The 1943 strip strike.

In the late spring and summer of 1943, there was continued debate within the IRA in A wing of the Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road) over how to challenge prison authorities and mount a suitable protest against conditions within the prison. The successful January 1943 escape (and March escape from Derry Jail) had ended a policy of unofficial recognition of the political status of the prisoners outside D wing. John Graham, as O/C, and others on his staff, like David Fleming, were unhappy with the idea of a hunger strike since they felt it pushed the authorities into a position where they had to make a decision on whether to meet their demands for more humane conditions and recognition of their political status.

David Fleming gives an idea of what the IRA prisoners deemed to be political status: “…political treatment and the option of work, a weekly parcel, a letter and a visit each week, better rations, and in view of the fact that there are no prisons in Northern Ireland suitable for long-term, penal servitude prisoners … facilities should be granted to the long-term prisoners in Crumlin Road Prison for more freedom of movement than they have at present between 7 o’clock in the morning and the putting out of lights at 8 pm … light should not be put out until 10 pm … and there should also be provided more facilities for forms of sport and indoor amusements.[1]

Graham and Fleming thought the northern government would not back down, would disregard any negative publicity or external pressure and happily let prisoners die. This was likely based on their experience of the authorities’ attitude towards the individuals who had already died due to conditions in the prison, and the way the northern government had resisted pressure not to execute Tom Williams.

As the authorities effectively recognised the political status of the internees in D wing, the IRA prisoners in A wing thought that political status was an achieveable goal. During June 1943, a level of political status was given to the small group of IRA prisoners in Portlaoise. They had been refusing to wear prison clothing since 1940. As they had been sentenced by the Military Tribunal, on that basis they claimed they were political prisoners not convicts. The punishment regime was severe and was believed to be directed straight from the Fianna Fáil government and De Valera[2]. Other than being brought out of their cell for a bath once a week, the strikers were never allowed out of their cells or and at no time were able to go outdoors. They received no letters, had no access to the news, newspapers or radio and no visits. Limited association and letters were permitted from June 1943[3] although the protest continued and the prisoners were still not permitted to go out in the fresh air, receive visits, newspapers etc.

The admittedly limited achievement of the Portlaoise strip strike suggested the tactic had some merit to it, although in Portlaoise the campaign had taken more than two years (Tomás MacCurtain had been on the strip strike since 1940[4]). The fact that two of the striking prisoners were Belfast Battalion men, Sean McCaughey and Liam Rice, would have ensured that information made its way to Crumlin Road from Portlaoise. This makes the timing of the success that the Portlaoise strike did achieve and the start of the Crumlin Road strike appear to be no mere coincidence.

Another factor which may also influenced the timing of the strip strike was the confirmation that six prison staff were being dismissed over the escape earlier in the year[5]. While this was largely expected, it was not going to improve the overall atmosphere inside A wing.

As it happened, John Graham hurt his knee so badly that he had to be moved to an outside hospital for treatment. Seamus Brogan, from Tyrone, took over as O/C in Graham’s absence. It was then agreed that a strip strike would take place and would begin in mid-June. A strip strike is, in effect a publicity stunt, since it largely requires external pressure to identify the protest action as denoting a significant issue that the authorities should address. To the prison authorities, refusal to work simply means confing a prisoner to his cell on a reduced, punishment, diet. A strip strike, where the prisoner symbolically refuses to even wear prison uniform, is an escalation of the same tactic. However, it similarly can be simply ignored by the prison authorities since it poses no additional strain on resources, although at the expense of relationships and the atmosphere within the prison. As a confrontational tactic it relies on publicity and public pressure on the authorities to agree a satisfactory solution. To the IRA prisoners, it had eventually produced some sort of result in Portlaoise and was a tactic worth trying.

In mid-June, the following men embarked on the strike: Seamus Brogan and Frank Morris (both from Tyrone), David Fleming (from Kerry), John McMahon and Ned Tennyson (both from Portadown), Sean Gallagher and Patrick Hegarty (both from Derry), and thirteen Belfast men, including Joe Cahill, Dan McAlister, Gerry Adams, James Bannon, Joe Myles, Robert Dempsey, Hugh O’Hara, Sean McParland, Patrick Corrigan, Charles McCotter, Tony Marley, Liam Doyle and J. McCusker. Others joined the strike as it progressed. In the morning they refused to leave their cells and took off their prison uniforms.

