Wales as a nation has had many ‘firsts’, Guglielmo Marconi for one, who in 1897 sent the first wireless radio transmission across the open sea. His invention traversed the 3.7 miles between Lavernock Point to Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel with ease. Chepstow Castle was the first to be built from stone, and dates from 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest.
The first European to visit America was Prince Madog, who sailed from Ynys Fadog, near present-day Porthmadog, to North America in 1170. The first use of the skull and crossbones was reputedly by the Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart, Baiti Ddu). The World’s first steam locomotive ran for 15 and a half km between Penydarren, Merthyr Tydfil and Abercynon, in 1804, and carried 10 tons of iron and 70 passengers, at 8 km/h.
Built in 1826, The Menai Bridge became the first major suspension bridge in the world. The First lager to be brewed in Britain, was at Wrecsam (Wrexham) in 1882, and the stone bridge in Pontypridd, built in 1775 was at the time the longest single-span stone bridge in the world. Anglesey became the first Local Education Authority to abolish the 11-plus examination in 1957 and in 1982, Wales became the first nuclear-free country in Europe when all the counties agreed not to allow nuclear weapons on their soil.
That was only a small selection of the ‘firsts’ from the smallest country in this land we call The British Isles, and I could quote many more from the countless Sporting Achievements, to the downright bizarre. Selecting and listing the historic achievements of one of the oldest races in Europe would take far too long for this post, and would no doubt, detract from my intended subject.
One of the almost unknown (outside of Wales) ‘firsts’ though, was the introduction of A Guantanamo Bay, styled detention centre which was utilised to hold captive the men who later went on to win the Republic of Ireland’s independence.
About 1,800 Men from Ireland were detained at the Frongoch camp near Bala, in North Wales, including some key figures who would go on to play vital roles in the Irish Republic’s first Government.
There are many parallels between the treatment of the Irishmen that were imprisoned at Frongoch following the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Al Queda ‘Terror’ suspects held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
The men held at Frongoch were there without any formal charges being laid, and without the benefit of a trial, just as we have seen at Guantanamo Bay. Of the 500 prisoners held in Guantanamo, only 10 have been charged to date.
Another similarity between the two, is that at Guantanamo Bay, the detainees have turned to hunger strikes, which also happened at the Frongoch Camp. In fact, by 1916, more than 200 of those held had protested against their captivity in that way.
Among those Irishmen held at Frongoch, was none other than Michael Collins, who later negotiated the settlement with the British authorities, that led to the creation of the Irish Republic.
Instead of crushing the sprit of those detained, which was the intention of the British Government, Frongoch effectively became a unofficial ‘School’ for nationalists from all over Ireland and only served to re-energise their opposition to British rule.
At Frongoch, some of those held were indifferent to politics, but were soon radicalised by their close proximity to so many leading Irish nationalists, and as at Guantanamo Bay, their imprisonment may have been counter-productive. There were also Irishmen at Frongoch who initially had nothing to do with the Easter Rising, but had became sympathetic to the movement while being held there.
Frongoch started life as Wales’s first whiskey distillery, but when the company folded, the building was later converted to a prison camp for German soldiers captured during the First World War. When they were repatriated to their countries of origin, the men who orchestrated the Easter Rising took their place in early January 1916 and many of these were in turn, released around seven months later, with only a hard-core of prisoners remaining.
The men held at Frongoch were allegedly members of the fledgling Irish Republican Brotherhood, but they would later rename their organisation and write themselves into the history books as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Research has shown they were treated very fairly by the locals, who deplored the way that they were treated by the British authorities. But, as far as the rest of Wales was concerned, the reaction to the Irishmen held at Frongoch was exactly as it had been portrayed by the establishment in England – even the Trade Unionists had turned against them and also began to regard them as Enemies of the State.
“There must be a few souls held in Guantanamo Bay with absolutely no connection with terrorism, but being thrown intimately together with radical elements for more than four years, is surely more than enough time to generate an almost irreversible feeling of hatred toward the regime that had imprisoned them without charge.”