Sinn Fein leaders in Gloucester Prison, 1918

During the last year of the First World War, on the night of 17/18 May, over 70 leading members of Sinn Fein were arrested under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. The arrests had been made following the discovery of a supposed plot on the part of Sinn Fein to help Germany to enter Ireland. This “German Plot” is generally believed to have been used as an excuse to intern the leaders of Sinn Fein, who were seen by the British Government as being the strongest force behind opposition in Ireland to the proposed introduction of conscription there. Most of the Irish prisoners were brought to England on 18 May and sent to the prisons at Birmingham, Durham, Holloway, Lincoln, Reading, Usk, and Gloucester.

The Gloucester newspapers said very little about the new arrivals, but on 10 June 1918, the Bristol-based Western Daily Press printed a list of all the Irish political prisoners, showing who had been interned in which prison. Then on 15 June, the Gloucester Journal printed the names of the eleven “Interned Irish Rebels” held at Gloucester, who were:

Thomas DILLON, Joseph MCGUINESS, John MCENTEE, Desmond FITZGERALD, A. GRIFFITH, D. MCULLOUGH, Joseph MCBRIDE, J.J. O’CONNELL, J.N. DOLAN,  P. MCCANN and T. HUNTER.

Probably the most important Irish prisoner in Gloucester Gaol was Arthur Griffith, one of the founders of Sinn Fein, who had become vice-president of the party in October 1917. While he was in HMP Gloucester, he was elected as M.P. for East Cavan in the 1918 General Election. Several of the other Sinn Fein members held at Gloucester were also successful in the elections.

Arthur Griffith

Arthur Griffith

In February 1919, some of the political internees at Gloucester became seriously ill during an outbreak of influenza. On 7 March, the Western Daily Press reported that Pierse McCann, Sinn Fein M.P. for East Tipperary, had died the previous morning, from broncho-pneumonia. The Gloucester Journal of 8 March 1919 stated that McCann and the other sick prisoners had been sent to Beaufort House Nursing Home, where they had been attended by “a medical man sent by the Home Office and by the Prison doctor (Dr J.A. Bell).” McCann’s death led to some commentators who were sympathetic to Sinn Fein’s cause describing him as a martyr who had died for his beliefs.

The remaining Irish political prisoners were released shortly after McCann’s death.

Sources: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 18 May 1918 (re. the “German Plot”) Western Daily Press, 10 June 1918 and 7 March 1919; Gloucester Journal, 15 June 1918 and 8 March 1919.

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