The Curragh
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The Rath Camp

Some short distance to the north-west of the Gibbet Rath and close to the main Newbridge­Kildare road junction for the camp there are to be seen traces of foundations of buildings on the plains. It was at this place “The Rath Camp” was established in 1921 by the British to house about twelve to fifteen hundred Irish volunteer prisoners. Two of the prisoners, Thomas Martin and Joseph Lawless, have left a record of the life and times in the camp. Lawless also took some photographs while in the camp.

Martin was arrested on the 30th March, 1921, as he journeyed with two companions, from Carlow to Kildare. They were held overnight in a cell at Kildare R.J.C. barracks, finger printed and photographed next morning, and moved under escort to Hare Park Cam. Martin remained in Hare Park Camp for six weeks, during which time he was to see many of his fellow prisoners awarded sentences of hard labour by military courts. Martin was not court marshaled, but was requested to sign a bond upon which his release would be assured. This he refused to do.

Early in April, 1921, the first draft of prisoners, about one hundred, arrived at the Rath Camp from Arbour Hill. It was to this new camp that Martin was moved in mid-April for he records how he “was called out with six other men and handed over to an armed guard of seven sol­diers,” who marched them to their new abode.

The prisoners ran their own camp, and much to Martin’s distaste he was appointed to be in charge of his billet and made responsible for the enforcement of the camp rules therein. Some of his fellow-prisoners found the rigid discipline of the camp too much for them, and their lack of response caused Martin to report them to the in­ternee Commandant. As punishment, the prison­ers were awarded additional fatigues. Soon after Martin resigned from this “rotten job” and sought a transfer to another billet.

The prospect of escape was always foremost in the minds of the prisoners and must have consumed much of their time and energy. The first escape took place towards the end of April and was greatly assisted by some workmen engaged in the completion of the construction of the camp. The entry and exit of the workmen was controlled by a pass system, and guards super­vised their work. Nevertheless, it was found possible to get into conversation with some of them, and Rory O’Connor and another man named Ryan arranged that two of these men would stay away from work on a certain Saturday. Their overalls and passes were brought in by one of the other men and handed over to O’Connor and Ryan, who duly walked out through the gate at dinner time as two of the workmen.”

An attempted tunnel escape in mid-June was foiled when a “spy” in camp informed the military. The tunnel was all but finished when “dozens of guards were brought in with a great number of trench diggers. One whole line of huts were isolated, they were digging for about five days before they found the tunnel. Then they got more excited. Guards were on all night .It took about three days to fill in the tunnel.”

The frustration of this escape effort caused the prisoners to redouble their efforts and by the end of June there were no less than four tunnels in progress by various groups. “As this obviously increased the danger of detection, as well as creating a shortage of available timber, the others were prevailed on to cease work on all but the main tunnel. This was on the East side of the Camp and began with a pit under the floor of one of the huts and was intended to run at a depth of eight to ten feet, emerging about a hundred yards clear of the outside wire, in a clump of furze bushes, which was clear of the ring of lights that surrounded the camp at night.”

The plan of escape was ambitious, for it was intended that the camp would be cleared of all prisoners on the break-out. However, the plan misfired before the tunnel was completed. “Some of the men engaged on the project lost patience, and, without any pre-arrangement with the other prisoners, broke out the tunnel, and the men in that hut all escaped as well as some of those men from the adjoining huts. The first the rest of us knew that our plans were spoiled was when the guards awakened us the next morning to count us.

It was September before Lawless made a further attempt at escape. Having observed the method of removal of the swill from the camp for some time, Lawless and a man named Glennon formulated a plan of escape. The swill was removed daily by two small boys using an ass and cart, who, on arrival at the gate, would hand over the cart to a member of the guard The cart would then be taken to the cookhouse, loaded by prisoners, returned to the gate and handed back to the boys. Lawless and Glennon, using two large canvas bags “previously burgled from the Camp Post Office” arranged that while the guard was distracted that they would be placed in the cart and covered with swill. The plan was a success, and “at the west entrance to camp (staff house)” the escapees “extracted ourselves from the cart and strolled leisurely towards the Race Course and by road to Newbridge,” where they pro­cured a car for Dublin.

The Rath Camp continued to function until the signing of the Treaty when the remaining prisoners were released.