Sean O Coinn tribute to Billy McKee

BILLY MC KEE“A Soldier of the Republic and a man of the people and for the people”

A TRIBUTE

When we look at Irish history and the figures that adorn the annals of our history, it can often be the case of events having a bearing on the commitment or role of the individual, which when combined, produces the historical figure.

Our history through its struggle for freedom has produced its fairshare of such figures that have fallen into the categories of “Historical Icons”. Men such as Larkin, Connolly and Collins stand out in modern times as prime examples, because they forged that place in history through strong personality, driving commitment and tactical know-how.

History easily recognises those figures whether it is Michael Collins in 1921, or Gerry Adams in 1994, who are to the fore in formulating a strategy that brings us from military stalemate to a settlement of peace. Bringing any armed struggle through a process of change and delivering that change, is no envied task for any individual [s] to embark on and warrants deserving credit.

However there was another breed of men not versed in the murky world of political endgame, yet just as important as the “image maker”. These were the traditionalists in the mould of the old IRA of Sean Treacy and Dan Breen. They were men shaped by the experience of being a republican in the forties when a Unionist dominated state held the upper hand and played it in a heavy manner and support came from a closely net band of sympathisers.

Within this breed was Billy Mc Kee. For him and other’s of his generation there was one principle- REPUBLICANISM- twinned with one strategy– Defence of your people where and when possible, And- Be offensive against the enemy, where and when possible.

It may not have had the makings of a political building-board, but in the early 1970’s, “it was exact in its execution”. Men such as Billy Mc Kee were to shape the modern IRA in its infancy at a time when history really was in the making.

They struck a blow of defiance through the northern state that shook its very foundations and one to which it would never recover.

Following the Unionist pogroms against the Catholic community of August 1969 Billy Mc Kee and others of his generation, driven by principle and commitment, stepped forward to raise a battered population off its knees. They gave leadership and instilled confidence, not as politicians, but as a new and invigorated IRA who’s first principle was the protection of its communities. For them, politics no matter how sound in principle they may appear to be, would take second place to the defence of the Nationalist people of Belfast and the six-counties.

As scores of Catholic homes still bore the scorch marks of burning, a derelict legacy of discrimination, the Provisional IRA came into being, with Billy Mc Kee as O/C Belfast Brigade.

Young men who simply just “wanted to have a go” back at the state, were shaped into a military structure of sorts to be prepared to defend the Nationalist people and if the situation allowed, to strike back. There was a heart-beat put back into the Belfast IRA, not felt since 1921 and the cast was set; they did not have long to wait !

This book is that story and a tribute to Billy Mc Kee and those men of the early Provisional IRA.

Billy for some today may not fit the perception of what “a modern day republican” should be, but he had a total grasp of republican principles and history. Republicanism to him was a driving belief, a life-long struggle not to be soiled with personal ambition or the comfortable outcome of a career. He dedicated his life to the republican cause and like many of his elk; he suffered personally for that struggle.

His beliefs steered him through-“A belief in God and his faith” and-“A belief in Ireland’s right to self-determination”.

He drew inspiration from those of the past who shaped Ireland’s history of struggle, just as many republicans of today have and can draw inspiration from his life; from a man of strong conviction, of strong principles, who stepped forward and led from the front when his country and people were in most need.

SEAN O COINN

 

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

The death of veteran Belfast republican Billy McKee has been reported this morning.

Born in 1921, he had joined Fianna Éireann in his teens against the backdrop of intermittent violence in the 1930s. He was then arrested in the McKelvey Club in Rockmount Street in November 1938 along with twenty-three others. The McKelvey Club was the base for the GAA club of the same name. Membership of the club was confined to IRA and Fianna members and provided them with an opportunity to bypass the Special Powers Act restrictions on political activity to hold meetings. All twenty-three arrested in the McKelvey Club were charged with illegal drilling and got several months in prison or fines. McKee spent a few weeks in Crumlin Road and, when I had the opportunity to meet him in researching the Belfast Battalion book a few years ago, he told me of how cold he was in that first night in prison after being roughed up. He remembered lying in the cell and looking up to see a figure with his head in his hands sitting on the pipes that ran along the wall. McKee was in the cell on his own, though, and thinks he then passed out.

