1916: Jack's Letters

The prison gate at Dartmoor.

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1st Lieutenant John F. Shouldice of F Company, 1st Battalion, was lucky enough to survive the death sentence handed down to him by the Field Court-martial of British Commanding Officers at Richmond Barracks. In an ironic twist of fate, his employment in the British Civil Service helped to save his life. On joining the Irish Volunteers, "Jack" was originally elected as Captain but was unable to accept the rank, as to do so would mean having to give up his government job. The lesser rank of 1st Lieutenant meant that his name was further down the list of those who were to be shot in the wake of Easter Week, 1916. The growing public unrest at the heavy handed nature of the British high command in dealing with the leaders of the Rising helped to shift the political climate with each passing day. By the time Jack’s date arrived, all executions were ceased and the death sentences commuted to time in prison. Jack’s sentence was reduced to five years in prison and he was transferred, along with 64 others, to Dartmoor Jail in England. Marched straight from the train station, they passed under the prison gates which bore the words ‘God is Love’.

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As Jack states in his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, ‘there was not much love about Dartmoor’. Inside they were photographed, weighed and measured, before undergoing a humiliating ‘dry bath’, where they stripped and were examined head to toe. With their hair freshly cut and their new number identities given, Jack was Q.101, the Volunteers settled into life behind the walls of Dartmoor Prison. Everyday new batches of Irish prisoners were brought in until there were about 65 in total. Separated from the rest of the prisoners, the Irish detainees continued the Volunteer military hierarchy within the confines of the jail. Interestingly, when Eoin MacNeill, President of the Volunteer Organisation and the author of the countermanding order of Easter Sunday, arrived in the jail, he was greeted with a military call to attention led by Eamonn De Valera. According to Shouldice, this eliminated any feelings of ill will toward MacNeill who was just another “convicted felon - a brother Irishman” from then on.

The cover page of the letter paper given to Irish Volunteer prisoners in Lewes, stating the regulations that they had to adhere to.

Discipline at Dartmoor was strict for the Irish prisoners. They were subject to five searches a day by the guards and once a week there was a full cell examination. Communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden and the only time that they had a chance to exchange information was during the exercise runs, when the warders were out of earshot, or when lining up to move area within the prison.

As the prisoners became accustomed to life in Dartmoor, the ‘luxuries’ of home played more on their minds. The food was extremely basic, with no tea, milk, eggs or tobacco given to the prisoners. They were worked hard from 9am to 4.30pm, six days a week, making mailbags and sandbags for the war. As winter approached, the harsh conditions inside Dartmoor meant it was a difficult place to live. The prison was 300 metres above sea level and there was quite often a rolling fog that settled on the moors below, offering eerie surroundings and a damp prison cell for the Irish Volunteers there.

During their time there, the Volunteers were largely unaware of events in the outside world. Letters and conversations with visitors were limited to family news and other equally mundane subject matters. However, as they later learnt, pressure was mounting from Irish MP's in the House of Commons and from friendly nations elsewhere. This pressure led to the transfer of Irish Volunteer prisoners from Dartmoor to Lewes Jail, where another company of 65 Irishmen were being held, shortly before Christmas of 1916.

Lewes Prison was more lenient towards the Irish prisoners, allowing them to talk and walk in groups of two while in the exercise yard. It was from here that Jack Shouldice wrote letters home to his family, which have since been preserved and passed on to his son, Chris. Prisoners were only allowed one letter a month, or two in lieu of a visitor. In order to write to all those that one wished to contact, every centimetre of paper was a valuable resource and could not be wasted. This, as one can see from Jack’s letters, required meticulously neat and small handwriting. These small pieces of paper contain notes to Jack’s mother, sister Ena, youngest brother Bertie, and after his release from Frongoch Prison Camp in Wales, to Jack’s brother Frank, who had also taken part in the Rising. 

The first letter which Jack Shouldice sent to his family from Lewes Prison in December, 1916.

Jack’s letters are largely filled with enquiries about friends and family at home in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon. These letters were heavily censored, with one of the few acceptable areas of discussion being personal family matters. Beyond this one could discuss the conditions of the jail, though there was little by way of complaints in his letters, whether by Jack’s own choosing in order to shield his family from the reality of prison life or the by way of the censors conditions.  From his first letter home of 14-18th December, it is clear that Jack is worried about how his mother will fare alone in Roscommon. Prices for necessary goods in Ireland were rising fast due to wartime demand and the extra pressure that the Rising had put on the economy. Writing to his sister Ena, Jack thanks her for her letter, casually remarking that some lines were censored by the Governor. His most urgent requests seem to be for photos of his family, which make his “little house quite cheerful and homelike”. 

Jack's second letter to his family, written in February 1917.

At Lewes, Jack had succeeded in getting transferred to gardening duty, which he details in letters to his youngest brother Bertie. Jack’s role as a sewer was no longer tenable due to his ailing sight, and despite the harsh winter that they were enduring, even his own personal recollections to the Bureau of Military History were positive about the work placement. Amongst the recollections of Tom Ashe telling “amusing yarns, mostly true, of his young days in Kerry”, the harsh reality of prison life was never far away. As the weather got warmer, the men in the yard picked and ate dandelions, as well as stealing the raw parsnips which were waiting to be harvested.

By February 1917, the joy of relative improvements in conditions had worn off. Jack opens his letter of the 20th of February to his mother complaining of the poor service of the prison postal system. Aside from the frustration with the delays in receiving letters, Jack seems buoyant and relatively content in his position at prison. The reasons for this relatively complacency are twofold; firstly as Jack mentions in later years, the Volunteers were not expecting to serve their full sentence by this time, secondly, conditions outside of the prison and at home in Ireland were worsening as food prices increased even further. Inside the prison, the Volunteers were attending classes in the Irish language  and a number of other subjects. Jack tells his mother that he is taking classes in bookkeeping and shorthand writing in order to be employable on his return home. For obvious reasons, the British run Civil Service would be unwilling to allow him to continue his employment due to his active role in the Easter Rising of 1916. 

