Campbell was born in Belfast, in 1879, into a Catholic and Irish nationalist family from County Down. He was educated at St Malachy’s College, Belfast. Working for his father, a builder, led him to having some kind of nervous collapse, followed by a slow recovery. He taught for a while, and, partly through a cousin who was a poet, became interested in the Irish language and folk music. He travelled to Dublin in 1902, meeting leading nationalist figures. By 1904, he had written the ballad My Lagan Love, the most successful of his early poems, and helped set up the Ulster Literary Theatre. He moved to London in 1906, where he continued to teach and was involved in Irish literary activities.
In 1910, Campbell married Nancy Maude, and they returned to Ireland, to live in Dublin, then Wicklow. They had five children. His play Judgement was performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1912. He began to act as publicist and recruiter for the Irish Volunteers; and he was engaged in rescue-work during the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1921, he became a Sinn Féin Councillor, and was opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The following year he was interned, by the newly established Irish Free State, for 18 months.
According to Irish Archives Resource, Campbell left behind several diaries. However, the only one to have been made public, as far as I know, is the one he wrote on scraps of paper secretly during his internment. This was edited by Eiléan Ní Chuileanain and published by Cork University Press in 2001 as As I was Among the Captives: Joseph Campbell’s Prison Diary 1922-1923.
Cork University Press says Campbell’s voluminous diaries provide much more than a chronicle of events and experiences: ‘Being the work of a skilled writer and acute observer, they offer revealing cameos of his republican colleagues, vivid notes of personal conversations, and imaginative reflections on the psychological effects of incarceration. Sympathetically edited by another distinguished poet and scholar, this selection from his diaries will fascinate all students of the Irish Civil War.’
6 June 1922
‘I am a prisoner in the Royal Hotel, Main St., Bray. Arrested by Free State Army on information of an ex-soldier in street. Rotten accommodation and no food so far. The O. C. is a grocer’s assistant in Clery’s shop in Main St. Treats me like a dog. No charge formulated yet. I am one of six other prisoners - one of them Frank Crowley of Shankhill. Up the Republic!’
7 December 1922
‘The architects of the ‘Free’ State - Collins & Griffith - by a miraculous interposition of providence have gone. So surely as I write this will the Free State go itself. Dishonour is a bad foundation to build on.
If I ever felt unconvinced the Mountjoy was Hell, I am convinced today. Such a pandemonium of metallic sound in the Circle! Old pipes, bars, scrap of all kinds from one of the Wings is being removed. Oh! God keep me sane in mind through it all - the Powers of Darkness gird me round about.
As I was washing mugs at A2 Lavatory before going to bed (10 p.m.) was told that Sean Hales & Padraic O Maille had been fired at as they were getting on a hack car outside Exchange Hotel. First killed, second wounded.
“How do you mean?” “H-how? Not so much of my dear F-frank. H-h-hump off out of my cell!” Blue-black shiny hair. Pugnacious face. Queer dry ironic humour. Chess. Cards. Savonarola.’
8 December 1922
‘As I came in darkness had fallen. Guards jangling their keys in the gloom. No lights (or few - 3 or 4 - in compound.) Prisoners moving about like figures in a Cyclops’ forge (Vulcan’s stithy) - with flaring pieces of paper to light the gas in their cells. (Or like workers in a bottle factory.) The sight gave me a curious aesthetic ‘lift’ - suggested Wagner’s music, somehow. Confused babel of voices - prisoners at doors waiting for tea - tin mugs being rattled together. Clarke’s voice bawling (as if being strangled!) in A1. Oh, God save Ireland from further horrors! We have supped full enough.’
9 December 1922
‘Ireland is a hot desert of sand into which blood is poured. Seven centuries of pouring. It still thirsts for more - & the more disappears. When will it have drunk its fill of blood? When will the bloody manuring bear fruit?’
19 October 1923
‘Night of high wind - but slept well. Did not eat breakfast of Hovis bread and cheese I had set on plate under my bed over night. Meant to breakfast at 5 a.m. - HUNGER-STRIKE begins at 6 a.m. for unconditional release. P. A.’s knocking and running stones along corrugations (they know, as notice of strike was sent to Governor by our O/C before lock-up the previous evening).’