The story of the modern hunger strike begins in the late nineteenth century, when non-political inmates began to refuse food as means of protesting against prison conditions. The tactic was deployed widely by female suffragists during their campaign for the vote in the early twentieth century and was taken up by Irish republicans as they began to fill prisons after the 1916 Rising.
Prisoners refused food to pressure authorities to concede to various demands, ranging from improved conditions to political status or unconditional release. The hunger strikes usually lasted a few days and often ended with a compromise between the prisoners and the authorities or transfer of the prisoner to another prison.
Unwilling to create martyrs for the republican movement, the authorities sometimes yielded to the prisoners' demands entirely.
Volunteers Maurice Crowe (Tipperary) and Michael Carolan (Belfast) recover in the Mater Hospital (April 1920) after the Mountjoy hunger strike had ended. Photo: Irish Military Archives, IE-MA-BMH-CD-208-2-11
The propaganda value of the hunger strike was fully realised in the autumn of 1917 when Thomas Ashe died as a result of forcible feeding in Mountjoy Prison. Arrested in Longford in August for seditious speechmaking, Ashe was imprisoned in Mountjoy jail where he joined a hunger strike by republican prisoners seeking political status.
His death on 25 September sparked protests and demonstrations across Ireland. Huge crowds filed through the City Hall where the republican leader lay in state, and his funeral on 30 September was one of the largest ever in Dublin.
In the words of fellow Kerryman and editor of the Catholic Bulletin J. J. O'Kelly, 'the tragic death of Ashe moved the whole country to the deepest resentment and soon made more adherents to the republican cause'.
A game of cat and mouse
Hunger-striking prisoners presented the government with a serious dilemma. It did not want to offer concessions, but neither could it allow the prisoners to starve to death. During the 1912-14 period, the government force fed imprisoned suffragists.
That extremely painful method was discontinued in Ireland after the Thomas Ashe inquest deemed it 'inhuman and dangerous'.
Another tactic deployed against the suffragists was the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act (1913), more commonly known as the 'Cat and Mouse Act'. It dictated that prisoners on hunger strike would be held until the prison medical officer determined their life to be in danger. The prisoner was released, allowed to recuperate, and then re-arrested to serve the remainder of their sentence.
This strategy was less effective during the War of Independence, as released prisoners frequently escaped from hospitals or refused to submit to rearrest. Increasingly the government was faced with little alternative to negotiating settlements with the prisoners.
As the London-based New Statesman observed on 17 April 1920:
'in the last resort subject peoples have an argument to which there is no rely: Sinn Fein have discovered this argument'.
Outwardly, it was important to appear intransigent, and numerous small-scale hunger-strikes became a battle of wills which ended in failure for the republicans.
From the autumn of 1919, an already weakened prison system shouldered the burden of ever more frequent hunger strikes. During that year there were nearly 300 instances reported within Belfast, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Londonderry, Maryborough (Portlaoise), and Mountjoy prisons.
As prison militancy and the numbers participating in hunger strikes increased, the government became more dependent on the English prison system, transferring 424 prisoners there in 1920.
When the escalation of violence in Ireland led to increasing arrests and internments in 1920, the number of hunger strikes surpassed all other forms of prison disruption. Despite some discomfort among the IRA leadership, the prison system became an intense political battleground.
The Mountjoy Hunger Strike begins
The most highly publicised strike began on Easter Monday, 5 April 1920, when thirty-six Irish Volunteer prisoners in Mountjoy pledged 'not to eat food or drink anything except water until all here have been given prisoner-of-war treatment or are released'.
Joined by others in the days that followed, the Irish Independent reported that by April 10th the number participating had climbed to 101 - the largest scale on which this form of protest had ever been attempted.
Andrew McDonnell described his experience for the Bureau of Military History.
