Wire cages and clogged latrines: when the prison ship came to Belfast

Teachers, farmers, shop assistants and post office workers were rounded up in what became the greatest mass arrest in the history of Northern Ireland

Belfast Lough played host to the prison ship Argenta 100 years ago. It was used to hold suspected Sinn Féin and IRA activists who were rounded up in May 1922 under new legislation aimed at soothing the difficult birth of Northern Ireland.

In 1920-1922 more than 550 people were killed in communal violence in Northern Ireland. The purpose of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was to calm the situation. Sir James Craig’s government thought the best way to do this was to round up people they suspected were connected to the violence.

On the night of May 22nd, 1922 more than 280 men were arrested. That figure increased to almost 350 a couple of days later, making it the greatest mass arrest in the history of Northern Ireland. Several members of Cumann na mBan were also rounded up, including Lizzie Keown and Winifred Carney.

The men were held in prisons and military barracks throughout the six counties before being transferred to the newly converted prison ship in June. Among them were teachers, farmers, shop assistants, auctioneers, post office workers and doctors.


The ship was bought by the government in May and although thousands of pounds were spent adapting it from a cargo ship to a prison ship, it was unsuitable for the task. The two deck wooden-hulled steamship started off life on the other side of the Atlantic as the SS Argenta.

Built in Orange, Texas in July 1917, it was launched in May 1919 as part of the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC). The purpose of the EFC was to transport American troops and their supplies to France during the first World War.

The ship was used in the US until 1921 when it was deemed unseaworthy by US authorities. It was sold to the Northern government in May 1922 for £3,000. The total cost, including refitting, came to about £20,000. Conditions on-board could be described as primitive at best.

The men were held below deck in eight iron-wire cages that measured 40ft long by 20ft wide and 8ft high. Apart from the cramped conditions, the men suffered from malnourishment and disease. This was due to the poor quality of the food and unsanitary conditions.

Food served to the internees was described as bland, consisting of a variety of boiled beef, corned beef, boiled pork or bacon and boiled fish. Breakfast at 8am was made up of a pint of stirabout or porridge and tea, milk, bread and margarine.

Dinner at 12:30pm or 1pm usually included some meat with potatoes, cabbage and bread. However, as there were no tables, bread had to be cut on the floor of the ship.

The men ate sitting on their iron bunk beds or squatting on the floor. Supper at 6pm consisted of a pint of tea or cocoa and a half-pint of milk. Two ounces of cheese or golden syrup were served along with bread and margarine.

Denise Kleinrichert gives an excellent account of the ship and its history in her book Republican Internment and the Prison Ship Argenta 1922. In a list of items that were placed on board before it opened, Kleinrichert includes 808 hand towels, 202 blankets, 184 sheets and 480 toothbrushes. Surprisingly, included in the list is a small number of luxury items, presumably for use by the staff on-board. This includes one cushion sofa, two feather pillows, and six dinner forks.

The Argenta’s governor was a former governor of Glasgow prison who played rugby for Scotland, named AD Drysdale. The wardens came from the ranks of the A Specials (full-time paid members of the Special Constabulary). They lived on-board and generally got on with the men they were guarding. Some armed Specials were stationed in sentry boxes on the deck in case the ship came under attack.

Life on-board was difficult for the internees, who were locked up for 22 hours a day. Initially, they washed using cold seawater. Ventilation was bad as there were no portholes below deck and the latrines were frequently clogged.

A large number of the men resorted to a hunger strike to highlight their plight and several unsuccessful escape attempts were made. While some men jumped overboard in a bid to swim to freedom, wire cages were cut and there was even an attempt made to scuttle the ship. The warders were not happy with conditions either and this resulted in dismissals and resignations within their ranks.

One of the internees was nationalist politician Cahir Healy. A few months after he was interned in May 1922, Healy was elected MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone. Questions were raised in Westminster in December 1923 about his continued detention but the issue of who had jurisdiction over the Argenta was called into question. He was eventually released in February 1924.