While it was officially the summer, little sunlight entered A wing and the blackstone walls prevented the interior heating up in any meaningful way. The heating was always turned off in the prison at this time of year. The striking prisoners felt the cold immediately. They were also put onto a punishment diet for refusing to work and received just one pint of tea, eight ounces of bread, and half an ounce of margarine for breakfast at 8 am, a dinner of one pint of soup, two ounces of meat, one ounce vegetables and about three small potatoes at 12 pm, and one pint of tea, eight ounces of bread, and half an ounce of margarine, a pint of porridge and a half pint of milk at 4.30 pm. Church attendance, visits and letters were all banned. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 24 hours a day, except for their weekly bath. The cell doors were left open for half an hour each morning (nominally to air the cell, but effectively allowing any heat that had built up overnight to escape). The striking prisoners weren’t even allowed out when the cell doors were open.

The combination of cold and hunger had an immediate impact. Joe Cahill describes the first day of the strike, “…after the screws had removed everything from my cell, I was left wth a towel about two foot square to cover myself.” Within a day of the start of the protest, Joe Cahill collapsed from exposure and was found face down on the floor of his cell. He woke up to find himself dressed and on the bed, being fed whiskey by a warder. That was the end of the strike for Cahill[6].

Within a couple of weeks of the strike starting, Jack Beattie raised the issue in Stormont. He framed a question to William Lowry, the Minister of Home Affairs in the context of the unsuitability of Crumlin Road for the long-term prisoners being sent there by the northern government. Lowry was not likely to be in any way sympathetic. In one Stormont discussion of the use of an Orange Hall by Catholics in the US army, Lowry told Stormont that preparations were being made to have it fumigated[7]. On the 6th July, he asked:

Is the Minister of Home Affairs prepared to issue a statement on the state of the convict wing of Belfast Prison? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a large number of the convicts are walking about the cells in the nude? Is he aware of the reasons for this state of affairs? Will he issue an order that in Northern Ireland the King’s Regulations in regard to the protection of convicts will be carried out? Under the King’s Regulations, although a man may be classified as a convict, there are certain measures of protection afforded him. The first is that he must have his daily exercise within a specified area. The Regulations also state that he must be employed at the type of work which is likely to keep him physically fit and in a healthy condition; in other words, that he may, when his period of detention is ended, come out a fitter and better man than when he went in. The King’s Regulations are not being carried out in so far as conditions in the jail are concerned.

Is the Minister satisfied with the penal conditions operating in Crumlin Road Jail? Do they conform to the regulations laid down for penal settlements in accordance with the King’s Regulations? If they do not will he have the convicts transferred to a penal settlement, and then proceed to erect a penal settlement for which the Imperial Government allocated a sum of £240,000? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the Government of the time did with the £240,000? A penal settlement was not erected and the prisoners are suffering. The state of affairs at present existing is likely to have an adverse affect on the lives of those present in Crumlin Road if the right hon. Gentleman does not tackle the question immediately.

Lowry responded:

I am aware that there are 20 convicts in the convict wing of Belfast Prison who for a considerable time past have refused to put on their clothing in the day time. That is done as a form of strike-it is on the same lines as a hunger strike-in order that they may be treated as political prisoners. There are no political prisoners in Belfast Prison. There are 115 convicted prisoners, and they will not coerce the prison authorities or this Ministry into according them political treatment by simply refusing to put their clothes on. They endeavour to evade the matter by wrapping themselves in blankets during the day time. The blankets are only necessary for their comfort at night. The blankets are removed in the morning and their outdoor clothing is placed in their cells. If they wish to put on their clothes there is nothing to prevent their doing so. I do not propose, as at present advised, to direct the prison officers to dress these men as if they were children. If they care to sit in their cells in a naked state during the day that is their affair. If they care to put on their clothes they will get the prescribed exercise in a proper place, but they will not be allowed to perambulate to the exercise ground in a naked state. Their clothes are there, and they can put them on. I do not even intend to ask the governor of the jail to search for fig leaves in the jail gardens.

