Our friend ‘Captain H’ who had ingeniously planted a dictaphone in the confessional under the stairs in the Town Hall prison, was up to his old tricks again. Somehow he had managed to plant a ‘friendly’ Sergeant Gates who chatted and smiled, and was a friend to all, and dangerously caught numerous snatches of conversation from the hundreds of prisoners within. These were reported to Captain H.
In a series of essays about his detention for his activities during the struggle for Irish independence,* Liam Ó Briain was imprisoned on three occasions, including Frongoch camp, north Wales, and Belfast. In November 22 1920, he was arrested in UCG, where he was professor of romance languages. He spent the final 13 months of the war in the makeshift Town Hall and the neighbouring Protestant Hall ‘prison’, before being sent finally to the Curragh camp in Co Kildare.
Having a university professor as a prisoner was a novelty among the British army guards and officers. Ó Briain was generally treated with respect. This deference probably saved his life in the duel that ensued when ‘Captain H’ heard a report from sergeant Gates that Ó Briain had threatened to take his life ‘even if it takes 25 years’. Suddenly, about half an hour past midnight, on a cold February night, Ó Briain’s name was called out by Lieutenant Gear, Border Regiment, the officer in charge of the camp. ‘Up you get O’ Brian! Get dressed and bring all your stuff. You are going for a walk.’
‘Going for a walk in the middle of the night’ had become a euphiasm for a bullet in the back of the neck. The previous October a well known publican Micheál Breathnach was taken from his house at night, and shot dead on Long Walk. One week before Ó Briain was arrested Fr Michael Griffin was taken from his home, again at night. He was later found shot dead in a shallow grave near Barna.
Fearing the worst Ó Briain got dressed, packed his clothes, books, and chess set into his rucksack, and headed for the door. He must have been further alarmed to notice that Lt Gear, a friendly, intelligent man, who enjoyed discussing his World War I experiences with Ó Briain, was now completely different. The atmosphere between the two men had dramatically changed from friendliness to serious concern.
A bad reputation
Ó Briain was brought into a small room which served as an officers’ staff room. A sergeant and two armed soldiers, dressed in heavy overcoats, were standing there. They were obviously dressed for an outside mission. No one spoke or looked at Ó Briain, until Captain H came into the room. Captain H is the only man Ó Briain does not identify (he was probably a Captain Harrison ) in his stories of his captivity. He refers to him as ‘head of army intelligence in the district’, the man responsible for bringing in prisoners. ‘It was being whispered among us that he was at times engaged in more troubling activities. He had a bad reputation.’
“Good evening professor’, he said. ‘What is this you were saying about me today?
‘I said nothing about you today’ I answered.
‘You didn’t? You were talking about 25 years…’ The implication was that Ó Briain, who remembered saying the sentence in a completely innocent context, was going to kill Captain H even if it took him ‘25 years.’ The spy Sgt Gates had totally misread the conversation, leaving Ó Briain in a very dangerous situation.
Coming only months after Michael Collins’ men wiped out 14 undercover British agents, the threat to the life of an army officer was taken very seriously. Ó Briain was led up to Eyre Square, the two soldiers and the sergeant closely beside him while Captain H followed behind. They stopped outside the County Club, where Black and Tans officers came to the door, spoke in low voices with Captain H, and looked at Ó Briain. Another man spoke in a low voice to the captain, and Ó Briain was led towards the railway path that crosses over Lough Atalia, ending at Renmore barracks. It is a lonely path, and poorly lit at the time.
Ó Briain was certain that this was where he would be shot, his body thrown over the bridge. ‘On you go O’Brien’, said Captain H, ‘walk faster. It is very late.’ By some miraculous instinct, Ó Briain kept his body against the two soldiers’ arms while they, with their sergeant, kept in tight around him, shielding him from Captain H getting a clear shot.
Then they began to run towards Renmore barracks…arriving out of breath but with Ó Briain alive. With relief, he was taken into the guardroom, where there were about 50 Connaught Rangers, ‘every mother’s son of them was Irish.’
Released from the Curragh camp in December 1921 Ó Briain made inquiries about the night he was marched to Renmore barracks fearing for his life. It was his friend Lieutentent Gear who had ordered the escort of the sergeant and two guards with strict orders to keep Ó Briain safe from Captain H.
Next week: Liam Ó Briain’s busy active life as professor at NUIG for 42 years
NOTES: *Translated from the Irish by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh, published by Arderú Books, on sale €18.