A hunger for justice

Peter Berresford Ellis provides a short history of hunger-strikes in Ireland

AFTER SOME absence, obviously due to a confused death-wish desire to pander to the perceived sensibilities of their imperial Big Sister neighbour, the Irish state is once again showing some backbone in commemorating the 1916 Insurrection, the act that was eventually to lead to the re-emergence of a self-governing Ireland.

Since 1966 the Irish government's lack of enthusiasm to acknowledge 1916 has often been questioned. Imagine the United States of America trying to downplay 4 July because they didn't want to hurt the feelings of their `special relationship' partners?

One might even think that most of those junketing around Leinster House had no knowledge of their country's recent history. Of course, without mentioning names - the names are well known to us anyway - there are many historians who would like to rewrite Irish history and airbrush all the nationalist and republican elements out of it starting with the United Irishmen and 1798.

However, there is another poignant anniversary this year that will be commemorated by many. It will be the 25th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands MP, Kieran Doherty TD and eight other Irish political prisoners while in a British prison. Bobby Sands died on 5 May 1981, after sixty-six days of protest.

The hunger strike was not an isolated incident. It was part of a very ancient Irish tradition, although it seems that James Connolly was the first to use it in 1913 as tool of political protest in 20th century Ireland.

From 20 September 1917, Irish internees used the hunger strike as a means of trying to secure their rights from an implacable enemy. Thomas Ashe, former principal of Corduff National School and close friend of Seán O'Casey, was the first to die after an attempted force-feeding.

Fasting as a means of asserting one's rights when faced with no other means of obtaining redress is something that has been embedded in Irish culture from ancient times. Even when the ancient Irish law system, the Laws of the Fénechus, which we popularly called the Brehon Laws from the word breitheamh, a judge, were first codified in AD 438, the law relating to the troscad, or hunger strike, was ancient.

The hunger striker gave notice of their intent and, according to the law tract Di Chetharslicht Athgabhála, if the person who is being fasted against does not come to arbitration, and actually allows the protester to die, then the moral judgement went against them and they endured shame and contempt until they made recompense to the family of the dead person. If they failed to make such amends, they were not only damned by society but damned in the next world. They were held to be without honour and without morality.

The troscad in Irish law was to be found paralleled in another Indo-European culture; that of Hindu India where the Laws of Manu describe a similar protest as 'acharitan' in which the faster sat dharna against the wrongdoer. It became a major weapon in Mahatma Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence.

The ancient Irish texts are full of examples of people fasting to assert their rights and shame powerful enemies into accepting their moral obligations. St Patrick is recorded to have done so according to the Tripartite Life of St Patrick. And, in the Life of St Ailbe, we found St Lugid and St Salchin, carrying out ritual fasts to protest.

Even King Conall Dearg of Connacht fasted when he found his rights infringed. And the entire population of Leinster fasted against St Colmcille when he rode roughshod over their rights. The poet Mairgen mac Amalgado mac Mael Ruain of the Deisi fasted against another poet Finguine over an act of perceived injustice.

The troscad continued in Irish law throughout the centuries until the English conquests proscribed the native law system and foisted English law on Ireland through a series of Acts between 1587 and 1613.

Nevertheless, individual fasts against the cruelties of the English colonial administration are recorded several times over the subsequent years.

Following 1798, according to the United Irishman, Roger O'Connor, he and several prisoners went on hunger strike while in jail to secure better conditions. And through the 1860s to the 1880s members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians) also found recourse to its use for bettering the appalling conditions they suffered in prison.

Yet, of course, in popular folk memory we think of it as a weapon first used in the early 20th century by the women's suffrage movement in London, especially members of the Women's Social and Political Union led by Emmeline Pankhurst. But it is interesting to remember that many influential leaders of the movement were Irish women - Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Margaret Cousins of Co. Roscommon, Mary Stangman of Waterford.

Some historians have claimed it was they who introduced the hunger strike as a weapon in 1912.

In Ireland, following the 1917 hunger strikes, the first major series of such protests took place in April, 1920, when republican prisoners demanded political status. Although the London government announced concessions, as soon as the hunger strike ended, the same conditions were reasserted. It would not be the last time that London government resorted to duplicity to attempt to end such strikes.

The day after the betrayal, republican prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, London declared a new hunger strike. Sympathisers gathered outside the prison and were attacked by organised mobs of people while the police looked on and were even seen to encourage the xenophobic thuggery. Among the many injured were 70 women and children. However, the government finally conceded to the prisoners' demands. The New Statesman observed:

"In the last resort, subject peoples have an argument to which there is no reply."

Of the many hunger strikes during the Irish War of Independence none caught the world's imagination than that of the lord mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney.

MacSwiney was arrested while presiding at a meeting of the Cork City Corporation in City Hall. He was taken on board and British warship and transported to London. Protesting his illegal removal from his own country, the lord mayor died in Brixton Prison on the 74th day of his hunger strike on 25 October, 1920.

MacSwiney's death was poignant in that he was an elected leader of his people, an intellectual, academic, poet and dramatist whose best known work was The Principles of Freedom in which he said:

"It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer."

Such was the attention given to MacSwiney's death that there has been a tendency on the part of historians to ignore others who sacrificed themselves. On the very same day Joseph Murphy a Cork City Volunteer died in rthe city jail after 76 days on hunger strike - the longest hunger strike ever recorded. Michael Fitzgerald had also died in Cork jail after 67 days. Fitzgerald was the ITGWU secretary at Clondulane Mills and had been OC of the Fermoy Battalion.