Hunger-strike was to me a frightful experience, not just hunger but the loss of sleep during an endless night, restless, to be honest, afraid and wondering what was to be the end. Let no man say he was not frightened on hunger-strike. It is a shocking weapon, and the British were just as much afraid of it as we were … The heart gives out suddenly and the doctors knew it. One death and it was front page news the world over.
By the beginning of the strike's second week the city's attention was firmly focused on Dublin's bastille. The Catholic hierarchy condemned the government, and mass religious observance was used to express solidarity with the strikers. Cumann na mBan organised evocative demonstrations outside the now heavily fortified prison.
As MacDonnell recalled:
Huge crowds gathered outside the jail and we could hear the singing of hymns all day long and well into the night. The sentries had been doubled inside the jail, while armoured cars and military tried to control the crowds outside. A friendly warder slipped me a paper, great news. Labour had decided to take a hand and called a general strike. This was answered to a man. Nothing moved: Dublin and many parts of the country had stopped work in support of our demand.
The government gives in
The government was rocked by the public response. It conceded the demand for prisoner of war status, only to be presented with a demand for release; when the government offered release on parole, the prisoners demanded unconditional release.
After vast public demonstrations and a general strike, the government released over 100 prisoners from Mountjoy Jail. In the following month, some 200 internees were released from Wormwood Scrubs in London. As historian William Murphy explains,
'By forcing their release, these prisoners had humiliated cabinet members, hastened a reorganisation of British administration in Ireland, damaged the authority of the Irish and English prison systems, and undermined the morale of the army and police in Ireland.
Hunger striking helped republicans to gain political capital in Ireland and on the international stage. Reports on the duration and severity of strikes and treatment of prisoners were published in British, American, and French newspapers and transformed into useful propaganda.
Death of a Lord Mayor
No other event generated more international media coverage than the death of Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney after 74 days on hunger strike. Principled and articulate, MacSwiney was an excellent representative of the republican movement, as he embodied its military, political, and cultural dimensions. He commanded the IRA's Cork No. 1 Brigade, though he was perceived outside of Ireland as primarily a political figure.
Arrested in Cork City hall on 12 August 1920, MacSwiney joined eleven other prisoners on hunger strike in Cork Men's Prison before being transferred to Brixton prison in London where he continued to strike for his release.
Despite domestic and international pressure, the British government refused to concede. As Lloyd George wrote to Bonar Law in September, 'If we released him, we might as well give up again attempting to maintain law and order in Ireland.'
The example of Thomas Ashe ruled out forcible feeding and the result was MacSwiney's death on 25 October 1920. The London Times accurately predicted that his death would be 'infinitely more eloquent and infinitely more subversive of peace than he himself could ever be'.
The funeral that became a propaganda coup
The British authorities attempted to suppress MacSwiney's funeral, redirecting his coffin away from Dublin and threatening to fire on the Cork cortege if it exceeded 100 followers. Their efforts only drew further attention to one of the watershed events of the War of Independence - another propaganda coup for Sinn Féin.
In January 1921, Desmond FitzGerald informed the Dáil that MacSwiney's hunger strike received more coverage in the foreign press than any other Irish story in 1920 – including the events of Bloody Sunday and the burning of Cork City.
The other hunger strike deaths
Cork hunger striker Michael Fitzgerald had died on 17 October while twenty-four-year-old Joe Murphy died a few hours after MacSwiney. The nine surviving prisoners in Cork Men's Jail lasted a staggering ninety days before Arthur Griffith intervened and called off the strike.
The deaths of MacSwiney, Fitzgerald and Murphy made future hunger strikes much more likely to end in death. A fundamental reappraisal of strategy was required, and the IRA subsequently banned any further hunger strikes.
MacSwiney was the most famous hunger striker during the Irish Revolutionary period but his experience was not typical. Most of the hunger strikes by republicans after 1917 were not intended to create martyrs for the cause. Rather, they were part of the wider violent struggle to undermine the British administrative system. In this, they were often successful.
This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo, and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