The initial prospects of a deal with the authorities looked bleak. After being sentenced on the 3rd August, Jimmy Steele was returned to A wing. When he returned to the wing, he had to go to the governor to get permission to get a new jacket from the tailors shop providing an odd moment of humour. The governor, with a wry smile, replied: “What happened? You had a perfectly good jacket on when you left here.[8]

Pat McCotter had taken over as O/C in A wing when Brogan joined the strip strike. McCotter and Jimmy discussed what to do when Jimmy arrived in A wing, although it was pretty much understood that he would join the strike. The prisoners on the protest were all housed on A3, while Jimmy had once again been returned to A1. Despite being isolated from the other prisoners on the protest, Jimmy immediately joined the strip strike. He published an account of the strip strike in 1954[9].

The prison bell goes at 7 o’clock. You awake with a start. No nice slow leisurely wakening here but before the last clang you are wide awake. The cold bare walls stare back at you and you realize that you have another long day to spend naked. You ponder how long it is until you will see that bed again – 13 hours – 780 minutes – 46,800 seconds and you have to live thru’ every second. But you have a half hour yet for the warders do not come until 7.30. How you treasure that last half hour. The old lumpy fibre mattress, the army blankets, and the hard worsted sheets feel like down. For soon you hear the clang of keys and the rush of feet. The warders have arrived. They are laughing and joking and full of the ordinary joys of life. You wonder if the fight is really worth while. But this passes very quickly and you get the courage to at least last another day. The slops are removed and door is banged in your face again. You still have another minute or two and you get back into bed again. When the bed is moved you stand naked in your cold bare cell.

At eight o’clock the breakfast arrives. This consists of one pint of tea, eight ounces of bread, and half an ounce of margarine. Your table and chair have been removed so you take your treasure to the old bedstead. You try to eat it slowly as you know it will do you more good and it will last longer, but the hunger is so great that you eat i.t very quickly. Any stray crumbs are quickly retrieved. You drink the tea and all is finished and you are nearly as hungry as ever. It will be four and a half hours before you get any more.

Now the day has really begun. You hear the prisoners going out to work. How you envy them their warm clothes. They are happy people. Neverthessless the fight must go on. The day must be spent. You begin the parade again. Eight paces up, one at the turn, and eight paces back again. You begin this parade and people wonder what is the matter with you. Perhaps you make a football out of an old pair of socks and try to get the blood to circulate. You think on how cold it is even though it is the month of June. What will it be like in January? You put this out of your head at once. The sun is shining outside but this does not reach your cell. What is that? A knock on the wall and then a knock on the pipes. It is the signal that your next door neighbour wants to speak to you. You listen at the door and all is quiet. You get your enanmel mug and use it as a kind of telephone on the pipes. Perhaps there is some news. But no! Your pal is finding it hard also and you try to encourage him. Stick it a little longer and there is no knowing what will happen. Suddenly the spy-hole is opened and an unfriendly eye looks and gives a sharp order to get off the pipes. Even this small luxury is denied us. Well, on it must go. You begin the parade again and perhaps read a few pages of the Bible. You read but you do not take anything in. There is such a vast difference between what you read and the position you are in. Perhaps if you read the part on Job you get a little comfort. He has done his suffering for God, you are suffering for a principle. It helps a lot if you offer to God, too.

It is usual for them to search your cell. What do they expect to get in your empty tomb? Perhaps a small butt of a cigarette that you managed to get. At any rate everything is gone through, even at times your hair and beard. You will have a beard by this time for you are not allowed a razor. Perhaps if they did the death of Tone could be re-enacted. You cannot see this beard for your mirror has also been removed.

