DFallon’s great piece on Ettie Steinberg yesterday got me thinking about another unusual tale regarding the Irish and the Second World War. That is the story of John McGrath of Roscommon who became the only Irishman to be imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp.
If you stand in the Schubraum section of the Museum Building in Dachau, you will see a large map of Europe on the wall. Over each country is a number, indicating how many of their citizens were imprisoned in the camp. The number ‘1’ is marked over Ireland.
John McGrath (c1893 – Nov 27 1946), was born in Elphin, Roscommon and educated at the Christian Brothers’ Schools in Carrick-On-Shannon. Joining the British Army, he saw action in France in World War One.
Returning home safely he worked, as an administrative staff assistant, with the Gordon Hotel in London and then was involved with the organising of the Grand Prix Motor Race in the Phoenix Park and the Military Tattoo in Landsdowne Road in the late 1920s
He became the first House Manager of the new Savoy Cinema in Dublin in 1929, staying there for two years. When the Savoy Cinema in Cork was opened, he was sent down to manage it and worked there for a further two years. Returning to Dublin, in 1935, to manage the Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street, McGrath was recalled up to the British Army, as major, at the outbreak of war in 1939.
Landing with the Allies in Dunkirk in May 1940, McGrath was one of the ‘small Allied band’ who fought in France after the evacuation. He was wounded twice in battle near Rouen, Normandy before finally being captured by the Nazis. McGrath, now a Colonel, along with other captured POWs were then forced to march over four hundred miles to Germany. At least two hundred of the captured men died of exhaustion en route.
Brought to the Oflag (officers camp) in Luckenwalde, he was imprisoned there for just under twelve months.
McGrath was then transferred to the Friesack Camp, a special camp for Irishmen of the British Army. Here, the Irish were made various offers by the Nazis that in return for their freedom, they could become German agents and help sabotage the war effort in England, German and Scotland. “These men”, Col. McGrath said in a 1946 interview, “were continually being interviewed in secret, and all kinds of proposals, including very lucrative offers, were made to them. In not one single case did the Germans succeed…”
After nine months of trying, the Germans gave up trying to ‘turn’ the 180 Irishman in the camp.
Around this time, McGrath was caught attempting to pass information about the camp to the Irish legislation in Rome and sent to the infamous Sachsenhausen near Frankfurt
On arrival he was “stripped, searched and arrested by the Gestapo” and lodged in the prison section of the camp. For the next year, he was kept in near solitary confinement.
(For a full account of McGrath’s actions and imprisonment in Germany, read Terence O’Reilly’s Hitler’s Irishmen (2008))
McGrath was transferred yet again, this time to the even more notorious Dachau concentration camp. One of the Nazis first prison camps, it would claim the lives of over 30,000 prisoners.
Here, even ‘important’ prisoners like McGrath had their heads shaved, were forced to wear the striped camp uniform and were subject to regular beatings from the brutal SS guards. (O’Reilly: 114)
For nearly two years, McGrath struggled and survived in the camp becoming its the first and only ever Irish inmate.
In the summer of 1945 with the U.S. 7th army sweeping through France and Germany, the SS marched the ‘principal captives’ of Dachau, which included McGrath, to Inssbruck and then to Tyrol in Austria.
There, lodged in a hotel which had been closed for six years, McGrath and 130 other people were locked away in the bitter cold with little or no food. They were literally on the verge of death.
In an amazing turn of events, the U.S. army tracked the S.S. and the prisoners to Tyrol. Taking them completely by surprise, the U.S. took prisoner the 150 S.S. men who had guarded Dachau
From captured documents, it was revealed that McGrath’s party were not supposed to ‘fall into the hands of the Allies alive’. He had survived death yet again.
The liberated prisoners were then ‘speedily’ driven to Verona and then by plane to Naples. He then was brought back to Ireland via London.
A special reception, hosted by his employers in the Theatre Royal, in the Royal tea lounge marked his arrival back to Dublin in June 1945.
After a couple of months of respite McGrath, now decorated with an Order of the British Empire (OBE), returned to his job as manager of the cinema on Hawkins Street.
Never fully recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of his imprisonment in Germany, McGrath passed away, in his house at 38 Merrion Square, in November 1946.
Though he was only in his early 50s, he had lived a truly remarkable life. Having fought in two world wars, Lt. Col. John McGrath then managed to survive the brutal existence of four different concentration camps. The last of these was Dachau, one of the most horrific prisons of the whole war.
He should be remembered.
+ The Irish Independent ( Jun 07, 1945; June 14, 1945; Nov 29, 1946), The Irish Press (Nov 29, 1946), The Irish Times (17 May 1945; 29 Nov 1946), The Leitrim Observer (Nov 30, 1929; June 16, 1945)
+ Terence O’Reilly, Hitler’s Irishmen (Dublin, 2008)