Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 4 November 2021
Journeys to a Truce: The Case of Bere Island Internment Camp
November 1921 coincided with many stories appearing in newspapers such as the Cork Examiner on conditions and stories from the internment camps in the Cork area in Spike Island and in Bere Island. Such accounts are also carried in witness statements archived in the Bureau of Military History.
Bere Island prison camp was constructed by the British Authorities for convicted Republican prisoners in 1920. After they were transported to Spike Island, the camp became a War of Independence internment camp only between April and December 1921. At its peak, the Bere Island camp held 284 men across four large timber huts enclosed by a strong wire fence. Among them were Seán Collins, a brother of General Michael Collins, and Professor Alfred O’Rahilly who would later in time become President of University College Cork.
Today there is no trace of the camp and its buildings, but a plaque was unveiled at the site by members of the Bere Island Projects Group as part of National Heritage Week 2021, with a flag ceremony provided by the Defence Forces from Collins Barracks in Cork.
Bere Island Projects Group CLG also received funding from The Heritage Council’s Community Heritage Grant Scheme 2021 to produce a short film documenting the history of the camp. The film, which is hosted on YouTube, is entitled the Bere Island Internment Camp Film, and features historians Ted O’Sullivan and John Borgonovo. Ted and John provide great insights on the short film and it is very much worth having a look.
The camp was prisoner run and prisoner dominated. The camps were fully militarised under IRA control. The four huts had a number of prisoners in each hut and there was a command structure with a hut leader and each hut responded to a camp committee like a camp commandant. There were activities such as GAA matches and educational classes. For example, Alfred O’Rahilly gave lectures in French, in history, in maths and in Irish.
When the Truce was declared in July 1921, every Sunday the camp put on a variety show at the wired enclosure fence and all the locals came and sat on an embankment outside the prison and watched this. In return locals also held small performances.
There were a number of successful and attempted escapes from the camp. Denis Collins, Member of Ballinspittal Company, in the Bandon Battalion records one such incident in his Bureau of Military History witness statement (WS827). Denis transferred from Spike Island to Bere Island on 28 May 1921 on a British destroyer ship. He was allotted to one of the four huts. He noted that when the Truce came, nothing eventful happened on Bere Ireland for some months. He describes a very big compound with plenty of room for exercise. They were on the highest part of the island and had a great view of Bantry Bay and the mountains all around. The intelligence in the internment camp was in communication with the Volunteers on the mainland.
In October 1921, by arrangement with local sympathisers outside, Denis describes that five selected men succeeded in escaping while going down to bathe. They slipped away through the open door of a stable as the party passed through a farmyard, being shielded by tall men in front and rere. Denis relates: “They got to a dug-out prepared for them and after dark got away to the mainland by boat. The rest of the party proceeded on its way, enjoyed the dip and returned, no one being missed. Even that night when the British came into the huts every couple of hours to carry out the usual count, every bed was occupied apparently. Some of the sleepers were dummies”.
Next morning, however, Denis describes that at the count out in the compound there were five prisoners short. There was great fuss and confusion. The camp commandant at that time, named Captain Martin drew his revolver and ordered the prisoners into the huts so that a detailed and careful count could be made. They refused. He brought in a large party of troops and ordered them to fix bayonets. The whole party was ordered to advance on the prisoners but even this did not move them. Then the N.C.Os. were told to fix bayonets and one of them refused. The N.C.O refused several times and was marched off under arrest. The count that was carried out a second time still only disclosed that there were five prisoners missing and no satisfaction was got out of it by the British.
The camp in the autumn of 1921 also planned the digging of a tunnel of 100 yards from the hut Denis was in, under the wire, under a soldiers’ hut outside and past the guardroom – which would be concealed from the camp lights. Then the plan was to go down to the shore where boats would have come across from the Castletownbere side to take the escapees away.
Working in threes, and with a rough implement, which was sharpened in the camp’s own cookhouse, they dug from under the hut as arranged and across to under the hut where the soldiers were quartered. They thought they were discovered when one of us directly under the floor after coming up from our tunnel kicked the boards overhead. He describes; “All was silence in the soldiers’ hut and then we heard the sound of a bolt being drawn back in a rifle. We expected a shot through the floor any moment and then we heard the soldier bursting into song…Apparently, he was just cleaning his rifle and never heard the sound of the boot against the floor beneath”.
Denis and his comrades carried on with their tunnel until some days before they were released and then they were still 20 yards from the finish. They were released on 8 December 1921. A couple of days before this when it was decided to stop the tunnelling, once they heard about the release plans.
1124a. Former site of Bere Island Internment Camp, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy).