I’ve not seen a detailed history of the Al Rawdah prison ship written down anywhere, so here is one. While it was in use only briefly (in 1940-41) the Al Rawdah falls within a longer history of the use of prison ships as internment camps in Ireland, including the Postlethwaite in 1798, prison ships transporting convicts overseas, the Argenta in 1922-24 and more recently the Maidstone in 1971-72.
Photograph of the Al Rawdah in use as a prison ship with appears to be the barbed wire enclosures on deck (from 1985 edition of Belfast Graves).
On 2nd September 1940, 140 internees were taken from Derry Gaol at 11 am and split into batches of fourteen. Each fourteen then were handcuffed in pairs and put onto a bus with soldiers and armed RUC men. The buses were driven in a convoy, accompanied by Lancia armoured cars, along roads which were heavily guarded. When the convoy passed through Belfast, the internees reportedly sang loudly. Their destination turned out to be 130 miles away from Derry, at Killyleagh in County Down. Some newspapers reported that as many as 157 internees were brought on the buses from Derry. The transport from Derry left another 80 internees in on-shore prisons, all in the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). When the Derry internees arrived in Killyleagh at 3 pm, the pier was cordoned off by the RUC. There was then a roll call of the first batch of men off the buses. They were dressed in everything from labourers clothes to sports jackets and flannels. The men were then transferred in small groups to two waiting boats. When about thirty internees and RUC men were in each boat a motor-boat towed them out to a ship, the Al Rawdah, which was to be used as a prison ship, anchored two miles off-shore. According to the Belfast Telegraph the internees sang the ‘Volga Boatman’s Song’ on the way out. In all it took until 5 pm to transfer all the internees from the buses to the Al Rawdah.
A boat travelling between the shore and the Al Rawdah (the ship shown a couple of miles off-shore in the background). This is identical to the first view the internees got of the Al Rawdah in Killyleagh. This is a still from the 1943 film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ which featured the Al Rawdah.
(Above and below) Close ups of the Al Rawdah from the film ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) showing the gun turrets added with other refurbishments after use as a prison ship.
The Al Rawdah was a 3,930 ton vessel built in 1911 and requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping from the British-India Steam Company in 1940. The decision to bring a prison ship into service for internees had become public knowledge in late July 1940. By August it’s identity and destination in Strangford Lough were both well known with the Belfast Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph referring to it as the ‘Ulster Prison Ship’ and ominously noting that it’s intended capacity was 700-800 prisoners. Significant public criticism followed, noting the experience of the Argenta prison ship anchored off Larne in 1922-24 (early in August it was rumoured that the new prison ship would also be anchored off Larne). The cramped conditions, lack of exercise spaces and even difficulty in removing sick internees had all contributed to a significant number of Argenta internees developing tuberculosis and other diseases and a number being released early when they had become terminally ill. On top of that, several weeks previously some 800 German and Italian internees had been killed when the SS Arandora Star was sank en route to an internment camp in Canada. A number of local authorities and other bodies south of the border passed motions condemning the use of a prison ship.
Nationalist politicians protested that internment without trial on a ship was both against international law and presenting a serious danger given the current threat of attack from air or sea. The Unionist Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, dismissed the claims stating that “Anyone who attacked the Al Rawdah from above or from under the sea would get an unpleasant surprise.” Dawson Bates also repeatedly avoided answering questions about the cost of the Al Rawdah.
A couple of days later, on 10th September, 72 internees were taken from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, split into batches of around fifteen and placed on five buses for a similar journey to the Al Rawdah via Killyleagh. The number transferred on 10th September varies in different newspaper reports but a statement in Stormont in mid-October confirms it as 72. This brought the number of internees on the boat to around 212. It was also noted that some internees had previously been interned without trial on the Argenta prison ship during 1922-1924. As far as I can make out Richard Ryan definitely spent time on both the Argenta and Al Rawdah. Jack Gaffney and Thomas O’Malley possibly were on the Argenta but certainly both of them and James Doyle had been imprisoned in 1920-24. Other names that feature on the list of internees on the Argenta and Al Rawdah are James Connolly, Mick Gallagher, John Kearney, Sean Keenan, P.J. O’Hare, Patrick Quinn and James Trainor. Other people may be able to shed more light on whether these are indeed the same individuals.
This immediately presented a problem to the families of internees since Killyleagh was difficult to access. At Stormont, Labour MPs asked whether the Unionist government was prepared to provide financial assistance to the families of internees. Dawson Bates refused stating that he was unaware of any anxiety on the part of the dependents of those interned. He did note that the authorities “…would not interfere in anyway with the disbursement of funds by any body provided it was within the law.” However, money collected by various groups for the dependents of internees was to be repeatedly seized by the Unionists.
By the 19th September the Al Rawdah was joined by a Catholic priest from St Paul’s Retreat at Mount Argus, Belfast-born Fr Enda Elliott, who was to become the chaplain. Four non-Catholic internees were to have their spiritual needs met by the Protestant clergy of Killyleagh. On that day the Unionist mounted a public relations offensive, with Dawson Bates and William Lowry bringing the American Consul in Belfast (John Randolph), the chaplain of Belfast Prison (Fr. McGouran), Nationalist MP Richard Byrne and Labour MP Jack Beattie and some Stormont officials out to the Al Rawdah for lunch and to inspect its newly equipped library, indoor games room and medical and dental equipment. While the press noted their meal did have some delicacies and wine added it claimed that, otherwise, it was the standard fare prepared for prisoners by the ships ‘coloured chefs’ (some of the crew were Indians). The non-unionist visitors to the prison ship declined to make any comment to the press, although the government officials advised reporters that if those visitors were to make any comment ‘it would be favourable’.
By October, there were repeated protests at the inability of families to visit internees on the Al Rawdah (notably media reports were by then using the figure of 180 for the number of internees). Internees were permitted one visit per week from two family members (the Ministry of Home Affairs only allowed visits from two out of a panel of six close relatives which had to be vetted in advance). The authorities only provided facilities and transfers to the Al Rawdah for a limited number of visits per week meaning that after six weeks some prisoners had yet to receive a visit. The remoteness was believed to be a deliberate ploy and it often proved impossible to get internees off the ship for compassionate reasons – when Patrick Doyle’s widower father James was ill in December, although he was an only son, it proved impossible to get home to Colligan Street in time to see him before he died.
Some internees families remembered the difficulty of getting out for visits including the frightening climb up steps to get to the deck of the Al Rawdah. Even before they got there they had to brave the hostility of the locals in Killyleagh who resented the nearby presence of the Al Rawdah and the on-shore presence of armoured cars and barbed wire in their village (Frank McGlade quoted in John McGuffin’s Internment). Turlach Ó hUid (in his 1985 memoir of internment, Faoi Ghlas) says that, at the quay side, Killyleagh resident shook their fists at families visiting internees as they board the boats to take them out the Al Rawdah, shouting “Scuttle the Fenian gets.”
Climbing the steps to board the Al Rawdah, from ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943).
This photograph gives a sense of the height of the Al Rawdah (for those having to climb up steps from a boat at sea level), from when it was in service with surrendered German submarines at the end of the second world war (Wikipedia).
In mid-October it was already rumoured in the press that the Al Rawdah was costing £1 per internee per day (again citing a daily cost of £180). Despite the reputed cost, the food on board was described by internees as abominable. According to Frank McGlade even when braised gosling and dry biscuits were given as a supposed treat, they were so bad even the seagulls wouldn’t eat them. The seagulls did help some internees to occasionally relieve the boredom. Bobby Devlin recounts a story about internees on the Al Rawdah. According to Devlin (in his 1982 memoir An Interlude with Seagulls), “A ploy of some men on the ‘Al Rawdah’ was to tie bits of food scraps onto cord and fling it skywards into a frenzied mass of gulls. A poor gull would grab a mouthful triumphantly then it would have its head nearly jerked off by the rigorous pulling of the men on the ship.” Another story often told about the Al Rawdah was how internees trained a mouse to bring messages between cells (as it knew it would be rewarded with food).
