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Leinster Leader 12 July 2007

Curragh at the centre of internment campaign 50 years ago



It was a rare occasion to see issues of national significance featuring in the headlines of the local press in the 1950s with editors preferring to keep to the less contentious backwaters of local politics. However the Leinster Leader of 13 July 1957 was remarkable in carrying a front page story, and a strong editorial, on internments in the Curragh consequent on what became known as the IRA Border Campaign of 1957.

Since the end of the Civil War in 1923 militant nationalism had been at a low ebb.  The evolution of the democratic consciousness of the nation, particularly de Valera’s founding of Fianna Fail as a political alternative to the more militant approach of the then Sinn Fein organisation, meant that Civil War divisions (although still bitter) tended to be fought out on the floor of Leinster House rather than through ambushes on country roads.

However the existence of the Border and the creation of the Northern Ireland state remained a provocation to republicans and there were occasional outbursts such as the IRA bombing campaign in England and Northern Ireland during the second world war years. Sanctions imposed by the de Valera war-time government in the south helped suppress even these limited efforts by the IRA and it was not until the early 1950s that the organisation began to re-arm with the intention of mounting attacks from the Republic into Northern Ireland. Between 1951 and 1954 several raids on British military bases in the north helped the IRA build an arsenal. Towards the mid 1950s the leadership began to plan a campaign targeting RUC stations and customs posts along the border.

The most controversial episode was the raid in January 1957 on Brookeborough RUC station in which two IRA men, Fergal O’Hanlon and Sean South were killed. Their funerals and commemorations touched a nerve in the Republic of Ireland: there were huge attendances at the obsequies and a song with the line ‘Sean South from Garryowen’ became something of a folk hit.  The Republican movement felt that its strategy was endorsed when in a General Election in Spring 1957 it won four seats in the Dail.  However.  de Valera who regained power in that election, proved even more decisive in his treatment of the IRA than he had during the war years and in July 1957 he activated parts of the Offences Against the State Act allowing his government to deploy strong internment powers.

The fallout from this action reached Co. Kildare with the re-opening of the military prison on the Curragh as an internment camp for militant republicans.  The Leader of 13 July 1957 carried the headline ‘ Internees Again at Curragh Camp.’  Clearly drawing on good sources within the Curragh the report described the hurried adaptations being made to cater for the influx of internees: ‘ gangs of soldiers and civilian workers set about the task of strengthening the defences of the barracks, additional barbed wire barriers, lights, look-out posts, sentry boxes etc being provided.’ 

The impact on Kildare extended to more than the Curragh internment camp.  The Gardai arrested individuals in Rathangan, Sallins, Leixlip and Ballymore Eustace and had them interned. A statement from the Government said ‘ No one has been arrested because of membership of the Sinn  Fein organisation … In all cases the reason for arrest was that the individuals concerned were believed to be engaged in attempting to maintain military or armed forces in contravention of the Constitution.’

The Leader editorial took an unusually direct line on an issue of national importance: ‘ Like most Irish people we dislike the Border, but we do not believe that the remarriage of the Six Counties and the Twenty-Six can be brought about by shooting at either party. Nor will the divorce pronounced by Lloyd George (in 1921) be annulled by high explosives.’

There were further fatalities both of IRA men and RUC members as the campaign spluttered on but the interment crackdown drained the manpower and morale of the republicans and within three years the campaign petered out. 

Compiled from the Leinster Leader files, Local History Dept., Kildare Co. Library.
Series No. 23.

Internment on the Curragh in the 1950's by Liam Kenny from his regular feature in the Leinster Leader, 'Nothing New Under the Sun. Our thanks to Liam 

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