One of the things that surprised me the most when researching for Tintown was how surprised most people were to learn that the Republic of Ireland maintained, for a long time, a barbed-wire camp into which inconvenient people could be disappeared.
It was a nasty tradition we inherited from the British administration in Ireland, who shoved thousands of men into concentration camps in Ballykinlar and the Curragh (Tintown), as well as Spike island and any other correctional facility that had space; men who were rounded up because of their actions, suspected actions, associations, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for having an unfortunate surname. It didn’t work particularly well for the British; but the Free State ran with the idea anyway, interning Republicans in the Curragh again during the Civil War, and later reconstructing it for use during WW2 and the decade beyond.
Everyone seems to be at least vaguely aware of K-Lines, the Tintown extension where a handful of downed British and German airmen were held during WW2; yet the larger group of men that were held next door don’t excite the same feelings of romanticism and are not as easy to fit into our national story. They were not terrorists in the clear-cut sense of the Provisional IRA; many were civil war veterans, some had fought in 1916; those who had participated in the late 30’s bombing campaign in England saw themselves as a legitimate national army engaging military targets. They still believed in the possibility of an Irish Republic – not just as a geographic ideal, but as a socialist ideal, a secular ideal – and a far cry from the theocratic Free State entity that declared itself a Republic in 1937. And many of those interned were not directly connected with the Republican movement; some were rounded up because of the actions of siblings, some were left-wing socialists and communist activists. In the quasi-fascist anti-communist hysteria of the times, simply being a civil rights activist was enough to mark you in the eyes of the law.
The IRA at that time was a complex organisation being pulled in two very different directions. The leadership were locked into a militaristic approach, determined to attack England – even to the extent of requesting the assistance of the Nazis. Their choices often now lead to the IRA of the time being labelled ‘nazi-sympathisers’ – although much of the rank and file were anti-fascist, socialist if not downright communist; they had fought the Blueshirts in the streets and some of them had fought against Nazi-supported Franco in Spain.
These two opposing currents within the IRA couldn’t co-exist forever, of course. If one of the strange ironies of the period is that the Irish would use the abhorred internment method against their own people, it is another that the method finally worked – for all the wrong reasons. It was not years of confinement, hardship, and separation from family that caused the IRA to begin to crack, so much as being locked up with their own leadership.
Like any aspect of history it is endlessly deep and complex; but it is an area that we don’t speak about, and a key missing part of our national narrative. State censorship played a large role in keeping it from the public eye at the time, and self-censorship has kept us from examining it since. It is a stark reminder of many things that make us uncomfortable; the long echoes of the civil war, our complex relationship with terrorism, the insidious hold the church had over Irish civic policy – and it’s ongoing struggle to maintain it – and the state’s viral fear of anything approaching left-wing thinking that persists to this day. For those of us who like to believe that we inherited a secular, egalitarian, socialist Republic, it is a reminder that we didn’t, and we haven’t made one yet.
As for the piece, the work-in-progress presentation went well, and those who had no knowledge of the topic were engaged and entertained. There were some present whose parents had been interned (including the children of the main character); some who were connected to the socialist side of things; some who were connected to the Republican side of things; and all seemed to feel that it was done respectfully and fairly. So we’ll see what happens next.
The work-in-progress reading of Tintown was presented in the Hawk’s Well Theatre on Thurs 20th 2016 as part of its Theatre Artist in Residence programme..