After his release he joined the IRA but was again arrested when the RUC raided a meeting of the Belfast Battalion’s D Company in Getty Street on 15th August 1940. Fifteen IRA members present were charged under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to seven years in November that year. McKee, like other long term sentenced prisoners (there were around 130 by 1943), was confined in A wing in Crumlin Road. The Unionist government had never developed facilities suitable for long term prisoners and previously had sent them to Peterhead in Scotland instead. To avoid paying a subsidy for Peterhead, minor modifications were made to A wing although it still lacked any of the facilities required for prisoners with tariffs above two years.

There were significant tensions in the prison at the time. A major escape then took place from A wing on 15th January 1943, when former IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele, Pat Donnelly and Ned Maguire accessed the roof, climbed down over three storeys on a rope made of blankets then scaled the prison wall. A second team was to follow. According to McKee, he had been advised by John Graham (one of the second team) to take his chances after they had gone. As it happened, the last of the first team was spotted (although he got away). McKee recalled the moment he knew his chance was gone when the chief prison officer on duty, a Cork man named Ríordan, strode into the circle of Crumlin Road Prison shouting “Lock them up! Lock them up!”. Even in his 90s, McKee’s memory was extraordinarily sharp, as was his story telling, particularly when discussing the 1940s (as I was only interested in the period up to 1969-1970, we didn’t really discuss anything later). At one point, as he reminisced about individuals from that time, he waved his arm at the sofa in his living room and said that time in his life was so vivid that when he talked about it, it was like he could see the men he mentioned all just sitting in the room.

The response to the January 1943 escape was ‘rough treatment’ (Joe Cahill had called it a ‘reign of terror’). That included constant searches and beatings. Prison protests including a strip strike and hunger strikes followed. The tactics employed in the 1943 and 1944 hunger strikes in Armagh and Crumlin Road were learnt from when McKee went on hunger strike himself, much later, in 1972. On the latter occasion, McKee also was reflecting a similar concern from 1945 when internees were released while sentenced prisoners often had to serve several more years prior to their release. McKee eventually got out on license in 1946 and returned to the IRA (less than 20% of those imprisoned in the 1940s did so).

Front cover, Republican News during McKee’s hunger strike (4th June 1972)

The next phase for the Belfast IRA, and McKee, was more political than military, with the Belfast Battalion remaining small in size (in part as a reaction to the security problems with informers that had come with expansion in the 1930s). A rapprochement with Sinn Féin by 1950, was followed by some electoral successes although mainly outside Belfast. The border campaign that followed was viewed in Belfast (according to McKee), as a fiasco from the start. McKee, like many of the Belfast Battalion, was rapidly interned in Crumlin Road. Back in prison he acted as a key figure in sourcing and operating linesmen (prison staff and others who would carry message in and out of the prison) and was a central figure in networking between the sentenced prisoners in A wing, internees in D wing and the IRA outside the prison.

On his release from internment McKee became Belfast OC (in IRA parlance meaning ‘officer commanding’ or ‘oifigeach ceantair’) and had to rebuild the Belfast Battalion from scratch. He described himself to me as a socialist but said that it was clear even in the early 1960s that Cathal Goulding, then IRA Chief of Staff, just didn’t understand the sectarian dynamics in Belfast and that there was this bizarre belief that organisations like the Orange Order, Apprentice Boys or B Specials were simply ripe to be infiltrated and converted to hotbeds of Irish republicanism. Much of the Belfast Battalion’s energy and meager resources were taken up with publishing a newspaper, Tírghrá, edited by Jimmy Steele, while he, McKee and others established and maintained physical memorials for dead republicans through the National Graves Association. A dispute over flying the tricolour at a Wolfe Tone commemoration in Belfast in 1963 saw McKee abruptly resign from the IRA leaving Billy McMillen to take over as OC (McMillen had defected to the more militant Saor Uladh group in the mid-1950s and only returned in 1962 to become McKee’s Adjutant).

