Ireland’s Wars: Hunger Strikes

Hunger striking can be generally defined as the act of refusing food and other nutrients as a form of political protest, usually undertaken by prisoners or anti-government activists as a means of attempting to force some manner of policy change. It is essentially a threat to commit suicide in a particularly slow and grisly fashion in order to cause guilt in those held responsible for the conditions in which the strike is carried out. Variously seen as a desperate ploy or a calculated gesture of defiance, hunger striking was not new to Ireland during the revolutionary period, but in the first half of 1920 it took centre stage for a time, a drama that would dominate headlines at home and abroad, and provide a serious test of the Dublin administration’s mettle.

Hunger striking may not have originated in Ireland, but there is evidence that the practise did exist here in pre-Christian days. To engage in “Troscadh” was to deliberately starve oneself at the doorstep of another who was responsible for some injustice against you: an attempt to shame this individual, by threatening their social obligations of hospitality and guest-friendship. The sources are murky, but the activity may have been part and parcel of the Brehon Law system, though it is unknown if the idea was to starve yourself to death, or to just undertaken a fast for a single day.

Plenty of other cultures since, most notably in India, have undertaken hunger striking as a means of protest, but in the era we are discussing now, it was most popularly associated with the suffragette movement. Women seeking the vote in the United States and Great Britain, imprisoned for their protests, had undertaken hunger strikes as a means of continuing those protests while incarcerated, and some had died in the process. Others suffered lasting physical and mental trauma from both the strike, and the authorities’ efforts to stop them, usual through the process of force-feeding, an extremely invasive and potentially quite damaging procedure.

The first significant hunger strike in Ireland during this period is one we have discussed already, that took place in September of 1917. A number of republican prisoners, arrested again after having previously served stints in various prisons, went on hunger strike to protest the conditions in which they were held. One of them, Thomas Ashe, died after being the subject of force feeding. The others were released shortly afterwards, the British authorities wary of creating more martyrs. Both the nominal success of the act, and how imprisonment could be turned into a other method of hurting the British position in the propaganda war, did not go unnoticed.

April of 1920 was the next chance for the republican movement to put British resolve to the test with such tactics. A large number of Volunteers were being held in Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin, at the time, chief among them Peadar Clancy, the vice-commandant of the Dublin Brigade. In consultation with other members of the Brigade and GHQ, Clancy led a movement that demanded political status for republican prisoners. Aside from such a declaration aiding the Republic’s cause generally, the practical demands were for such prisoners to be separated from “actual” criminals, to not be obligated to work within the prison, and to enjoy a variety of other privileges. The authorities, naturally enough, refused. 90 men went on hunger strike.

The actual effects of a hunger strike are quick enough. The human body, if in relatively good health, can last for three days without food with no major side effects. After that, the body consumes fat for energy, and when that is gone it starts taking what it needs from the organs and bone marrow, which inevitably results in a life-threatening condition for the striker. Within a few days the men in Mountjoy – who, given the nature of their confinement, probably didn’t have all that much in the way of fat reserves – were declared to be in imminent danger of death by the prison’s medical officer.

The Mountjoy strike captured the attention of the public throughout Ireland and Great Britain rapidly enough. It was the subject of bitter debates in Parliament, and condemnation from numerous press outlets. The London cabinet demurred to the Dublin administration to decide matters, but essentially urged restraint. In the meantime, thousands of pro-republican civilians, most of them women, assembled around the prison to protest and to generally act as if they were already mourning the strikers. Military intervention failed to quell these protests, not even when an RAF airplane was ordered to “buzz” the crowds in efforts to disperse them. Sympathetic labour strikes erupted in Dublin also.

John French was loath to concede, but it was pressed upon him that the worst outcome of all would be the men dying: the memory of Thomas Ashe, and the enormous emotional power of his funeral, was brought up again and again. Reluctantly, he conceded to the demands of “political” status, and then to the release of many of the strikers. The strike had lasted only a few days, with no fatalities, but had achieved its goal. Worse for the British, due to a catastrophic administration error, dozens of men were released that should not have been, instantly seized upon by the IRA and Sinn Fein as yet another stunning triumph. Morale among the “Crown Forces”, especially the police, plummeted still further. Other hunger strikes soon began in prisons throughout the country.

