Letter from Prisoner A 3/56 gives rare insight into plight of imprisoned 'rebels'

A letter home from 35-year-old Eamonn O’Modhráin is just like many others sent by thousands of Irish men detained without charge in British prisons and camps after the 1916 Rising.

But it was only a few years ago that his grand-daughter’s husband, Robert Doyle, found the letter, during a clearout for a house extension, in a treasure trove of items on nationalist Ireland from the end of the 19th century.

Eamonn thanked his mother, Mary, at home in Ballysax, in the Curragh, Co Kildare, for sending newspapers, and told her about conditions in Wakefield Prison, in west Yorkshire. He would soon be moved to Frongoch, in Wales, where a distillery previously converted to a camp for German prisoners-of-war would accommodate what the British authorities considered the most serious Irish troublemakers.

“Don’t send any more tobacco for a bit. I have a lot. But send cigarettes and matches,” he wrote, saying he had just received letters from three other relatives.

“Gus seems to think we are downhearted here. We’re not a bit, quite a jolly crowd, but, of course, would give a lot to be in Ireland,” he wrote.

Picture: Letters of 1916 project.
Picture: Letters of 1916 project.

But, before all that, his first inquiry was about life on the farm at home; like most of those arrested and interned from the Irish Volunteers ranks, he was from rural Ireland, and wanted to deal with his sister, Máire’s query about sheep, instructing that she “send those that are fit to Newbridge”.

“Re mares, I did not intend sending them, no use,” he wrote.

The letter is one of hundreds from family collections and public libraries and archives that have been digitised, placed online and transcribed by the public, in the ‘Letters of 1916’ project, which is led by Susan Schreibmann at Maynooth University.

The website is a fantastic snapshot of the lives of Irish people at the heart of the political and military tensions of the period, but also of those with no connection whatever with the historic events of that year.

An irony of Eamonn’s detention was that he was not particularly in favour of the Rising, according to Robert Doyle.

The old cocoa box in which Eamonn O’Modhráin’s Wakefield prisoner badge and his 1916 prison cutlery were stored undiscovered for decades.Picture: Brian Cregan
The old cocoa box in which Eamonn O’Modhráin’s Wakefield prisoner badge and his 1916 prison cutlery were stored undiscovered for decades. Picture: Brian Cregan

Doyle has established that O’Modhráin travelled Co Kildare on a motorbike on Easter Sunday, 1916, to circulate news of Irish Volunteers chief-of-staff, Eoin MacNeill’s order countermanding plans to mobilise. That order meant the scale of the eventual Rising was far reduced from that envisaged by its instigators, and was restricted mostly to Dublin.

But O’Modhráin would go on to command the 6th Battalion of the Carlow Brigade, during the Irish War of Independence, the latter part of which he spent in Mountjoy Jail, in Dublin. As an anti-Treaty member of the IRA, he spent most of the Civil War in prison.

Many of the prison letters discovered by Robert, along with Eamonn’s moth-eaten badge — showing the same prisoner number, A 3/56, that appears at the head of his Frongoch letter — are the focus of an exhibition opening at the Riverbank Theatre in Newbridge, Co Kildare, on February 29.

The badge, with prisoner number A 3 56, assigned to Eamonn O’Modhráin in Wakefield, where he was sentafter his arrest in 1916, before being transferred to the Frongoch prison in Wales. Picture: Brian Cregan
The badge, with prisoner number A 3 56, assigned to Eamonn O’Modhráin in Wakefield, where he was sentafter his arrest in 1916, before being transferred to the Frongoch prison in Wales. Picture: Brian Cregan

Read this and hundreds of other personal and official documents, written between November, 1915, and October, 1916, at: http://letters1916.maynoothuniversity.ie

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Wesley O’ Regan is the General Manager of Popscene in Voodoo Rooms, Cork city. Popscene opened last November and is Cork’s only themed bar that is dedicated to celebrating the best of the 80s and 90s. https://www.facebook.com/PopsceneCork/You've Been Served: Wesley O'Regan, Popscene

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