McKee spent the remainder of the 1960s active in the likes of the National Graves Association and former republican prisoners groups, like the Felons. The large Belfast network of former republican activists from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s monitored political developments closely and critically, fearing the language and street violence and then deaths arising from contemporary unionist opposition to the civil rights campaigns presaged more intense violence as in 1920-22 and 1935. It was felt that the IRA and Belfast Battalion were intent on disregarding this threat.

In that regard, the reaction to events in mid-August 1969 was remarkably muted. While McMillen and much of his Battalion staff were briefly interned, McKee, Steele, Cahill and others organized makeshift IRA units and defences and used former connections to try and source arms from old IRA dumps. When McMillen was released, McKee and John Kelly led a delegation to the next Battalion staff meeting (which had to officially sanction McMillen’s reinstatement as OC). McKee dismissed that idea that the meeting was fractious (he says it was just a conversation) although he said that when he arrived McMillen wasn’t there but his Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, was and that Sullivan “…couldn’t do anything without shouting.“. When McMillen arrived they settled down to business – McKee asked for four people to be nominated to the Battalion staff, based on the units put together in McMillen’s absence. They requested that monies that had been donated for arms (and now under Goulding’s control) be used for that purpose – Goulding seemingly wanted the money used for political projects instead. The main request, as a response to the failures of the IRA that summer, was that Goulding be replaced by Sean Garland (another prominent left republican in the IRA) and other senior figures loyal to Goulding step down (but not McMillen). The Belfast Battalion, they believed, should refuse to recognise the authority of IRA GHQ until this was done.

The subsequent fallout over the IRA’s performance in the summer of 1969 led to two competing IRA Army Council’s being formed, with McKee assuming the role of OC of the now expanded Belfast Brigade loyal to the ‘provisional’ Army Council. While I hadn’t explored any details of McKee’s subsequent career, one point we did discuss was Jimmy Steele’s sudden death in August 1970, only weeks after McKee himself had been shot and badly wounded. He had just returned to Belfast and said Steele had been working on a profile to use to restrict IRA membership as they believed that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had taught them that the Belfast IRA was more effective when small and less prone to security issues or those motivated more by sectarian intent than republicanism. McKee had arrived at Steele’s Clondara Street home and sat down, not realising Steele had died that morning. He said Steele’s wife, Anna, had come in to him and had to tell him. We were sitting in McKee’s own living room, some forty years later. McKee suddenly stopped talking. He then ran his left hand down his right arm and stopped at the elbow and said “It was like losing my right arm.” The remainder of McKee’s career as OC of the Belfast Brigade will likely dominate reports of his death. Yet McKee, like the post-1969 political and conflict landscape had been closely shaped by the experience of the preceding decades.

McKee was one of the last senior figures linking the pre-1969 IRA (which was the subject of the Belfast Battalion book) and events from 1970 onwards. Time had made him a reluctant historical subject which was a great pity both from the point of view of his own story telling abilities and his sharp memory. The conflict that intensified from 1969 hadn’t simply appeared from nowhere, nor had the different influences within the IRA that shaped the 1969-1970 split, the longer term impact of sectarian violence in Belfast in the decades before the 1960s or even the methodologies and tactics of the civil rights campaigns (which were mainly rooted in long term republican opposition to the abuses under the Special Powers Acts). McKee’s life and career spanned many of these events and everyone would have benefitted from a better understanding of each other in learning how history unfolded if we could create an environment in which history telling itself was less contested.

