Irish seamen sent to Nazi labour camps, letters show

Irish-born merchant seamen were sent to concentration camps because they refused to work for the Germans, new documents show.

A letter from James Furlong, who was born in Wexford, to the British government looking for compensation. Picture: Ryan Hooper/PA

Files released at the National Archives, in Kew, west London, show the men were awarded compensation by the British government in recognition of the horrific conditions they endured at the hands of the Germans.

The Irishmen were held at the Marlag-Milag Nord prisoner of war (PoW) camp, and were asked to pitch in with the German war effort by working on railways at Bremen, and at the shipyards in Hamburg.

However, as they were from a neutral country, they refused to support the Nazis and were dispatched to the Bremen-Farge concentration camp, where they languished until their release at the end of the Second World War.

Their accounts speak of “harsh” conditions, food that was “atrocious in quality and quantity”, and punishing, 12-hour days of hard labour.

In his handwritten letter, Patrick O’Brien, who later lived in Glasgow, said: “Punishment was severe and meted out for the smallest of misdemeanour.

“The reason for my imprisonment was my refusal to work on the German railway at Bremen, and for refusing to work on German ships at Hamburg.

“They claimed I was an Irish national and was, therefore, a free civilian, a claim which at no time I had ever made.”

His colleague, James Aldous Furlong, who was born in Wexford, but later moved to Cheshire, told a similar story in his application.

“For refusing to work for the Germans, I was sent to Farge SS Camp as a punishment and it was punishment,” he wrote. “I have seen people being flogged to death and shot, and was always afraid my turn would come one day.

“Food was bad, accommodation very bad, and there was syphilis in the camp and people were dying all over the place.

“However, I came through alright, but I am crippled now with rheumatic.”

The men were initially awarded £1,000 in compensation, but were subsequently paid another £1,385.

Each payout prompted a thank-you letter from Mr Furlong, the first saying it would pay “half of the mortgage on my house”, but adding it was “a pity” it was not more.

“However, even one must be thankful for small mercies,” he added. “Thanking you, once again.”

The subsequent thank-you was even more cheery in tone.

“I am a very happy man now, as I had paid off the mortgage of my house and have a few pound left over, which will come in my handy,” it read. “So, let me thank you, once again.”

Unusually, the compensation applications were initiated by the British government, which encouraged men to seek remuneration when another successful applicant passed on the names of his friends in the camp.

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