13 November 2023
Two Republicans died during mass hunger strike 100 years ago
Remembering the Past - 100 years ago
While Civil War as an armed conflict had ended in early summer 1923, the Counter-Revolution led by the Free State government continued and those who bore the worst of it were over 11,000 Republican prisoners held in jails, internment camps and other places of detention throughout the Free State.
There were many protests by the prisoners and their relatives, including individual hunger strikes and on one of these protests Joseph Whitty of Wexford died on 2 August 1923. (see Remembering the Past 2 August 2023). Then, at the start of October, a hunger strike began in Mountjoy Jail and it was quickly joined by Republican prisoners across the country until up to 8,000 were on the protest fast.
Two prisoners died on the mass hunger strike. Denis Barry died in the Curragh Camp in County Kildare where over 3,000 Republicans prisoners were held while Andy O’Sullivan died in Mountjoy where there were over 400.
Denis Barry came from Riverstick, County Cork. Born in 1883, he was a Gaelic Leaguer, a hurler, a trade unionist, a Fianna Éireann and Sinn Féin activist, a trade unionist and a Commandant in the IRA. He was in charge of the Republican Police in Cork during the Black and Tan war. When his friend and comrade Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in London in October 1920, Denis Barry was one of those who accompanied his body home to Cork City to receive a national funeral attended by tens of thousands of people with Catholic bishops prominent, a fact that Denis’s family would have cause to remember.
A strong opponent of the 1921 Treaty, Denis Barry stood by the Republic and in October 1922 was arrested and held in Cork Jail before transfer to the Curragh Camp. A year later, with harsh conditions and no sign of release for him and his thousands of comrades, Denis Barry joined the hunger strike. He died after 35 days without food on 20 November 1923.
Denis Barry’s family was doubly denied their right to grieve in the way that they wished. First, the Free State regime refused to hand over the body and they buried Denis in the Curragh Camp. It took a court order to have the body disinterred and released to his family. Then Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork intervened. Cohalan was an arch-hypocrite and reactionary who denounced Republicans and excommunicated IRA Volunteers during the Tan war. When he saw the national and international support for Terence MacSwiney, he publicly praised him and officiated at his funeral. But when MacSwiney’s comrade Denis Barry died, Cohalan ordered that he be refused a Christian burial. All churches in Cork were barred to him and no priest was allowed even to offer prayers at the graveside. Nonetheless thousands of people turned out on the streets of Cork to honour the hunger striker who was laid to rest by his Republican comrades in St Finbarr’s Cemetery.
Terence MacSwiney’s sister Mary, a prominent Republican, protested at the bishop’s actions against Denis Barry and Cohalan then issued a vitriolic letter falsely claiming that she had allowed her brother to die by discouraging him from ending his hunger strike. Mary repeatedly sought redress for this from the Vatican but was refused.
By the time of Denis’s funeral, a second hunger striker had died. Andy O’Sullivan hailed from Denbawn, Co. Cavan and was a year older than Denis Barry. After completing a degree in Agriculture in Dublin, he moved to Mallow, Co. Cork to work as a farm inspector. He operated with the IRA in North Cork and the First Southern Division during the Tan war. Little is known of his activities during this period but he was reputed to have been involved in important intelligence work.
Andy O’Sullivan opposed the 1921 Treaty and remained with the IRA. He was arrested and interned on Mountjoy in July 1923. He joined the hunger strike on 14 October. On 7 November he wrote to his brother:
“My heart is so set on the freedom of my Poblacht that my spare moments are always devoted to devising ways and means to expedite that Glorious Dawn…I am quite at peace, prepared and content. There will be no swerving from the straight rugged path to the goal. I set the motto for the strike ‘Freedom or Death’.”
Andy O’Sullivan died on 22 November 1923. He funeral was to the New Cemetery, Mallow and was attended by large crowds. The mass hunger strike ended the following day. The Free State government made no concessions and there was no general release of prisoners. Instead they were gradually released over the following year, many facing lives of poverty in the new state which was a cold house for Republicans.
Denis Barry and Andy O’Sullivan, Republican hunger strikers, died 100 years ago this month.