The dinner arrives and you are just ravenous. This consists of one pint of soup, two ounces of meat, once ounce vegetables and about three small potatoes. If one potato is bad it is a calamity. There is no use asking for another one for you will in all probability get another bad one and draw down the enmity of a warder on your defenceless shoulders. Well, you eat everything – potatoes, skins – every scrap, no matter how unpalatable it is it fills an empty space. It is now only twelve o’clock and you think it is only four and a half hours from the morning, that is another eight and half hours to go until you get into that bed again. You lie on the cold bedstead and try to rest for you have been on the constant move since the morning trying to keep warmth in your body. You are so cold that you begin the whole parade again. Perhaps you have a visit from the prison chaplain. You are delighted to see him and at the same time feel embarrassed and ashamed. You do not like to detain him too long as he has to visit all the other fighters and perhaps some of the other prisoners as well. He has a very difficult job. You can see the light of sympathy in his eyes and at athe same time he gives you to understand that he thinks you are striking your head against a stone wall. Perhaps you are too. You are in the grip of a mighty machine. What is the use? Others fought against it for years. Some went to an early grave, while others went mad. What was to be your fate? Neverthless you must not slet your comrades down. We are all in this to the end.

At two o’clock the noise starts again. The other prisoners go out to work and you have simply nothing to do. In these circumstances a man realises how incomplete he is on his own and how much a social creature he really is. How content you be doing anything. Even the hateful monotonous task of sewing mail bags that you were doing before the strike began. Perhaps you climb on the back of your bed and look out of your window. There is very little to be seen. Perhaps some hapless creatures marching around a ring in the courtyard awaiting trial. Perhaps some of your own comrades who will get the same kind of a trail that you got and a savage sentence. If you are caught it will almost certainly mean a report followed by a sentence of ‘bread and water’. They cannot confine you any closer but your diet will be reduced to a total of eight ounces of bread and one pound of potatoes per day. These morsels make you fell more hungry than if you get nothing at all.

At four o’clock the prisoners return from the shops and the tea arrives which consists of the same as the morning with one pint of porridge and half a pint of milk. This has to keep you going till eight o’clock the next morning. You could eat it at once and still be hungry but you must keep a little for later in the evening. Even though there is still four hours left you have the day’s back broken. You have done nine hours and every hour you do leaves one more down and one less to do. If you get a chance now you try to get something from the prisoner next to you. This is done by using a string, which you had concealed, and a weight. Perhaps you have a few booklet to exchange that will while away the monotony of the evening. If you are caught it will mean punishment but it is worth the risk. Look at the satisfaction you get if you succeed. Even if it is only a small thing you have a feeling you have beaten them.

Perhaps the prisoner below you who is in sympathy with your ideals sends you some of his food on the line. His own food is little enough and if he is caught it will mean punishment for him but he knows you are fighting his fight too. The time is passing but will 8.30 never come? At long last you hear the rattle of the keys. How welcome is that sound now. They start at the top. Will they never reach your length? The door opens and you get your bed. You are under the clothes in a few minutes. You are asleep in a few more. It does seem a pity to go to sleep as you don’t find the time until that awful bell goes again.

While Jimmy emphasises the solidarity of the protestors, this account is written as if he was housed on A3 with the other prisoners on the strike. It refers to the month of June, when Jimmy himself joined in August and also has him talking to his neighbour through the pipes and getting food from the prisoner below him when he was actually on the ground floor. Rather than making the account more bleak, Jimmy is reflecting the collective experience of the striking prisoners on A3 and how they were able to support each other. He spent the protest alone and isolated on A1, giving his own experience when he writes: “In these circumstances a man realises how incomplete he is on his own and how much a social creature he really is”. Other than that, the account must reflect Jimmy’s long experience of strkes in the prison and motivations that went through his head during the various protests. But the published account seems to have been written for the others that participated on the strike.

In mid-August Graham returned to A wing and seems to have resumed his position as O/C. There was a difference of opinion on whether he should rejoin the strike. Due to the precarious nature of Graham’s knee, and the fact that the cold and punishment diet would put his recovery at risk, some pleaded with Graham not to join the strike. All of Graham’s battalion staff were now on the strike, which may have influenced his decision to ignore those asking him to not participate in the strike. As it was, on his return to A wing, Graham joined the strike two weeks after Jimmy.

