November 1920 was the most vicious month in the War of Independence. Murder and mayhem were commonplace. The authorities reacted with vigorous severity. There were shootings and public beatings, buildings and homes burnt, and printing works wrecked. There was a sweeping roundup of the usual suspects, numbering in their thousands. The old gaol in Galway, and gaols throughout Ireland, were full to bursting point.
Liam Ó Briain was taken from the old gaol, across the Salmon Weir bridge, and brought to the Town Hall, which had been roughly adapted into an additional prison. The guards, Border Regiment army, ‘gave him a raucous welcome’ and ‘shoved him inside the long room.’ Ó Briain was shocked at the mass of prisoners crammed into that space. ‘It was like being at a great Céilí, when the music stopped’, he wrote,* ‘and everyone is standing there waiting for the music to begin again.’ With two friends he found space in a small room just off the stage, and shared it with seven others. Up to 40 men were lying on the stage itself.
The place was filthy. There were no cleaning or washing facilities. The only exercise was to walk, as best you could, through the crowd, around the large room. Every three days the prisoners, escorted in groups, were brought outside to walk in the muddy street. The guards, however, were ‘pleasant one minute and harsh the next’. They all had the same food, ‘which wasn’t bad’.
On Christmas Day they offered to buy whiskey and porter providing the prisoners could pay for it; and soon were running in and out collecting money, and bringing back bottles of booze. At the end, fearing that drunken prisoners would cause a riot Ó Briain and others blocked the door and stopped the supply of alcohol being distributed. It probably was not a popular move. But it calmed things down in the crowded hall.
One officer, however, tormented the prisoners whenever he could, and mocked their idea of a republic. Captain H (unusually unidentified by Ó Briain** ), showed his contempt at every opportunity. He ingeniously installed a dictaphone in the tiny confessional under the stairs. When it was discovered and ‘ripped to pieces’, nothing was ever said.
‘God help us’
One January night the only prisoner who was a doctor was woken. He was a Dr Heneghan from Ballindine, Co Mayo. He was sleeping on the floor beside Ó Briain. He was taken to the corner where another Mayoman, Patrick Walsh, was lying. He returned after an hour, and whispered: “He’s dead. Cerebro-spinal meningitis. I saw 300 soldiers being swept away with it in one week at a single camp in England, during the war. Don’t tell the others that. God help us.”
The Protestant hall
But it wasn’t meningitis that caused the next health scare, but flu. The outbreak quickly spread, and every day, more and more prisoners could not rise from the floor. ‘A second person died. He was Michael Mullen from east Galway.’ *** This time the authorities became alarmed. Doctors from the Curragh in Kildare arrived in the hall and began to attend to the sick.
Clearly overcrowding was conducive to the spread of flu. The doctors insisted that more space be found immediately, and the prisoners allowed more fresh air. ‘It was then that the army took possession of the small Protestant hall, now St Nicholas’ parochial school, which was next to the Town Hall.’ Barbed-wire barriers were installed at both ends of Court Avenue, the narrow road that runs between the two buildings.
Ó Briain and others were sent across to the new ‘prison’ and spent most of the day strolling up and down between the barriers. The main advantage being that friends of the prisoners could go along and chat to them from the other side of the wire.
Next week: Ó Briain - ‘you are going for a walk!’
NOTES: *I am taking the quotes from Essays By An Irish Rebel, originally published 1934-1968, translated from the Irish by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh, on sale €18.
**Niamh Ó Dochartaigh, who researched the characters who came into contact with Ó Briain, suggests that Captain H, was probably Captain Harrison, a similar character, in Geraldine Plunkett Dillon’s personal story of the same time in Galway, All in the Blood, first published 2006 .
*** I have had an interesting correspondence from members of Michael Mullin’s family, who do not want me to go into too much detail, but to their great credit they have researched Michael’s life thoroughly. Michael, a young sportsman, who won medals for playing football with Mountbellew, was ‘lifted’ in the general sweep in November 1920. He was arrested on a Monday, and had died two days later. Others ‘lifted’ with him included Jack Leahy and Michael Doyle.
Following his death an inquest was held. It stated that Michael died from flu. But recently the family was told, by descendants from families also imprisoned in the Town Hall, that Michael died as a result of a beating. It is a pity that Liam Ó Briain does not tell us more about Michael’s death.
There was also an inquest into the death of Patrick Walsh. His mother, in a written statement, says that neither she nor her family ‘are holding the authorities responsible for Patrick’s death.’ The mother’s handwriting, however, changes significantly in the statement. Michael’s family wonder if they are reading too much into that oddity to suspect that someone added to the mother’s statement.