There was quickly speculation (and clearly briefings from Unionist government figures) that the Al Rawdah was only a temporary facility, that the Ministry of Shipping wanted it put back into service and that the internees would be moved an internment camp with the former RUC depot at Newtownards being suggested as the likely location. It was also suggested that the internees could be relocated to Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) for a short time while a new internment camp was established.
The question of whether the Ministry of Shipping knew in advance that the Al Rawdah was to be used for internees under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was the subject of a heated debate in Stormont on 15th October. It was claimed that the Ministry of Shipping had demanded the return of the Al Rawdah on discovering that it was to be used for internees (the Unionist government’s uses of the Special Powers Act had been the focus of significant criticism in Britain in the 1930s).
That debate was against the backdrop of internees in Crumlin Road and the Al Rawdah failing to get release after submitting an appeal and sureties to an Advisory Committee that had refused 37 of the 62 applications (applying to the Advisory Committee also caused significant tensions among internees as it was seen as giving in to the Unionist government). Twenty-five had been released. Some of the failed applicants had began a hunger strike by 15th October leading to the release of William Barrett from the Springfield Road in Belfast. He had been interned since May (1940) and his family believed it had seriously damaged his health. He and the other hunger strikers appear to have been in D wing in Crumlin Road rather than on the Al Rawdah.
During the Stormont debate William Lowry revealed that, on that date, there were 268 internees (with 193 of those on the Al Rawdah). Apparently there were roughly 70 in the Belfast Prison and the remainder on the Al Rawdah, it is implied that those in Belfast Prison were engaging with the Advisory Committee (it is possible some were also in the prison hospital there). It was also insisted that, far from being unaware of the intended use of the Al Rawdah, the British military had offered it specifically for that purpose. Not only that, it was claimed that, on hearing that they were to be moved from the Al Rawdah, William Lowry claimed the internees had unanimously petitioned to be allowed to stay. He also took the opportunity to dismiss criticisms of the use of internment, stating that “There are thankful parents in Belfast and all over the Six Counties tonight because steps were taken at the proper time and a lad was checked on a course that could only have ended in a long term of imprisonment or on the scaffold.” Many of those interned on the Al Rawdah had been arrested in December 1938 and did not get released until the summer of 1945.
On the 18th October, Nationalist Senator Thomas McLaughlin visited the ship and also declined to make any comment to the press. In Stormont a few days later he challenged the Unionist government to admit that pressure from Washington had forced London to demand the return of the ship. This was put down to a warning about the negative impact on American public opinion if the ship was attacked from the air or sea. The Unionist leader of the Senate, John Robb, instead claimed that the British authorities had asked for the ship to be evacuated once they realised they were being asked to carry the full cost themselves. The debate revealed that there had been disagreement among the Unionist government over whether to use the Al Rawdah. It transpired that the pretext for abandoning Derry Gaol had been instructions from the military to remove any internees from the prison population, meaning citizens of hostile powers (eg Germany and Italy) and prisoners of war. The Unionists had sought to use this directive to have the cost of internment transferred to the military authorities. The only cost to Stormont, as it emerged in October, were the salaries of the prison staff (one of whom, Thomas Walker, was shot dead by the IRA in February 1942 although he was mistaken for another warder).
McLaughlin also challenged Robb to read out the actual petition received from the internees on the Al Rawdah to show that they had never requested that they remain on board the ship (the internees were obviously irked by the suggestion that, as a body, they were giving in to the Unionist government). Robb first placed the petition on a table in the Senate but eventually had to read out the wording of the petition for the record: “We, the Republican internees, desire to renew our protests against the injustice of the being detained without charge or trial. We learn with resentment that, in addition to the injustice of our detention, we are to be removed from a place where at least we have the status of political prisoners to a civil prison, where there are no conveniences or amenities for political prisoners and where, we feel, the restrictions and regulations governing convicted prisoners might even, in part, apply to us.”
