During the Civil War, thousands of anti-Treaty militants were Imprisoned without trial by the Provisional and Free State governments, in increasingly overcrowded camps and prisons. How were they treated? Anne-Marie McInerney tells their story

In January 1922, General Prisons Board Chairman Max Green wrote to the Provisional Government detailing how certain prisons, including Mountjoy, could be administered militarily. The Civil War had not yet begun, but the administration was already exploring options for the imprisonment of government opponents. On 27 January 1922, the Prisons Board informed the government that they had 'accommodation for 647 women and 2,038 men'.

The Irish Civil War began on 28 June 1922 with the shelling of the Four Courts. After a week of fighting, Government forces overcame anti-Treaty IRA fighters who had taken up various positions throughout Dublin. After the fighting, some 180 anti-Treaty IRA prisoners were captured.

These, and all anti-Treaty IRA captured during the Civil War, were categorized as ‘military prisoners’, and held in internment centres such as Kilmainham, Mountjoy, North Dublin Union, Limerick Jail, Waterford Prison, Cork Jail, Dundalk Jail, Hare Park Camp, Newbridge Camp, Tintown Camp in the Curragh, Gormanstown Camp and Maryborough Jail.

The cover and some of the sheet music of 'The Song of the Legion of the Rearguard' written in Hare Park camp by Jack O'Sheehan and dedicated to de Valera. A note at the end of the published sheet music reveals it was first performed by the Hare Park Camp Choir on 5th August 1923, and performed in public for the first time at the Four Martyrs' Anniversary Concert at the Theatre Royal in Dublin on 9th December 1923 by Miss Molly Foley's Concert Party. Images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

As the conflict evolved into guerrilla war after August 1922, the Provisional Government sought to counter the growing anti-Treaty threat by legislating for internment. Introduced on 27 September 1922, the Army Special Powers Resolution provided the Provisional Government with the authority to intern without trial and included the possibility of execution for a number of offences including possession of firearms.

The government also sought to undermine the anti-Treaty agenda by refusing to grant prisoner-of-war status to internees, thereby criminalising the opposition. By November 1922, the estimated number of military prisoners was 8,338, and historian Michael Hopkinson suggests around 12,000 anti-Treatyites were interned in the Free State during the entirety of the Civil War.

Overcrowding and Sanitation

As internment figures rose, inevitable overcrowding occurred throughout the prison system. Shortages of appropriate accommodation and funding were an additional hindrance to the administration. Furthermore, the Free State inherited a somewhat dilapidated prison system due to large scale imprisonments during the War of independence. As outlined by historian William Murphy, IRA prisoners during this period had destroyed cell furniture, windows and doors in acts of prison protest.

Prison conditions soon became an issue for the anti-Treaty side as reports emerged of overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. Anti-Treaty politician Count George Noble Plunkett wrote to the editor of the Irish Independent, stating that in Mountjoy a ‘large number of prisoners’ had ‘been eating off the floor for months without either tables or stools’. It was also reported that many internees lacked basic supplies such as pillows, basins, towels, or a ‘change of clothing’.

Mug shot of Ernie O'Malley
Ernie O'Malley's prison shot taken in either Dublin Castle or Kilmainham Jail during the War of Independence. Imprisoned again in the Civil War, he complained about the freezing conditions. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW 9PC-1A54-21

Imprisoned IRA Assistant Chief of Staff Ernie O’Malley remarked on how the cells in Mountjoy were cold, and towards the end of the conflict, he complained that

‘I have the rug still and it’s lucky I have it … Even with that sometimes I feel cold’.

However, many in government, including Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins, maintained that some of the prisoners were continuing to employ the War of Independence tactics of prison protest, damaging facilities, refusing to wash and ‘bending all their energies’ to see that the prisons were ‘neither clean nor sanitary’.

Limerick prison gates
Limerick prison was seriously overcrowded.

In terms of overcrowding, Limerick Prison, in particular, was thrown into the spotlight. In November 1922, Denis Hallinan, Bishop of Limerick, telegraphed W.T. Cosgrave to express his concern about the ‘very serious overcrowding in the prison’ and the Freeman’s Journal reported that there were approximately ‘600 prisoners, occupying sixty cells … an average of ten persons per cell’. Kevin O’Higgins later admitted to Dáil Éireann that it was ‘bad to have too many prisoners crowded into a place such as was the case in Limerick’.

Northern Ireland also experienced prison overcrowding during the Civil War. The Stormont Government had similarly introduced internment and the prison ship, the HMS Argenta became the focus of attention due to cramped and unsanitary conditions. Prisoners were held in steel wire cages, 40 feet by 20 feet, with up to forty-five men interned in one cage. Conditions became so congested that there was often little room for tables or chairs.

Origins of the prisoners

This map shows the origins of the over 15,000 male internees imprisoned in the Free State from June 1922 to the final releases in 1924, as a proportion of the adult male population. The number of prisoners in custody at the end of the Civil War (just under 12,000) was almost double the number in prison at the end of the War of Independence.

