Frongoch: Whisky Makers and Prisoners of War

About two and a half miles from Bala on the way to Trawsfynydd is the village of Frongoch. You could easily drive past without noticing that it was there at all. On the side of the road are three houses, a shop, a school and a Post office. About a field’s width from the main road is an estate of single storey houses and a cluster of other houses nearby. A fairly quiet and unhurried place today but it was not always so.

In 1897 Mr. R. Lloyd Price, the owner of the Rhiwlas Estate near Bala and a certain Robert Willis built a whisky distillery there at a cost of around £100,000, an enormous sum in those days. Frongoch was chosen because the waters of the Tryweryn river were so pure and also because the water was peaty and therefore soft to the taste. In addition it was a place from which the product could be easily transported because the railway was close at hand. Houses were built for the managers and about 30 people were employed there. They must have been a fairly courageous lot to work in such a place at a time when religious faith was strong and the temperance movement had reached the area. It was said that the liquor was moved out by night to avoid the risk of attack by the local people!

However, the venture did not survive very long and the company went bankrupt in 1910. The extensive premises were empty for a number of years until the First World War when they were converted into a camp for German and Irish prisoners. Some of the Germans died there and they were buried in the churchyard of Frongoch Church, but after a number of years their remains were disinterred and buried in England.

In 1916 the Easter Rising took place in Ireland, when a number of Irish people rose up against English oppression in their country. After the rising hundreds of them were taken to Knutsford Jail in Cheshire and to other prisons in England.

In his book With the Irish in Frongoch, (The Talbot Press, Dublin, 1917) the author, W.J. Brennan Whitmore, relates that 1,836 of them were sent to the camp at Frongoch, but some were released because they had been wrongly arrested and the number of detainees fell to five or six hundred. There were two camps there, the South Camp and the North Camp. The South Camp was based in the old buildings of the former whisky distillery while the North Camp was higher up in the direction of Capel Celyn. Between the two was a road leading to the railway station on the line from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog and a field which is now behind the Post Office. Here was played the first ever national game of hurley in Wales, played by two teams selected from among the prisoners. The entire North Camp consisted of a collection of wooden huts. One of them has survived to this day and is used by the Frongoch and District Womens Institute.

Whitmore describes the whisky distillery buildings as being very cold at night and stifling hot by day and the prisoners were constantly tormented by a plague of rats. The Irish decided that it would be they and not the prison authorities who would keep order inside the prison camp and it was arranged that no one would do anything against the grain without the approval of the Irish leaders. The result of this was that the camp became, in the words of Whitmore, a military academy for the rebels. At Frongoch the continuation of the fight for freedom was planned. Among the prisoners were some of the leading figures in that war, people like Terence MacSweeney, who in 1920, as Lord Mayor of Cork, was to die while on hunger strike in Brixton jail, J.J. O’Connell, Michael Collins and many others who were to be in the forefront of the fight for an Irish Republic. Many, too, would become members of Dáil Éireann as the fight for freedom progressed. It is a common misconception that Éamonn de Valera was imprisoned at Frongoch. He never came near the place.

There are two men alive today who remember the Irish at Frongoch, Cadwaladr Roberts, son of the late Bob Tai’r Felin and John Roberts of Bala. John Roberts used to work in the camp when he was about 16 years old and he became friends with Michael Collins. He describes the North Camp as being a much better place than the South Camp: it was a lot cleaner but dreadfully cold and damp. There were no footpaths worthy of the name because there was thick mud everywhere and prisoners would be paid three pennies an hour for carrying ashes in an attempt to make ‘footpaths’ in the mud.

He describes Michael Collins as a man who dressed well. However, he did not bother with a collar and tie and his shoes were always filthy. He was highly respected by all and the prison staff held him in some regard. A fair man who smoked a lot. He was also very fit and was always out in front whenever the prisoners had to go on a march. Collins decided that he was going to learn Welsh and with John Roberts’ help he obtained a dictionary and the Welsh Alphabet and paid for them. Collins was never short of money, he recalls.

Frongoch is important in the history of Ireland. Even though it was a prison it contained the cream of that country’s revolutionaries who were thus able to get the future fight for freedom up and running there. As history shows, that freedom was obtained for all of Ireland except the Six Counties.

Today there is nothing to show that a whisky distillery once stood there, nor that it had been a prisoner of war camp. The railway station has long gone, and the old line from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog has itself been dismantled — even the Church has been demolished. On the site of the Whisky Distillery and the South Camp stands Ysgol Gynradd Bro Tryweryn (The Tryweryn Valley Primary School), quite different to the one that was there in 1916.

©: Elwyn Edwards. This article, by a National Eisteddfod champion poet, was first published in the Welsh–language quarterly, Y Casglwr (no. 60, Summer, 1997). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Editor, Mel Williams, and of the author himself who informs us that the two surviving members of staff at Frongoch, Cadwaladr Roberts and John Roberts, are now in local homes for the aged and that the recollections of John Roberts, in Welsh, have been tape recorded for posterity. He also points out that no plaque or memorial of any kind marks that historic place and that his own efforts in that direction over several years have drawn a complete blank in both Ireland and Wales. He believes that this is because of the ongoing crisis in Northern Ireland and that, pending a permanent peace deal there, the placing of a plaque or the erecting of a memorial would be seen as too controversial and insensitive for any group to succeed in bringing it about.

Translation ©: The Wales Famine Forum.

Published in The Green Dragon No 4, Autumn 1997

A memorial plaque in Irish, Welsh and English recording the time when Frongoch housed the 1916 prisoners was unveiled in Frongoch in the summer of 2002. The project was undertaken by the Liverpool branch of Conradh na Gaeilge / The Gaelic League with the support of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg / The Wesh language Society.

Irish links with Frongoch.

Michael Collins: the Movie.

Details of a play in Irish, Welsh and English on tour in Wales and Ireland from February 8 to March 31 2005.