It was perhaps the nature of that final humiliation that informed the British approach to the next round of truly significant hunger strikes, or maybe it was more to do with how the war continued to intensify throughout 1920. Either way, the end result was worse. On the 12th August, a number of high ranking figures in the Cork IRA were arrested as a result of a raid on Cork’s City Hall. The British didn’t realise what exactly they had – among those arrested were Sean O’Hegarty and Liam Lynch – releasing all of the prisoners in the following days, except one. The one, was Terence MacSwiney.

Cork City born and bred, MacSwiney was of a hardcore Catholic nationalist family. A playwright and poet when he wasn’t pursuing accountancy, he was one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers in Cork, and served as Tomas Mac Curtain’s right hand man for years, which included Cork’s aborted part in the Easter Rising. After various stints in prison – one of which included a brief hunger strike, inspired by Ashe – he resumed his activities, adding to them membership of the First Dail. Upon Mac Curtain’s death, MacSwiney took a greater role in Cork operations, as well as being elected the next Lord Mayor: in his inaugural address, he notably said “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer”.

Arrested again, MacSwiney was only charged with a relatively minor offence, but refused to cooperate with his jailers or to recognise the authority of their court. Almost as soon as he was detained, he began another hunger strike: he was in the fifth day of it when sentenced to two years imprisonment. An incredible 68 days later, after he had been transferred to confinement in Britain, his strike was still continuing.

MacSwiney’s epic protest captured hearts and mind throughout the world. There were similar hunger strikes from republican prisoners in Cork; Irish media condemned his treatment; mass protests took place throughout Ireland. International opinion was also brought to bear, with threatened boycotts of British goods in the US, protests in continental Europe, appeals from some South American countries for the Pope to intervene, the expulsion of a sympathetic MP from the Australian parliament and a mountain of negative media attention. Numerous figures, from American politicians campaigning in their Presidential election, to a young Vietnamese dishwasher living in the UK named Nguyễn Tất Thành – the future Ho Chi Minh – took note of what was happening. But the British cabinet now dug in their heels, insisting that the rule of law and order could not be allowed to lapse because of such activities, and further arguing that the morale of the police and army in Ireland could not take another surrender to republican prisoners.

The IRA and Sinn Fein used the strike for all it was worth, but as time wore on and MacSwiney’s condition worsened, senior figures realised that this time the British would not be compelled to back down. Michael Collins sent messages to MacSwiney urging him to relent, as he would be worth more to the cause alive than dead, sentiments matched by Arthur Griffith: neither man had much time for hunger striking as a weapon, associating it with what Collins saw as the pointlessness of “blood sacrifice” ala 1916. MacSwiney refused: there is some evidence to suggest that he saw the strike, and his immense suffering, as an atonement for his lack of action in 1916.

Efforts were made by prison authorities to get him to eat voluntarily, which failed, though there was, then and now, suspicions that MacSwiney was being fed somehow, hence the length of the strike. Finally, force feeding was attempted, to no effect (it was often pointless, as both the severity of the act and the actions of the prisoner would result in the food being expelled afterwards). MacSwiney slipped into a coma, and on the 25th October, 73 days after he began the strike, he died. Two of the men striking similarly in Cork, Volunteers named Michael FitzGerald (who had taken part in the Fermoy ambush) and Joe Murphy, also died. MacSwiney’s Dail seat would eventually go to his sister Mary, who would become a significant republican figure in her own right.

Perhaps Lloyd George could be satisfied that they had not given in, but the outcome was a loss for the British. So many, in Ireland and abroad, were outraged by the deaths. MacSwiney’s funeral became another great republican propaganda piece. Clergy placed his name on the same level of Edward FitzGerald, Robert Emmett and Padraig Pearse, and the Dail declared a national day of mourning. The British created more martyrs, and more resentment, as they had done and would again throughout the revolutionary period: while all of this was going on, another drama unfolded that we will cover in time, concerning an 18-year-old Volunteer named Kevin Barry. In a war being fought for the hearts and minds of the Irish people as much as anything, these were self-inflicted wounds by the British.

As for the other strikers, enough was enough. On Griffith’s insistence, they gave up the strike and resumed eating, perhaps satisfied that the point had been made, and knowing that no matter what, they had captured the attention of the Irish population and the world’s media. But it was not the last time in this period that Irish republicans would resort to the measure. The next time of real note, it would be in very different circumstances.

All the while, the more traditional aspects of the war continued. In the next entry we move back to the conflict in Dublin, to discuss the further activities of “the twelve apostles”.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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15 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Hunger Strikes

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