You can read a report on McKee’s death here in The Irish News: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/13/news/provisional-ira-founder-billy-mckee-dies-1640479/?param=ds441rif44T

Billy McKee, 1921-2019

Review of Belfast Battalion in The Irish News

A review of Belfast Battalion by Connla Young was published in today’s Irish News, where it is given Book of the Week. You can read the original at the link above (if you can’t access it, I’ve posted the review below).

 

BOOK OF THE WEEK

Belfast Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969 by John O’Neill, published by Litter Press, priced £14.99

IN BELFAST Battalion: A History of the Belfast IRA 1922-1969, John O’Neill presents a very readable chronology of the IRA’s activities over almost 50 years. The book provides a unique insight into how the IRA emerged from the post-treaty period to maintain a presence in Ireland’s second city. In every decade since partition militant republicans have made their presence felt and the organisation in Belfast has played a critical role. In 1969 the Provisionals would eventually emerge as the dominant force in a divided IRA as the recent conflict began to take hold. Throughout Belfast Battalion the near constant conflict between the IRA and unionist authorities at Stormont is highlighted; republicans were regularly subject to arrest and detention without trial.

O’Neill identifies several largely forgotten but key episodes including the IRA killing of Belfast man Patrick Woods in November 1925. He was suspected of providing information that led to the discovery of an arms dump the previous year and he also gave evidence in the trial of a man later linked to the weapons. His killing resulted in the arrest of 50 men, with dozens detained without charge. The mass arrests took place just before the final shape of the border was confirmed in December 1925 and the Boundary Commission’s work came to an end. While some of those arrested were released, others were detained for several weeks, ensuring high profile figures were out of circulation during a critical political period.

The author also explores the role of a rouge IRA unit known as ‘The Ginger Group’ in the 1930s. This gang was blamed for blowing up a republican monument at the Harbinson Plot in Milltown Cemetery in 1938. The group emerged as part of a bid by some hardline republicans to precipitate conflict between the IRA and the unionist regime. The unit was also accused of shooting a former prison officer before the leadership of IRA in Belfast stepped in to close it down.

In total the Harbinson monument and replacements were targeted on three other occasions between 1937 and 1939, including once at a west Belfast sculptors’ yard.

Belfast Battalion is an important addition to research into the history of the republican movement.

8/10

Connla Young

If you want to pick up your own copy see litter.press/shop_siopa

Irish News review.png

Remember Us, The People’s War, Newport Area, Mayo 1914- 1924.

Earlier this year, I put up a post about John Collins, who had been born in Jordan Street in Belfast (now gone, but lay off the Oldpark Road between Glenview Street and Hillview Street). Collins was killed in an IRA ambush in Mayo in 1921, shortly after joining and IRA Flying Column. An account of his life is included in a new book just launched by the Tiernaur Oral History Group entitled Remember Us, The People’s War, Newport Area, Mayo 1914-1924.

newport-800x800

The back cover of the book gives a flavour of its contents:

“In the century that has passed since the 1916 Rising, War of Independence and Civil War in Ireland, much has been written about Pearse and his comrades. Somewhat ignored by history are the gallant efforts of ordinary men and women in rural towns and villages who played a crucial part and paid an immeasurable price in their bid to separate Ireland from the oppression of British imperialism and to achieve an Irish republic. Within the pages of this book, you will find first-hand accounts of those times in Newport, County Mayo and the surrounding area, thanks to the collective memory of the local community and the descendants of those involved. You can read descriptions of their incarceration, the torture they suffered and subsequent death of some as a result. This book outlines the local perspective, personal sacrifices and experiences of the time, to honour and recall the bravery of their deeds lest they be forgotten.”

As to John Collins (below), the book reveals that he was orphaned at a young age before spending time in Nazareth Lodge (in Belfast) and then Artane (in Dublin). He had apprenticed to a tailor in Westport a number of years before he joined the IRA there.
Indo 25 May 1921The book is avail here from Mayo Books (priced €25 plus postage) or the link below.

https://www.mayobooks.ie/Remember-Us-Peoples-War-Newport-Tiernaur

The book was part funded by the European Union, Department of Rural and Community Development and Mayo Local Action Group (under the LEADER programme).

