Oldcastle. In the subsequent investigation, the British military officials discovered that their escape was aided by a local Sinn Fein activist from Oldcastle, Charles Fox.
Others were less fortunate in their escape attempts. August Blockmeyer’s break for freedom proved fatal. Private Robert Tiernan spotted the escaping inmate and called out to him before firing a shot and injuring Blockmeyer. Blockmeyer died later that evening in the infirmary.
As the wartime years progressed, the social and political landscape of Ireland was changing. As the war was drawing to a close, the camp was returned to the Oldcastle Board of Guardians and a Sinn Fein anti-conscription meeting was held in the square of Oldcastle. Thousands attended and the tri-colour was raised. German internees were seen 300 metres away on the roof of the workhouse observing the events.
When the war ended in 1918, my great-grandfather and his fellow internees were released. Heinrich returned to his wife and family and soon thereafter moved to Skerries, Co. Dublin, where they bought the Grand Hotel and where Heinrich lived out the rest of his life.
Although separated from the camp by twenty-five miles of road, rail, river and land, Heinrich remained personally interned. In his new life, both he and Molly had become leading figures in the business and social communities of Skerries, but the scars of Oldcastle haunted Heinrich still. Reassimiliating to civilian life, he faced great personal pressures and social anxieties, and sadly never fully recovered from his status as ‘enemy alien’.
After World War I, the workhouse at Oldcastle lay idle and all but forgotten until 1920 when, fearing its potential use as an enemy base, the IRA burned down the workhouse completely; its memory rising with the embers into obscurity. The workhouse remains an aspect of Irish history which has been largely forgotten about. However, many others like me with German heritage are now uncovering this strange dark corner of the past.