|Builder:||National Shipbuilding Company, Orange, Texas|
|Laid down:||July 1917|
|Out of service:||1921 (cargo)|
|Out of service:||1925|
|Type:||Cargo ship / Prison ship|
The two deck steamer was laid down in July 1917 by the National Shipbuilding Company of Orange, Texas as Hull No. 245. Shortages of materials meant that she was wooden-hulled, with a steel keelson, stem and stern posts of oak, and timbers largely of yellow pine. This was due to shortages of metals. SS Argenta was launched in May 1919.
Argenta's career as a cargo ship was short. As early as November 1919, there were some signs of leakage, and the ship was out of service from late 1921. Condemned and declared unseaworthy in May 1922, she was then sold for use as a prison ship (a prison hulk) by the British Royal Navy.
During the 1920s, the vessel was used by the British government as a military base and prison ship for holding Irish Republicans as part of Britain's internment strategy following the events of "Bloody Sunday" in 1920.
By February 1923, under the 1922 Special Powers Act the British were detaining 263 men on the Argenta, which was moored in Belfast Lough. This was supplemented with internment at other land based sites, such as Larne workhouse, Belfast Prison and Derry Gaol. Together, both the ship and the workhouse alone held 542 men without trial at the highest internment population level during June 1923.
Conditions on the prison ship Argenta were "unbelievable" according to Denise Kleinrichert who wrote the hidden history of the 1920s' "floating gulag" in Republican Internment and the Prison Ship Argenta, 1922.
Cloistered below decks in cages which held 50 internees, the prisoners were forced to use broken toilets, which overflowed frequently into their communal area. Deprived of tables, the already weakened men ate off the floor, frequently succumbing to disease and illness as a result. There were several hunger strikes, including a major strike involving upwards of 150 men in the winter of 1923.
In 2011 a rare and unusual autograph book from the Argenta, with a large number of signatures of prisoners, almost all with Northern Ireland addresses, mostly late 1922, was auctioned by Mealys Rare Books Limited. Signatures include Mícheál mac Eochaidh, W. Quillan, Packie Murphy, J.P. Kearns, Michael Carraher, Charlie Magee, Peter Rafferty, Mick McIlhatton, Frankie Corr, Owen Montague (Patronymic Teague; County Tyrone,) John Grimes, John Bell, Joseph McKenny, Michael O'Neill, Liam Ua Donngaile, Art Mac Partolon (quoting Shakespeare), F.G. Duffy, Jim Rooney, Seosamh O Cianain, and Patrick Gormley.
An inscription from the book is: ‘When you are on some lonely road, Waiting some friends to see, Let your thoughts turn towards the Argenta, And sometimes think of me ..’ — Frankie Corr
As a result of author Denise Kleinrichert's lobbying efforts, the files of all the internees — most of them named in an appendix to her book — are now available for viewing at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).
- Kleinrichert, Denise (2001). Republican internment and the prison ship Argenta 1922. Irish Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-7165-2683-4.