Following the theme of “Eire” at the recent Gregynog Festival http://gregynogfestival.org it is interesting to read of the links between Fron-goch and the National Library of Wales.
Some 1,800 Irish men were held without trial after the 1916 Easter Rising at an internment camp in Fron-goch, North Wales. Their well-organized activities at the camp led to it becoming known as the ollscoil na réabhlóide (‘university of revolution’), as languages, crafts, military organization and theory were taught by prisoners to their fellow inmates. However, it is only recently that the National Library of Wales’s connection to Fron-goch has come to light.
In July 1916, John Ballinger, The National Librarian, entered into correspondence with a prisoner held at
South Camp, Fron-goch. James Johnston, ‘Prisoner No. 360’, had been ‘one of the suspects recently arrested in Ireland under the Defence of the Realm Act’ and was writing ‘under circumstance of personal difficulty’. He was interested in Irish place-names, and following an enquiry, obtained from Ballinger a bibliography of Irish, Welsh and Scottish place names for further study. Having studied that list, Johnston requested two further favours from the National Librarian. Firstly, the loan of a book from the Library at Aberystwyth (Iago Emlyn’s An Essay on the Philosophical Construction of Celtic Nomenclature, 1869); and secondly, some Welsh printed books, for
‘ … a number of the prisoners here are very much interested in Welsh on account of its relationship to Irish, especially as we have a number of native and fluent speakers of Irish here and they are desirous of organizing a class … I have myself Practical Lessons in Welsh by William Spurrell (1888) and The Elements of Welsh Grammar by Samuel J. Evans.’
John Ballinger can hardly have shared many of the Irish rebel’s political aspirations. Nine months earlier, he had lost his son Harry at The Front in France, and was channeling his grief into collecting Welsh books for dispatch to the civilian British prisoners interned at Ruhleben near Berlin. How was he to respond to the Irish republican’s request from Fron-goch?
Surprisingly, perhaps, he lent the Library’s copy of Iago Emlyn’s book which, following a period of misplacement, was finally returned to Aberystwyth in September 1916. Remarkably, he also sent to Fron-goch a Welsh Bible and four Welsh New Testaments for use by the learners, ‘part of a stock which was obtained in order to supply books to Welshmen at the camp at Ruhleben’, and which Johnston acknowledged were ‘very acceptable and will be much appreciated by the members of our class’.
The correspondence drew to a close at the end of September 1916, and the Irish prisoners were re-patriated before the end of the year. But what of James Johnston, ‘Prisoner No. 360’? Was he the Belfast resident of that name killed in 1917 as part of further struggles for Irish independence? What became of the courteous scholar of language who had turned to the National Library of Wales for succour during his days of confinement?