Thanks to Sean Cadden for the update.

a myth of perpetual republican violence

Just to make a point that seems lost on some people.

One thing that tends to get overlooked by many people commemorating the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1916 is the extent to which the subsequent violence was a significant departure. Apart from a number of low key incidents in 1848 and 1867 and a couple of sporadic bombing campaigns in the decades after 1867, there hadn’t been a widespread violent insurgency since 1798. Even the violence of 1867 was widely understood as a response to the famine, as seen in the lives of leading Fenians like William Harbinson who had personal experience of the famine.

The violence associated with the subsequent insurgency campaign, partition and civil war ended in 1923 with all most those imprisoned on both sides of the border released under general amnesties by the end of 1924. In the subsequent decades the IRA organisation continued to exist but, violent clashes with the governments in the south and north were extraordinarily rare. When and where sustained violence did occur it tended to be for limited periods such as 1939-44 and 1956-62. In reality, for much of the IRA’s existence post-1924 it more typically pursued (and fragmented) over a series of political projects rather than insurgency campaigns. Even after 1969, the IRA was involved in a series of campaigns bracketed by ceasefires (in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1994 and 1997) and linked to, and reacting against, political initiatives.

The idea that there ongoing violence maintains some sort of legitimacy in perpetuating resistance to British control in Ireland is a myth that isn’t supported by the history of the IRA itself (for anyone that doesn’t believe me – I’ll leave open the long preview of Belfast Battalion, detailing the history of the Belfast IRA from the 1920s to 1960s).

That’s a highly simplified view of a more complex picture but in the aftermath of the death of Lyra McKee it will hopefully cause some people to reflect.

…candidature of most interest to women is that of Mr. James Connolly…

Another piece on James Connolly and woman’s suffrage. In this case, a lead article in The Irish Citizen (11/1/1913) urging people to support Connolly during the 1913 municipal elections in Belfast. The Irish Citizen was the Irish Women’s Franchise League’s own newspaper.

Irish Citizen

Connolly stood for elections as a Councillor to Belfast City Council in the Dock Ward, the heavily congested district encompassing Sailortown, Tigers Bay, North Queen Street and the New Lodge Road. His opponent was the Unionist candidate, David Jones, a butcher from York Street. The highly restricted access to electoral rights meant that the odds were heavily stacked against Connolly. The election, which took place on 15th January, recorded the number of electors in Dock Ward as 3,473 (some of whom had more than one vote). The 1911 census shows that the number of men over the age of 21 in Dock Ward was 5,701, so even with the restricted entitlement to vote, the Dock Ward electorate at most was 60.9% of the adult males (in practice, given plural votes, it was even less). Adding in the number of women excluded from the electorate shows that the 1913 electorate was a mere 29.6% of adults over 21 in the Dock Ward (in modern terms where 18 year olds have the vote, it would be only 26.5%).

Connolly, was nominated as a ‘Labour Nationalist’. He summarised his own political beliefs prior to the election: “As a lifelong advocate of national independence for Ireland, I am in favour of Home Rule, and believe that Ireland should be ruled, governed, and owned by the people of Ireland. I believe that men and women having to face the battle of life together, could face it better were all enjoying the same political rights.

He was nominated by James Turley and Francis MacMahon, both from the New Lodge Road, the more affluent area of the ward (highlighting that, as well as gender, there was a direct link between relative wealth and access to the vote). Turley was the National School teacher at Star of the Sea on Halliday’s Road. Francis MacMahon owned a shop on the New Lodge Road at the corner of Trainfield Street (the family continued to run it into the 1960s). The polling stations for the election were Hillman Street National School (also the count centre), York Street National School and Earl Street National School.

Hillman Street

Hillman Street National School, the main polling station and count centre in 1913.