These men and women were held in conventional prisons, internment camps, barracks and (in the case of female prisoners during the latter stages of the war and its aftermath) in the North Dublin Union workhouse, which was converted to this purpose in April 1923. A total of 505 women were interned or imprisoned.

3,101 of the male prisoners were from Dublin, 2,275 from Cork, 997 from Tipperary and 784 from Limerick – all areas that had been amongst the most active during the War of Independence. Counties that showed an upsurge in activity during the Civil War, as indicated by the number of prisoners included Kerry (936), Mayo (860), Louth (537), Sligo (475) and Wexford (407). The county with the lowest representation was Fermanagh with eight. The majority of those deported from Britain, male and female, came from Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester.

Meagre rations

Prison food also became an issue for internees and in the early months of the Civil War reports emerged that internees received only meagre portions and that these were often half-cooked and prepared in filthy conditions. One petition sent by the prisoners to the Governor of Kilmainham, Seán Ó Muirthuile, demanded that ‘food for prisoners [should be] cooked under clean and sanitary conditions and in such a manner as to be eatable…’

The internees went further, demanding that meals for the prisoners be ‘prepared by their own cooks, under supervision of their own officers’. Ó Muirthuile conceded that the food was ‘unsatisfactory’ and, attempting to resolve the situation, he called for an ‘immediate report concerning the complaint about unclean food’.

It must have improved by February 1923, when Kilmainham internee Nell Humphreys remarked that ‘the food seems to be ever so much better’. Internees in camps had more control over their living conditions. Interned in the Curragh, Peadar O'Donnell noted that ‘we could cook and distribute food and organise camp life generally’.

Black and white photo of an elderly Peadar O'Donnell
Peadar O'Donnell, seen here in 1966. Image © RTÉ Photographic Archive

In April 1923, mounting grievances voiced by internees came to a climax when an International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation (I.C.R.C.) was sent to the Free State to inspect the conditions in the prisons and camps. The result of the committee’s inquiry refuted much of the anti-Treaty propaganda about the situation in the internment centres, particularly the condition of food.

The committee reported that the kitchens at the camp in Tintown, for example, were ‘well run’ and that the dining hall had both benches and tables. The food provisions were said to be of good quality and that the ‘quantity of food supplied is amply sufficient’. The I.C.R.C. report was undoubtedly a blow to the anti-Treaty side and a victory for the government.

The International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation's report on conditions in Ireland, including details of the prisoners' rations. The positive report was a blow to the anti-Treaty side. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland


However, allegations of the ill-treatment of internees during this period continued, in particular accusations of torture in Mountjoy's basement cells. The authorities refuted claims that prisoners were tied up ‘seven feet from the ground’ and left ‘for five hours hanging by their hands’. One Mountjoy internee, Kathleen Brookes, alleged that ‘Deputy Governor Mr [Paudeen] O’Keefe visited the women’s cell at midnight, ‘under the influence of drink’, and some of the soldiers with him brandished revolvers in the women’s faces. ‘There was a terrible scene’.

There were also reports of violent beatings in some prisons, particularly by one group in the Free State’s new police force. In response to the threat posed by the anti-Treaty IRA, the government formed an intelligence unit, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Based in Oriel House, Westland Row, Dublin, the CID was considered ‘undisciplined’ and often utilised outrageous ‘methods of interrogation’ to coerce civil war internees into admitting guilt. Republican Tom Derrig, for example, was lucky to survive CID interrogation, and ‘had one eye shot out [while] in custody’.

The stone facade of Wellington, subsequently Griffith Barracks
The former Wellington Barracks - subsequently Griffith Barracks and now part of Griffith College's campus – was the site of brutal interrogations. Image courtesy of Griffith College

Wellington Barracks was the scene of some of the most brutal interrogations. Republican Thomas McCartan remembered how he was removed from his cell by a CID man and beaten. The following night, McCartan was 'hidden away' in a different cell ‘by the sergeant of the guard, who told me not to think bad of him for shifting me, for if the CID men got me they would plug me alright’. According to historian Eunan O'Hapin, 150 prisoners were killed during the Civil War.

Lack of space and preparation

It is certain, that Civil War prisoners encountered numerous problems during their internment. Some of the most prominent issues, including overcrowding, were the result of a lack of space and preparation on the part of the government.

Letter from George Plunkett
A letter from the last year of internment. Both George Oliver Plunkett and his father George Noble Plunkett were imprisoned during the war and in this 1924 letter from George Oliver to his sister Fiona he tells her about a small black cat with golden eyes, "most amiable and well behaved", who lives in his hut at Tintown Camp and thanks her for a parcel which, he says, "arrived O.K.." Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The condition of food depended on the prison itself and attacks on prisoners generally depended on the prison guards in the jail or camp, or the involvement of the CID. Internment lasted until November 1924, when President William Cosgrave issued an amnesty to the remaining civil war prisoners.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.