Jack's third letter sent in March, 1917.

Jack’s letter home in March of 1917 highlights his worries about the worsening economic situation in Ireland, which has now hit the Shouldice family directly. His mother is worried about money and is contemplating selling shares owned by the family even though the share price is extremely low. Jack implores her to hang on to them as he believes dividends will increase, and recommends borrowing money on the strength of these shares if possible. His worries for the family's economic situation are the focus of this letter in which he also asks about the job possibilities for his brother Frank who is not long released from his own prison sentence.

For the first time since arriving at Lewes, Jack writes to Frank directly. Frank was released from Frongoch just before Christmas 1916 as part of the general amnesty. Upon his return home, he had struggled to find work. Jack writes asking as to his situation and suggests possible avenues to find work, but quickly moves on to asking about his beloved Geraldines GAA Club. 

The fourth letter Jack sent to his family from Lewes Prison.

As Spring came along, the weather and Jack’s work outside improved. The quick dismissal of his life in prison is a clear indicator of where Jack’s thoughts and interests lay, the welfare of those back home in Ireland. It was around this time in April 1917 that Jack was moved from the vegetable patch to tending the Governor's private garden and the lawn in front of the prison. In his BMH Witness Statement, he recalls a number of conversations that he and Seamus Melinn had in which they considered that escape would be possible from this position. The proximity to the outside world is mentioned in his letter, but with their improving lot, both on the inside and relative to conditions at home, Jack never contemplated attempting an actual escape.

With the coming of Spring, Frank’s lot at home was improving too and he was given land to farm by neighbours, the Kelly family. He had been surviving off a lump sum which he had gotten from a former employer, but the constant talk of work showed the difficulties which lay ahead for the men in Lewes prison on their eventual release. Upon receiving their freedom, the returning Volunteers would be entering a very different Ireland to the one that existed prior to Easter Week 1916, when they had left their daily lives behind in order to fight for Ireland's revolutionary cause.

Jack's last prison letter April, 1917.

"My dear Mother..."

To Ena & Frank

To Frank and Bob

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Jack’s letter home on the 14th of April was to be his last sent from Lewes. It was in April 1917 that a monumental shift began to occur in British politics. In January that year, Count George Noble Plunkett (Joseph's father) had won the Roscommon North seat for Sinn Fein and a decision was made to put Joe McGuinness, Jack’s fellow prison inmate, up for election in North Longford. When the news came through that he had been successfully elected, the prison erupted with delight. The Volunteer prisoners hoisted him onto a table and McGuinness was made to give a victory speech. This was to be the start of a new era for the men in Lewes Prison.

A 1917 election poster in support of Joe McGuinness.

The election of McGuinness as an MP instilled a new strength and pride in the prisoners unlike anything that had gone before. Through Eamonn De Valera, the Volunteers made fresh demands to be recognised as political prisoners. If these demands were not to be met, every effort would be made to disobey all ordinary prison regulations. The prison Governor duly contacted the British Home Office and the men retreated to their cells awaiting a reply. When word came of the refusal of their demands, the men sprang into action. A note was tied to a weighted string and passed from cell to cell. On it, the men were informed that at 8pm that night, a verse of 'God Save Ireland' was to be sung by two of the men. At the end of the verse, every man was to smash his cell window.

Reprisals were swift. The following morning, Eamonn De Valera, Thomas Ashe, Harry Boland and Tom Hunter were transferred to Maidstone Prison. For the next week, these transfers continued to take place until all the Volunteers at Lewes had been spread out to different prisons around England. However, the order had already been given to continue the policy of non-cooperation in their new surroundings. Jack was sent to Maidstone on the third day of transfers, where all privileges were taken away from him. After a couple of days in Maidstone, the Volunteers were taken before the Governor who asked if they were prepared to obey all prison regulations in return for having their privileges restored. In response to their refusal to cooperate, prison authorities reduced the prisoner's food rations and they were subject to continual confinement in punishment cells with a small bible as their only reading material. After three days, which they spent singing Irish songs, shouting to fellow prisoners or sleeping when they could, they were taken back to regular cells and given a full ration of food. A further three days later, they were hauled before the Governor again and asked once more whether they would cooperate with all prison regulations. When they refused again, the punishment was repeated.

Jack and his fellow Volunteers return to Dublin after their release in June, 1917.

During his second stint in the isolation cells, Jack was unexpectedly brought before the prison Governor and informed of his impending release. This came as a complete shock to the men who expected to stay in prison for the duration of their sentences. They had won their freedom in a way that they had never imagined and release was almost immediate. The following morning they were sent to Pentonville Prison in London, where they spent one more night before being released.

The men were given civilian dress and boarded the train at Euston Station for their first journey as a free men. They each received tickets for rail and boat travel to any part of Ireland, along with 5 shillings and a pack of cigarettes. For Jack, the 10 cigarettes proved almost too much. In his time spent yearning, he had almost forgotten how to smoke! Their arrival at Westland Row was in much different circumstance to the way in which they had left. Returning as free men, they were greeted as heroes by the adoring crowds which had gathered to welcome them home. Although surprised at the turn-around of public opinion, the event justified for many their actions in the “small Easter Week attempt to cut the shackles that tied us to England.”

For Jack, his days penning prison letters were over. 

-  Written by Daire Collins