In the Stormont Senate McLaughlin described the circumstances on board for the 183 internees. He said that it did not conform the image of a ‘luxury ship’ given by the likes of Lowry. The only available recreation space was a 160 foot walkway which could only be walked, with care, in single file as there was so much barbed wire sticking out on either side. On the 28th October, the Unionists again announced that arrangements would soon be made to transfer the internees from the Al Rawdah to an on-shore internment camp. However, it was noted that it was unlikely, with winter coming, that any new internment facility would be ready (implying they would likely be moved to a prison instead).
Despite raising the issues on the Al Rawdah, the internees were often suspicious of the motives of Nationalist politicians. The authorities regularly read the internees mail (and raided their homes to intercept any correspondence sent out illicitly). They intercepted one letter which was read out in Stormont in July 1942 to embarrass some of the Nationalists. It was written by a prominent republican, Joe McGurk, to his wife Sally when he was on the Al Rawdah and very blunt in it’s criticism of the likes of McLaughlin, Campbell and Byrne.
It read: “The common sense of the people outside would’ve told them, at any rate, that, irrespective of our Republican outlook and principle in the matter, it was very unlikely that we would petition this Northern Junta for anything after the persecution which we had to undergo several months ago, and also that we don’t give a damn where we go. We had Senator McLaughlin of Armagh on board on Friday and he was placed in a very embarrassing position, as we would not speak to him about conditions, or much more else for that matter, as he probably would have used his official position to perhaps do himself a lot of good. What takes me to the fair is the concern which T.J. Campbell and Dead-Head Byrne have for our welfare now. The ship is a Godsend for them, from a propaganda viewpoint, to ingratiate themselves with the people. It’s about time that Campbell and Byrne and that Ilk ceased to block the road of the young generation and die a natural death. They did not show much concern when we were interned in Belfast and removed to Derry. We would rather they kept away from us. as we look upon them with contempt.”
The same day, some of the Indians in the crew of the Al Rawdah got into a fight that ended up in court at the Killyleagh Petty Sessions. It was claimed that Mohammed Essack had been drunk and hit Mohammed Esmail on the collar bone with an iron poker. Essack had been drunk and it had occurred during a special holy season (this isn’t specified). It was claimed that subsequently Essack had also produced a knife and told Esmail that “You kill me, or I will kill you.” Reportedly, Essack was fined £1. Court proceedings were translated into Hindi by one of the crew and some of those present were permitted to swear on the Qu’ran rather than the bible.
It was believed by the internees that the Indians were chosen to staff the ship to minimise communication between them and the internees. But contact was inevitable. Turlach Ó hUid (Faoi Ghlas 1985) records how the internees and Indian crew engaged in good natured banter, with internees typically telling the Hindus among the Indians that “Gandhi man no good. Moslem good.” and telling the Muslims among the crew that “Gandhi man good. Moslems no good.” Overall, despite the confined space, both sides got along well.
The Indians weren’t the only Al Rawdah crew members to face the courts. On the weekend of 9th-10th November, an Al Rawdah storeman, Sylvester Longstaffe, was arrested and charged with the theft of £3 worth of stores from the ship. It was claimed in court that he had just been dismissed from the ship. Evidence given during his arraignment stated that the financial arrangements under which the ship had been chartered it was still being managed by the British-India Steam Navigation Company. The Al Rawdah’s chief steward, Patrick John Connolly, was also charged with theft from the ship. As it was at an agreed rate per person, the cheaper it was run the more profit there was for the company. According to statements made by Longstaffe’s solicitor, there was a monetary incentive for the company to only provide starvation rations. However the case was never brought to court and the charges were dropped in March 1942.
Longstaffe was a married father of five from Liverpool who had been at Dunkirk. By 1943 he had been on boats that had been torpedoed three times. The charges over the Al Rawdah appear to have been dropped due to the difficulty in locating the defendants and witnesses. Longstaffe had taken on a post as a steward on ships to South Africa during 1941 and met and – bigamously – married another member of the crew in Durban for which he was prosecuted in 1943. His 4,000 mile dash to be by the bedside of his wife, Patricia, in hospital in 1947 made the newspapers. The newspapers then had to publish a clarification from his wife, Elizabeth, stating that it was not her in the photo. Neither was it Irene who he had married in South Africa. He was to feature in the press one more time, in 1958, when an Australian woman he met while working as a ship’s purser, Jean Cook, became pregnant and then tried to procure an abortion. The procedure led to kidney failure and she died a week later. Longstaffe was named as the father during the trial of two Harley Street doctors for carrying out the abortion. He gave a statement claiming he and Cook had ‘just been friends’.