Initially, an additional candidate had been proposed, Charles McShane – a clerk from Gilford Street who was backed by Bernard Magee (a North Queen Street pawnbroker) and Frank McKernan, a Sailortown publican (suggesting McShane was to be a Nationalist candidate). Once the list of proposed candidates was published, there was a limited time for candidates to withdraw before the list was finalised. The day after they were announced, the Belfast Newsletter (7/1/1913) reported that the Belfast High Sherriff and others tried to persuade candidates to stand aside or to they would have their nominations declared void so Corporation both didn’t incur the expense of an election and unionists didn’t risk splitting the vote in some areas. McShane withdrew from the election, likely to give Connolly a free run. This may also have been the purpose of Connolly being designated as the ‘Labour Nationalist’ candidate.

When the election count took placein Hillman Street National School a crowd had gathered outside, carrying torches and headed by a band and Union Jack (Hillman Street was heavily unionist at the time) to await the declaration of the result by the deputy returning officer, Mr John Hanna. The result was that Connolly had received 905 votes to Jones 1,523 on a turnout of 69.9%.

Prior to the election, The Irish Citizen, had been critical of the Socialists in Dublin (in the same issue as above), reporting that “…a Socialist speaker denounced the women’s movement as side-tracking the workers, an issue which should be avoided.” However, the Irish Citizen isolated Connolly from that criticism and fully endorsed his candidacy:

In Belfast, the candidature of most interest to women is that of Mr. James Connolly for Dock Ward. Mr. Connolly is undoubtedly the ablest Labour Leader in Ireland; he is also the strongest supporter of woman suffrage to be found in the ranks of Irish Labour. Both in Dublin and Belfast he has done much to educate his party on the vital importance of the women’s fight for freedom. Last summer, while the organised opposition to suffragist meetings was at its height in Dublin, Mr. Connolly travelled specially to Dublin to speak at one of the Phoenix Park meetings of I.W.F.L. at considerable risk and inconvenience, to testify to his support of the fight for free speech and political emancipation. While, for reasons set out in our leading article, we do not recommend to women suffragists any general support of Labour candidates as such, we strongly hold that in the case of a man like Mr. Connolly, of whose genuine attachment to the women’s cause there can be no doubt, the fullest possible support should be given him by organised bodies of women. We hope Belfast suffragists will do all they can to secure Mr. Connolly’s return. The Belfast City Council, whose Lord Mayor, a bitterly anti-suffragist MP refused even to receive a resolution in favour of the Conciliation Bill, badly needs men like Mr. Connolly to bring into it a breath of freedom. Others all withdrew the next day (Belfast Newsletter reported that the Belfast High Sherriff and others tried to persuade candidates to stand aside or to have their nominations declared void so Corporation didn’t incur the expense of an election).

A previous post on Connolly’s adoption of the hunger strike tactic from the suffragettes later in 1913 can be read here (with links to previous posts on Connolly).

Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking

The modern tactic of hunger-striking was largely devised by the suffragette movement in 1909. As a tactic it attempted to capture people’s imagination and, it was hoped, awaken an interest in the political issues at hand. By doing so it attempted to mobilise public opinion against the authorities. The suffragettes used hunger strikers in prisons in Britain and Ireland to take contemporary patriarchal chauvinist opinions on the ‘delicacy of women’s health’ and turn them to their advantage (albeit at a significant cost to the health of many of those who took part). In Ireland, the modern use of hunger-striking outside of the women’s suffrage campaign appears to be James Connolly’s hunger strike following his arrest during the tram strike in the summer of 1913.

Connolly had been arrested along with a number of others in Dublin on 30th August 1913, during the tram strike (Jim Larkin had managed to evade capture). Connolly was charged with inciting people to cause a breach of the peace in a speech he had recently delivered. While Connolly’s co-accused agreed bail and surety terms, he refused to either find bail or sureties and so was committed to Mountjoy Jail for three months. The following Saturday, 6th September, Connolly went on hunger strike in protest at his imprisonment.