Following these deaths Arthur Griffith, as acting president of the Republic, called on all hunger strikers to end their protests. It was clear that the sacrifice of any more Irish lives in this way would not shame the English government into any moral response.

The protest was revived during the bitter Civil War, which followed the signing of the Treaty. Some 8,000 republicans took part in various hunger strikes to improve their conditions or, after the Civil War had ended, to simply force the Pro-Treaty authorities to charge them with some offence.

In Mountjoy, in October, 1923, 424 prisoners, including 10 elected members of the Dáil, were on still on hunger strike. Andy Sullivan of Mallow died after 40 days. And in Newbridge internment camp, Denis Barry of Cork City, also died at the same time. The newly established Free State then announced the release of political prisoners by Christmas and brought the hunger strike to an end.

The hunger strike was bound to remerge as a weapon of protest when the conflict in the north of Ireland commenced. In May, 1972, Billy McKee and Proinsias MacArt led a hunger strike of five men in Belfast's Crumlin Road jail to obtain political status. After five weeks, the British administration conceded Special Category status to all political prisoners.

In Dublin, the government having arrested Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Joe Cahill of Belfast without charge but released them after hunger strikes of 13 and 19 days. They were not so quick to release the IRA chief of staff Seán Mac Stiofáin in 1973 who had to be ordered by the army council to abandon his strike after 59 days. He was released in the Spring of that year. And on 3 October 1973, 60 republican prisoners won special political status from the Dublin government after 20 days of hunger strike.

There was no special status for Irish political prisoners in England. At the time the UK government propagated the fiction that its jails did not contain political prisoners.

Dolores and Marion Price, in Brixton Prison, began a hunger strike in support of demands to be transferred to jails in the six counties. This transfer was already conceded as a right given ordinary criminals. So, if the Irish political prisoners were simply criminals, why was the right denied? The authorities practised double standards knowing full well the implications.

The Price sisters endured 167 days of force feeding out of 206 days on hunger strike. At the end of their ordeal they won the right of the transfer.

So did Gerald Kelly and Hugh Deeney who went on a similar hunger strike. Michael Gaughan became the first fatal casualty. He joined the hunger strike on 31 March 1974, and on 3 June a force feeding tube being shoved through his lung killed him.

The next death was that of Frank Stagg. With him, the jailers were subtler. They promised him special status and a transfer to the six counties. He, naturally, ended his hunger strike. But his transfer was to Wakefield prison where he underwent beatings and worse treatment. He resumed his hunger strike on 14 December 1975, and died on 12 February 1976, after sixty days.

In Portlaoise in Ireland in 1977 some 20 prisoners were on hunger strike against conditions. The strike lasted 47 days before ending on 22 April at the intervention of the Catholic hierarchy.

In 1980 Martin Meehan agreed to come off hunger strike after 66 days having been guaranteed a date for an appeal hearing while Seamus Mullen ended his strike after 71 days after receiving a similar appeal date.

The arrival of Roy Mason as Northern Ireland Secretary, one of the most vicious and implacable individuals to hold the office, saw an end of special status in 1976. This resulted in Irish political prisoners refusing to wear prison clothes. With alternative clothing refused they wore only a prison blanket and were then denied access to toilet and washing facilities. Locked in their cells with their own excrement, this has been miscalled 'the dirty protest' as the prison authorities tried to break their wills. With even the cell doors blocked?, prisoners had to resort to dispersing faeces by other means. The terrible animal likes conditions were then presented in British propaganda as being the choice of the prisoners.

In 1979 the arrival of Margaret Thatcher's pitiless and obdurate regime offered no way forward. Even so the attempts to overturn the criminalisation of the Irish political prisoners continued.

On 27 October 1980, a hunger strike for the restoration of special category status commenced in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. The men selected to lead this were Thomas Kearney, Leo Green, Brendan Hughes, Ray McCartney, Tom McFeely, Seán McKenna and John Nixon.

On 1 December, in Armagh women's prison, Mary Doyle, Mairead Farrell and Mairead Nugent joined the hunger protest. By December 15, a total of 37 prisoners were refusing food.

Once again the British government fell back on a policy of duplicity. Minister Humphrey Atkins made promises in the light of which the hunger strike was called off. Those promises were not kept.

In consequence of which it was inevitable that the next hunger strike led by Bobby Sands began.

After ten lives had been sacrificed to Margaret Thatcher's intransigence, the next of kin of those continuing on hunger strike were persuaded to intervene, asking for medical aid when the protesters could no longer express their own wishes. Under such limitations, the protest was called off on 3 October 1981.

The London government might have won a tactical victory but certainly not a moral victory. Indeed, in the long years of its colonial rule over Ireland, England has never achieved any moral victories. Its very role in Ireland precludes it from any moral stand. The moral victory, in the tradition of the troscad, lay with the protesters.

Wave after wave of moral revulsion spread around the world at Thatcher's policy as squares and streets across the world were named after the protesters. Thatcher's merciless rigidity, her lack of compassion, her illiteracy of history - particularly her own country's history, as demonstrated in France in 1989 - ensured her tarnished place in history.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-04-06 20:09:58.
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Copyright © 2006 Peter Berresford Ellis