Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

15 October 1998 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Post-Civil War hunger-strikes

By Wayne Sugg

The Civil War in Ireland began in earnest on 28 June 1922 with the fledgling state's attack on the republican outpost in the Four Courts in Dublin. It ended with the ceasefire and dump arms order on 23 May 1923 by the IRA's Chief of Staff Frank Aiken. Eleven months of civil war were at an end, but even so six months later the state continued to extract revenge on those who dared challenge their new found `authority', keeping over 12,000 men and women imprisoned, hounding others out of their country, forcing them out of employment and harassing republicans in any way, legal and illegal, they could.

By October of 1923 tension was building among the imprisoned republicans because of the conditions in the jails and camps in which they were incarcerated and because they were still imprisoned with no release in sight. On 13 October they resolved to begin a hunger-strike to highlight their demands and alleviate their plight. The O/C of the republican POWs in Mountjoy Jail, Michael Kilroy, announced a hunger-strike of 300 POWs in the jail. The hunger-strike soon spread to the other jails and within a matter of days 7,033 republicans were on hunger-strike. The figures given by Sinn Féin at the time were Mountjoy Jail 462; Cork Jail 70; Kilkenny Jail 350; Dundalk Jail 200; Gormanstown Camp 711; Newbridge Camp 1,700; Tintown 1,2,3, Curragh Camp 3,390; Harepark Camp 100; and, 50 women in the North Dublin Union.

This was not the first hunger-strike by republicans against the treatment meted out by the Free State authorities. In February 23 members of Cumann na mBan, including Mary and Annie MacSwiney, Lily Brennan and Nellie Ryan, sister-in-law of the Free State's Commander-in-Chief and Defence Minister Richard Mulcahy, went on hunger-strike for 34 days. This hunger-strike began because of the illegal arrest and imprisonment without trial of some prisoners. The hunger-strike resulted in the release of the women hunger-strikers.

The Free State authorities were so disgusted at having been forced to concede to the hunger-strikers' demands that a motion was passed by them in parliament outlawing the release of prisoners because of a hunger-strike. Two prisoners died on hunger-strike before October, Joe Whitty (19) in the Curragh Camp on 2 September and Dan Downey, who died in Curragh's Hospital Wing on 10 June because of the effects of an earlier hunger-strike.

The large numbers of POWs joining the October hunger-strike instantly attracted the attention of the authorities. Despite their earlier stance of ignoring any hunger-strikes the Free State understood that because of the amount of republicans on the protest this hunger-strike was different. If large amounts of deaths occurred public opinion would swing away from the state to the Republican Movement and could jeopardise the little stability the state had gained.

The government decided to send a delegation under their Vice-president Ernest Blythe to meet IRA officers in Newbridge Camp to try to end the hunger-strikes. The delegations met at the end of October and though it was the IRA officers' intention to negotiate the hunger-strikers' demands it became clear that Blythe was only there to convey a government message, ``we are not going to force feed you, but if you die we won't waste coffins on you; you will be put in orange boxes and you will be buried in unconsecrated ground''. This was from the man who once stated that any British soldier on Irish soil should be sent home in a coffin. The meeting was quickly abandoned.

The large number of POWs going on hunger-strike was not only a problem for the Free State authorities, but also for the IRA leadership. The IRA Executive had little say in the hunger-strike, being informed only after it began. Some IRA officers within the prisons, such as Liam Pilkington and Joe Harrington, sought to limit the number joining the protest, but the request was turned down in case it caused bitterness among the prisoners if one prisoner was picked over another. The IRA Executive in consultation with the O/Cs of the prisoners in each prison left the decision to join the protest or not to each prisoner, but issued orders that those physically unfit should not take part.

One such prisoner who was exempt due to continued bad health, having been seriously wounded when captured, decided to ignore the Army directive. He felt he should not be excused from the protest when Volunteers as young as May Zambra (16) were willing to lay their lives on the line for others.

The problem with the IRA's Executive's decision in leaving the decision to participate or not with the individual was that some took part in the hunger-strike without fully thinking its implications through. Within weeks many were drifting off the hunger-strike. In Cork the prisoners who came off the strike said they'd been promised the release of 33 within 48 hours and the remainder within three weeks. At the end of October there were still 5,000 on hunger-strike who were determined to achieve their aims.

But on 20 November, Commandant Dinny Barry of Blackrock, County Cork, died after 34 days on hunger-strike in Newbridge Camp. A 1916 Volunteer who'd been interned in Frongoch, Dinny was the O/C for the republican police in Cork's Ist Brigade area. The Free State government in a statement said that his remains would remain within official premises of the state. Within five days however, that decision was reversed (it was legally unsustainable as Dinny Barry had not been convicted of any crime in the state's courts). His remains were handed to his relatives and lay in state overnight in the Town Hall, Newbridge, before being removed the following day to Cork, where they were interred in the Republican Plot in St Finbar's Cemetery. The republican TD David Kent recited prayers at the graveside as the Cork bishop, Dr Daniel Cohalan, had refused to allow any priest to officiate at the funeral.

On 22 November, Volunteer Andy Sullivan from County Cork died in Mountjoy after 40 days on hunger-strike. His remains were interred in Mallow Cemetery.

With the Free State authorities still refusing to grant concessions to the POWs after the two tragic deaths, the IRA command in the jails ended the hunger-strike on 23 November. Tom Derrig, David Robinson and Liam Hearty were given passes to the various jails to inform the POWs' O/Cs of the decision. Some prisoners wanted to continue, especially those from Cork who'd seen two of their fellow countymen die, but all agreed to obey the order.

Though the strike itself failed it did set in motion a release programme for the prisoners with the state being afraid of a repeat of the strike the following year. Many prisoners were to remain locked up, some not being released until as late as 1932. Though the strike ended on 23 November 1923 its effects on the participants lasted for years. Lack of adequate medical attention, health complications and the conditions in which the prisoners were held led to the untimely death shortly afterwards of many, including May Zambra and Joe Lacey.

Two IRA Volunteers died on the mass hunger-strike which commenced 75 years ago this week.

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