Sylvester Longstaffe in the Liverpool Echo, 22nd September 1947 after his 4,000 mile dash to at the beside of Patricia.
On Monday 18th November, Jack Gaffney fell from his bunk and apparently injured his head. While the crew had a doctor, Dr John Moody, there was no doctor available for the internees. Moody examined Gaffney and he was left in his bed, then apparently brought to the ship’s hospital. He died the next day having received no treatment beyond a heart stimulant when his condition worsened. The official cause of death was described as a cerebral haemorrhage brought about by high blood pressure. In her book on the Argenta prison ship, Denise Kleinrichert lists the name ‘John Giffney’ as a prisoner on the Argenta, it is possible that this is actually Gaffney and that he spent some time on the Argenta (he was imprisoned from 1921 to 1923). Gaffney’s funeral was well attended in Belfast and included the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Mageean.
I’d not been able to track down a photo of him, but I think this him in a photo of the McKelveys gaelic football team dating to 1931-32 (courtesy of Donal McAnallen).
Neil Gillespie, O/C of the internees on the Al Rawdah, delivered an oration to the internees at the time of Gaffney’s funeral on 20th November. “One of our number has been released, released with honour, released unconditionally into the hands of God who made him. We mourn his passing with that natural sorrow which strikes to the heart of anyone when someone dear to him, someone with whom he ahs been closely associated is suddenly called away, but we’re proud of Jack Gaffney. He was faithful and true to the end. He died for the cause for which he stood, for which he worked, struggled, planned and fought throughout his life, just as truly as if he had fallen on the hillside. At this moment his remains are being brought to their last resting place in a Belfast Graveyard. We gather with those around the grave, we salute the passing of our comrade as a true soldier of Ireland and all humility we pray that God, in his mercy, may have mercy on his soul.” (Oration as quoted by Ray Quinn in A Rebel Voice, 1998).
A Sean Gaffney GAA club was later founded in Belfast in his memory. A 1920-22 IRA veteran, he was well known in GAA circles having played for Kevin Barrys and Morans before joining the Joe McKelvey GAA club in 1927. He played a prominent role in McKelveys’ on field football successes in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The club (which was specifically a club for IRA members) had been highly political in its sponsorship of motions at Antrim and Ulster GAA conventions. Similarly, Sean Gaffneys and other GAA clubs founded by ex-internees and ex-prisoners, like Tom Williams GAC and Seamus Burns GAC promoted political motions, such as in 1947, when they demanded that existing bans by the GAA on ‘foreign games’ and dances be strictly enforced. The years around 1947 were the peak years for Sean Gaffney GAC as it was playing senior football in Antrim. By 1949 the club had been relegated to the Intermediate League and was back playing junior football by 1950.
After Gaffney’s death republicans described the Al Rawdah as the ‘ship from hell’ mimicking British depictions of the German ship Altmark in contemporary propaganda. The Altmark was a German ship carrying three hundred British prisoners of war that was intercepted and the prisoners freed in February 1940. The hardships the Altmark prisoners endured were popularised during the relative lull in the war in early 1940 and were well known to the public and those on the Al Rawdah. According to Turlach Ó hUid (in Faoi Ghlas), Gaffney’s death was compared to the experience of those on the Altmark and that this, more than the threat of any German torpedo or dive-bomber sealed the fate of the Al Rawdah’s use as a prison ship.
