Deaths during internment in the north in the 1940s

Around 400 men and women were imprisoned for political reasons by the northern government during 1938-50. Of that 400, at least twelve are believed to have died from illnesses and complications arising from the conditions of their imprisonment, a mortality rate of about 3%. Typically, to provide some level of deniability, the northern government released the prisoner when death was inevitable so that they didn’t die in prison.

In many of the cases, the prison conditions, diet, absence of either any meaningful medical care or even medical supplies to self-treat open wounds are believed to be the main contributing factor in the deaths. Given the age profile of the dead, men in their twenties to early forties, it is interesting to compare that 3% figure to the mortality rate of the British armed forces in the Second World War, which was 3.3%.

Of the dead, Jack Gaffney is buried in the Harbinson plot and listed on the County Antrim Memorial of the National Graves Association and is the only one who is usually listed among the IRA’s roll of honour for the period (along with others who died while in prison in England, Ireland and Isle of Man, names are not for those who died after release). The reaction to Gaffney’s death, including the large funeral also seems to have dictated the future strategy for managing terminally ill prisoners – basically, don’t let them die in custody.

Here is a provisional list of those who are said to have died due to conditions in the prisons in the north (Crumlin Road, Al Rawdah and Derry):

Jack Gaffney, died on the Al Rawdah prison ship in November 1940 (he received head injuries falling from a bunk that remained untreated).

Seán Dolan from Derry, who was released from Crumlin Road to die at home (25th October 1941)

Cathal Kerr (released from Crumlin Road)

J Rooney (released from Crumlin Road) 

Joe McGinley (name also given as John McGinley, released from Crumlin Road, 1943)

Seamus Keenan (released from Crumlin Road, 1943)

Bernard ‘Sean’ Curran (Crumlin Road, 1943 while terminally although Curran died just over a year later from the same illness in 1945)

Henry O’Kane (released from Crumlin Road while terminally ill)

Dickie Dunn

Tom Graham (died of pleurisy)

Mickey McErlean

Richard Magowan (died from TB, 1943)

The sources for the deaths ascribed to conditions in the prisons are a short list printed in United Irishman in December 1950 (first four above), contemporary statements given in Stormont (in which a figure of seven dead by 1943 was not challenged by the unionists), John McGuffin’s book Internment (he cites the figure of seven dead), Tarlach Ó hUid’s account on his internment in the 1940s, Faoi Ghlas, and Vincent McDowell’s obituary of Pat Donnelly (preserved in the Sean O’Mahony Papers in NLI).

21 thoughts on “Deaths during internment in the north in the 1940s

  1. From what I’ve been told, once you were in you were on your own; your research bears this out. I find the comparison between the mortality rates of internees and those of British soldiers during WWII interesting. Thanks.


  2. I, and others just held a commemoration and marked the grave of Óglach Cahal Kerr in Kilclief Cemetery near Downpatrick on 29/05/16

    Cahal Kerr was in fact a sentenced ‘prisoner’, he had been found guilty in September 1940 of possession of a number of copies of War News, the Republican newspaper of the day, he was sentenced to serve ‘Hard Labour’ in Crumlin road gaol.

    He, like many of the others listed above, was denied medical attention to a wound which became infected. He was released on medical grounds but died within weeks from poisoning of the blood supply.

    Cahal Kerr died, a soldier of the Irish Republic on 26th April 1941 aged 20

    More information on Cahal and the Commemoration can be found here…


    1. Go raibh maith agat Daithi. The list in that post is very much a draft one. It doesn’t include Belfast Battalion Vols Joe Malone and Terence Perry who died in prison outside the north, or Sean McCaughey (who died in Portlaoise). I’m sure there are others not listed by me as it seems to be regularly overlooked and I found some of the names, like Richard Magowan, purely by chance (Frankie Doherty in 1936 and Tom O’Malley in 1959 both got ill in prison but died outside the prison and so are not usually included in Belfast roll of honour).


  3. Sean O Baoighaill (Sean or John Boyle) from Derry also contracted TB while interned on the Al Rawdah and was sent home to die with a police armed guard outside his home on Lone Moor Road. He died on 20th January 1940.


      1. That would be welcome and timely. Go raibh maith agat. Is the autograph book that is talked about still in the Ulster museum archive?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Cliodhna – that autograph book should still be in the Ulster museum. I was think about the dates there – the Al Rawdah was only commissioned in the summer of 1940 (after Sean O Baoghaill’s death). There was a John O’Boyle on the Al Rawdah, but it must be two different guys. Sean O Baoghaill must have been an internee in Derry Gaol or the Crum?


    1. John, I think it must be the same person, I may have the date wrong.. my grandfather was definitely on the Al Rawdah and was also known as John Boyle- was the internee named from Derry? Thanks so much for the detail that is in the new blog. I’m definitely going to look into this further.


      1. The John Boyle who died in January 1940 lived at Lone Moor Road in Derry. I’ve not got an address for the one on the Al Rawdah but if you know where he lived I can see if I can work it out.


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