‘Finest Men Alive’

UCD Archives is delighted to launch our new online exhibition ‘The Finest Men Alive’: Documents of Imprisonment and Protest.

This exhibition examines the documents created by those arrested and imprisoned following the 1916 Easter Rising, firstly in Dublin and then various prisons throughout the UK until the general amnesty of June 1917. Their feelings, thoughts and hopes are expressed through their letters, diaries and notebooks. An additional perspective is also highlighted in this exhibition: that of the prisoners’ families, friends and supporters. Letters and cards were sent from Ireland by their loved ones informing the prisoners about public opinion, changes in political views, local news and their domestic lives.

These unique documents capture a pivotal time in Irish history and are housed in UCD Archives.

UCDA P150/PH/1078

Eamon de Valera and Harry Boland c1919/1920 (UCDA P150/PH/1078)

This post focuses on one amazing document featured in the online exhibition; a letter written by Harry Boland. Not only is this letter unique in its content it is also unique in its journey. In June 1917 Boland wrote a letter to his mother, Kate, on prison toilet paper which he then hid on his person. While being transferred from HM Prison Lewes to HM Prison Dartmoor he threw the letter out the window of the prison van in the hope that someone would pick it up and post it. Luckily for Boland it was picked up by an Englishwoman who forwarded it to Boland’s mother in Dublin. A typescript copy of the letter in Eamon de Valera’s Collection (UCDA P150/535) contains the little note the lady included with the letter when she posted it. It reads

This letter was picked up in the street by my daughter, and as I too have two sons doing their bit it is with pleasure I forward it to you as the writer wishes.

The letter describes the Irish rebels attempts in HM Prison Lewes to demand prisoner of war status.

We have sworn to do no work or to obey any orders whatever until the Government treat us as soldiers. We fought a clean fight and should be treated as honourable men, not as criminals.’

Having read the letter Kathleen, Boland’s sister, gave it to Michael Collins who published it as a leaflet. On 10th June 1917 a protest meeting was held at Beresford Place over the conditions prisoners had to endure in Lewes Prison in England. The two speakers at the protest were Count Plunkett and Cathal Brugha. As the protest was illegal, a contingent of Dublin Metropolitan Police led by Inspector John Mills arrived to move the crowd on. Clashes with the police soon erupted and as Inspector Mills was escorting Brugha and Plunkett to nearby Store Street Police Station, he was fatally wounded after being struck by a hurley.

UCDA P150/529

Printed leaflet of Boland’s letter distributed at the Beresford protest (UCDA P150/529).

Boland was eventually released from prison under the general amnesty of June 1917 and played an influential part in both the War of Independence and Civil War.

These important and fascinating documents shine a light on the personal side of those individuals who played and important role in the foundation and development of the modern Irish State. To discover more about this exhibition click on this link and watch Kate Manning, UCD Principal Archivist, and Dr Brian Hanley, historian, as they discuss some of the documents from collections in UCD Archives used in the exhibition ‘The Finest Men Alive’.

  • This post was researched and written by Kate Manning, Principal Archivist, UCD Archives.


Leave a Reply