At the end of December 1940 it was again announced that the internees would be taken off the Al Rawdah, although in this instance it was reported that the destinations would be Derry Gaol and the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road). However this move still didn’t transpire and at the start of February (1941) there was an attempt to escape from the Al Rawdah. There are stories about internees on the Al Rawdah making keys out of nails when they were doing arts and crafts. However the escape attempt actually involved an escape onto another boat. Three internees managed to slide down a hawser in the dark and get on to the deck of a collier which had drawn alongside and was unloading coal on to the Al Rawdah (some versions state that it was five internees, such as in McGuffin’s Internment). One of the internees that tried to escape was James O’Hagan. They were discovered trying to lower a lifeboat and after first being mistaken for Germans, there was a scuffle and all but one managed to get back to their cells. The sole internee captured by warders was quickly released when the internees advised they would set the ship on fire if he wasn’t. As it was clear that the internees would be leaving soon, Jimmy Drumm (quoted by John McGuffin in Internment) said that the captain, Watt, told the internees would have had to go soon anyway as they nearly had the ship destroyed stripping it for souvenirs.
As it happened, just over a week later, on Tuesday 11th February 1941, 100 internees were finally transferred out of the Al Rawdah to Belfast and Derry. Motor launches were used to take the men from the ship and then they were escorted in six buses to Crumlin Road by heavily armed RUC men. The remaining 90 internees were transferred to Crumlin Road on the Thursday. Sally McCann, whose husband James was one of the internees, was arrested for waving a handkerchief at a bus transferring internees from the Al Rawdah as it passed on it’s way into Crumlin Road. She was charged with conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace although it was thrown out of Belfast Custody Court the next day and her arrested was described as “… it savours of nothing if it does not savour of Gestapo methods“.
The physical toll of internment on the Al Rawdah was never really fully documented. Bobby Devlin’s An Interlude with Seagulls account of internment, like many other similar memoirs, clearly highlight a recurring concern among internees about their mental health. Much of this was a clear result of being interned without trial and without a defined period of incarceration, with no actual release date to look forward to. Many euphemisms were used for depression and apathy, like the big ‘D’, the ‘bonk’ and ‘Bangor Reserves’ as it rhymed with ‘nerves’, with ‘bad with their nerves’ being a typical Belfast term for mental health problems. Apart from psychological scars, the constant stench of stagnant sea water and fumes that rose up through the ship created what many on the Argenta, Al Rawdah and Maidstone recalled as an unhealthy atmosphere to even have to breathe in. Given that the internee population was males, mostly in their late teens, twenties and thirties, post-internment mortality was significantly high. Joseph Rooney died in May 1941, John (Seán) Dolan died on 25th October 1941. Dolan was well known in music and Irish language circles in Derry and had been the secretary of the Derry County Board of the GAA and a playing member of the Patrick Pearses club. When it was clear that he was terminally ill, he was released into a relative’s home in July 1941. Some were interned for several more years only to die from ill-health soon after release including Dickie Dunn, Richard Ryan (who had also been interned on the Argenta), Bernard Curran, James Doyle, Michael McErlean and Henry O’Kane.
The exact number of internees who spent time on the Al Rawdah isn’t clear but, based on the available names, is at least 207 and maybe at least 217. While only a subgroup of those who experienced internment between 1938 and 1945, the fact that ten internees died due to ill-health out of just over 200 on the Al Rawdah does seem inordinately high. This doesn’t account for non-fatal impacts on physical and mental health. A number of other internees and sentenced prisoners (including those imprisoned in England) are known to have died prematurely due to either tuberculosis of what would appear to be otherwise innocuous complaints after their release.
A list of recorded Al Rawdah internees is included on the Mapping the Belfast IRA page, in Belfast Lough (for convenience rather than off Killyleagh). As I don’t have addresses for most of them, I’ve not filtered them for Belfast/non-Belfast and so all internees are included. Anyone who knows of other internees not listed here could add the information in the comments section. Of the 217 names, 177 have assigned prisoner numbers. The highest available prisoner number is 207 (the numbers are sequential), this may mean some internees were to be transferred to the Al Rawdah but never made it that far – again some readers might be able to shed some light on this as they might recognise a name on the list as someone who was never on the Al Rawdah.
Thanks to Brendan Harper, Ciarán Ó Fearghail, Cliodhna Ní Baoghaill, Paul Tinnelly and Cathy Kelly for forwarding various bits of information about the Al Rawdah.
You can read more about the background to the Al Rawdah in Belfast Battalion.