The protest did not discourage the prison staff from continuing to dole out beatings to prisoners. James Bannon was one of three or four prisoners who were punished for shouting from windows. In Bannon’s case this included being batoned in his cell by Prison Officer Boyd during August. The strike continued for a further four weeks into mid-September. Then, Graham’s knee gave way again and he would have to abandon the strike if he wanted to get treatment. Since the strike was failing to garner much public support, Graham feared leaving the strike, even for medical treatment, would suggest the protest was weakening. Since Graham wasn’t convinced that the strike would be successful, he appears to have been the main voice pushing for the strike itself to be ended[10]. What Graham needed was a staff meeting, yet there was no chance of that happening while the striking prisoners were kept isolated from each other without even an exercise period or any opportunity for association in which to meet up. He then, optimistically, requested that the prison authorities permit him to meet five other prisoners to discuss the strike. To Graham’s complete surprise, the request was granted.

Much to their amusement, Jimmy and the other four members of Graham’s staff were brought to an empty cell so they could meet and discuss the strike. Prison officers discretely gathered outside but kept the meeting secret. The IRA staff discussed their options, to keep going without Graham or to call a halt, but failed to agree on a course of action. What they finally did agree was that they would put the options to the other strikers. The remaining strikers, sitting cold, naked, hungry and isolated in their cells preferred to end the strike. With war time censorship, there was no public campaign of support on the outside and the rationale behind the strike had not been realised. To carry on would simply continue to erode the strikers’ health to no avail.

Jimmy Steele was critical of the ending of the strike, when he wrote about it in Resurgent Ulster ten years later. Whether this reflects his views, and the views of others, immediately after the strike isn’t clear[11]. The criticisms identified a number of key issues, such as Graham’s decision to join the strike while not in full health, with Graham being described as the weak link in the strike. It also identified a number of failings of Graham’s staff (which included Jimmy himself). The latter focussed on two specific points, the first being the indecision around whether Graham alone should end the strike for medical treatment, or, that the strike itself should end. That the IRA staff failed to come to a decision and put it directly to the strikers was regarded as unfair, since the purpose of electing an O/C and staff was to make those sort of decisions. By 1954, when Jimmy wrote about the strike, these points had clearly become divisive among those who had took part. Indeed, Jimmy’s account of the strike may have been written to try and heal those wounds.

Most pointedly of all, Jimmy was also critical of how he, Graham and the IRA staff had failed to grasp a more fundamental point. The prison authorities had rapidly agreed to a meeting of the IRA staff, allowing six striking prisoners on punishment to meet in a cell, to discuss ending the strike. The official position was that these were six penal convicts who were currently being punished for failure to comply with prison regulations. In that logic, to permit such a meeting was extraordinary. But the request by Graham was surely communicated to the Ministry of Home Affairs for instruction. So clearly the authorities wanted an end to the strike and no longer were as relaxed about it as implied by the dismissive public position given by Lowry in Stormont in July. In effect, despite the public position, facilitating an IRA staff meeting while the participants were on punishment was tantamount to recognising their political status. But the IRA staff overlooked this point and the strike ended when, in retrospect at least, it appears that the authorities were beginning to feel under pressure to respond. While this may seem like a very minor point, in prison, as Jimmy was to later write about the strike, “Even if it is only a small thing you have a feeling you have beaten them”.

To the regime, though, the prison authorities’ tactics had been a success. In 1945, speaking in Stormont as Attorney-General, William Lowry said “…we broke the strike.

[1] Stormont Hansaid, check date.

[2] At a later stage, De Valera was receiving daily reports on the strike.

[3] MacEoin 1997, 536.

[4] Eg see War News, No. 9, October 1940.

[5] Reference from PRONI escape report file.

[6] Anderson 2002, 93-4.

[7] Stormont Hansard, 2/2/1944.

[8] Story related by Billy McKee

[9] There were a number of items on the 1943 strip strike published in Resurgent Ulster from February to May 1954.

[10] There is an account, apparently by Jimmy, of the end of the 1944 strip strike in Resurgent Ulster, March 1954. It is the basis of the story given here, alongside other sources as indicated. The account gives the sequence of O/C’s and implies Jimmy was on the staff.

[11] On balance, given the later protests that took place, it seems more likely that this was how the strike was to be regarded later, with the benefit of hindsight.


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