Hunger striking had been a tactic employed by the suffragettes since 1909. Typically the authorities responded in one of two ways, either releasing the hunger strikers after a number of days fearful of public opinion or, from September 1909, by force-feeding the hunger strikers. At least one man, Alan Ross MacDougall, who was imprisoned for two months for assaulting Lloyd George (in support of the suffragettes) also went on hunger strike (in 1912). From 1911, Women’s Social and Political Union activists went on hunger strike on numerous occasions. Claims at the success varied wildly, the Home Office stated that in 1913 only 8 out of 66 suffragist prisoners had been released following hunger strikes (eg Irish Examiner, 19/3/1913). Dr. George Robertson, who had performed at least 2,000 force-feedings of hunger striking suffragettes, put the figure for early releases in 1912 as 66 out of 240 prisoners (see Examiner, 25/2/1913). As a proponent of force-feeding, he also noted that the main threat to life was prisoners struggling during force-feeding – which was later to be repeatedly demonstrated with Irish republican prisoners.

The hunger striking suffragettes did not just demand release, in some cases the demanded was for the political status of suffragette prisoners to be recognised. In Mountjoy Jail, a hunger strike demanding political treatment by three English suffragettes in mid-August 1912 – Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh and Lizzie Baker – saw them being force-fed within hours. They were joined on hunger strike by Irish suffragettes Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Jane Murphy, Margaret Murphy and Margaret Palmer by 15th August. But by the 19th August the Irish suffragettes had all been released and Lizzie Baker was also released relatively quickly. The force-feeding of Gladys Evans and Mary Leigh then continued into September (both had been sentenced to five years penal servitude). Mary Leigh’s deteriorating health saw her released on 20th September.

During the hunger strike, the following letter appeared in the Irish Independent (30/9/1912):

Sir—In a letter to the ‘Irish Independent’ of Thursday last, Caroline Smithwick says that the object of Mrs. Leigh in refusing her food, whilst in Mountjoy Prison was “…to, obtain political treatment the same as that given to men here and in other civilised countries for crimes that are political.” By all means, give political treatment for political crimes, but is an attempt to burn a public building a political crime? It may have a political motive, but that does not affect the crime in any way.

If an ordinary man attempted such a deed as the burning of a public building, you, may be sure he would get more than five years penal servitude; and what is more, he would have to bear it, too. If a prisoner is released from prison because she refuses to eat, all the criminals in Ireland should immediately start a hunger strike, so; if Mrs. Leigh died from the effect of her self-imposed starvation, would she not be guilty of suicide? And at present is she not guilty of attempted suicide and liable to arrest for it? People are inclined to make a heroine of Mrs. Leigh, but if she is as brave as they say she is, why didn’t she lie on the bed she made?

Charles J. Lanktree, Beechmount, Glanmire, Co. Cork.

Gladys Evans continued to be force-fed and began to physically resist the force-feeding on 30th September. The authorities then released her under license on 3rd October after fifty days on hunger strike. Afterwards the British government began to move towards formally adopting different tactics, releasing hunger strikers when their health deteriorated but reserving the right to return them to prison to complete their sentences once they had recovered. Gladys Evans herself was re-arrested within weeks (she went back on hunger strike).

Irish suffragists also staged a hunger strike in Tullamore Jail in February 1913. The same month, in London, men confined to Lambeth Workhouse went on hunger strike in protest at conditions. Hunger strikes, and the threat of hunger strikes, by women involved in the suffrage campaign continued during 1913 while the authorities devised legislation to allow hunger strikers to be formally released on license due to ill health then re-arrested. This was to be called the cat-and-mouse act.

Not everyone was sympathetic to the suffragettes. A Belfast Newsletter editorial on 22nd February 1913 opined that “The Suffragists have forced the overwhelming majority of the community to the conclusion that effective measures must be taken to put an end to their exploits. If some of the hunger-strikers were now allowed to starve, there would be a general feeling that they had brought their fate on themselves. But since it is undesirable that any real martyrs should be manufactured, it would be well to devise other methods for dealing with these misguided women.

James Connolly’s hunger strike in 1913 was supported by the suffragettes in Ireland. Connolly had publicly supported the suffragettes and contributed to the Irish debates on the likes of ensuring the Home Rule Bill include a provision for women to have the vote. The Irish Women’s Franchise League issued a statement to say that “…we protest against the treatment meted out by the Irish Executive [i.e. Dublin Castle] to Mr James Connolly is on hunger strike since the 6th for political motives and that we demand in the interests of justice and humanity his instant and unconditional release.” (Evening Herald, 13/9/1913). While the practice of fasting in protest at an injustice is reported in various Irish medieval texts, the modern use is clearly rooted in the adoption of hunger striking by the suffragettes in Ireland. Connolly then appears to be the first to use the hunger strike tactic in prison over a non-suffrage political issue in Ireland. A number of others involved in the strikes went on hunger strike in prison that year, some of whom were force-fed. The tactic continued to be used by the suffragettes up to August 1914.

Connolly himself was released on Saturday 13th September, reportedly in a weak condition after a week on hunger strike. None of the contemporary newspaper reports suggest that he was force-fed. On the following Wednesday he returned to Belfast. The Evening Herald carried the following report of his arrival in the city (18/9/1913):

TURBULENCE IN BELFAST Mr. James Connolly’s Arrival

The arrival of James Connolly, the strike leader, in Belfast, last, night, was marked by tumultuous scenes, and a serious riot was narrowly averted. A procession, organised by the Belfast branch of the Transport Workers’ Union and the Textile Workers’ Union marched through the city to the Great Northern railway station, where Connolly was due to arrive on the 9 o’clock train. The vanguard of the procession consisted of a body of textile operatives, all young girls, who were cheering and singing, while accompanying the transport workers were two bands.

The parade through Royal Avenue and Donegall Place attracted large crowds.

Outside the station, Great Victoria street was congested, and the presence of a hostile element was indicated by the singing of “Dolly’s Brae” and “Derry Walls.” It was evident that a political aspect was being imparted to the demonstration, and matters looked serious when a pretty large opposition crowd drew together opposite the main entrance to the station. Just as the procession came along, the largo sliding doors, with glass panes, at the station entrance were closed, and a party of police moved in between the processionists and the crowd. When the train arrived the passengers were allowed out singly, but a rush was made by the crowd, and a volley of stones hurled over the heads of the police, one missile smashing the glass in the station door, and two men in the vicinity were struck and received scalp wounds.

A great cheer and the beating of drums greeted Mr. Connolly’s appearance, and this was answered by revolver shots and cries of execration from the crowd, who were driven further back by the police, but Without the use of batons. Mr. Connolly, looking pale and worn, mounted an outside car with some friends, and the procession then returned through the central streets. At Donegall Square corner stones were thrown at the car, and a small party of police turned from the rear of the procession and scattered a crowd, which was following up.

The procession made its way to the Custom House steps, where a mooting was addressed by Mr. John Flanagan, organiser of the transport workers, and Mrs. Gordon, of the textile workers. Matters were looking very ugly at Castle Junction as the procession moved past, and there were cries of “No Home Rule” and “No Pope,” while from a number of side streets missiles were thrown, but the police prevented the opposition from mustering in any force, and the meeting passed off quietly. Mr. Connolly did not speak, and afterwards drove away to the Union.

Some further posts:

On James Connolly:

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/where-oh-where-is-our-james-connolly-connolly150/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/james-connollys-time-as-a-british-soldier-some-new-evidence/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/they-told-me-how-connolly-was-shot-in-the-chair/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/nora-connolly-obrien-on-her-father-belfast-and-1916/

On hunger striking/force feeding:

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-womens-hunger-strike-armagh-1943/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/the-1972-hunger-strike/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/force-feeding-hunger-strikers-frank-stagg-documentary-on-tg4/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/the-1944-ira-hunger-strike/