The 1946 hunger and thirst strike

This is a brief account of a hunger and thirst strike that two prisoners staged in 1946. One involved David Fleming, a southerner imprisoned by the northern government, the other Sean McCaughey, a northerner imprisoned by the southern government (more precisely, De Valera’s Military Tribunal). While Fleming’s hunger strike began first, the agony of McCaughey’s death after a thirst strike is still almost beyond description. Fleming ended his hunger strike but a further protest later the same year was to some extent successful, although the price of gaining his early release was catastrophic damage to his body and he never returned to good health, dying in 1970 at the early age of 51.

Fleming, imprisoned in 1943 for IRA activities, had been at the receiving end of brutal beatings in Crumlin Road prison and had petitioned for his release in February 1946. That he petitioned for release rather than political status was confirmed in Stormont on 21st May that year (all internees had been released in 1945). The petition fell on deaf ears in the northern government so Fleming’s response was to decide to go on hunger strike again (he had previously taken part in a hunger strike for political status in 1944). He started to refuse food on the 16th March 1946. Clearly, statements by the Nationalist and Socialist MPs in Stormont imply that some of the IRA prisoners in A wing felt the conditions in A wing, and in his case, the beatings and 40 days on hunger strike in 1944 had taken a psychological toll on Fleming.

When he was twenty six days on hunger strike, Fleming was taken to the prison hospital on Thursday 11th April[1]. At around 4.30 am the next morning, he was carried from the hospital to his cell on A1. At 3.30 pm, prison officer Morrison and the deputy governor walked along A1 together, towards the grill gate from the circle. After the deputy governor left the wing, Morrison called to another warder, Adair, to join him and, together with another warder called Foster they went to David Fleming’s cell. There were raised voices in the cell and the sound of violence and groans from Fleming. Another warder, Noble, also went to the cell. Foster left the cell carrying Fleming’s pyjamas while Adair emerged, reportedly looking very pale and excited. Clearly, Fleming, even after a month without food, had refused to subject himself to a strip search and been forcibly stripped by the prison staff. As he insisted on continuing with his protest, Fleming had to again be returned to the hospital.

On the 19th April, while Fleming, a Kerryman, was testing the resolve of the northern government to hold him in Belfast prison, a northerner, Sean McCaughey, decided to put De Valera’s government to the test, demanding his release from Portlaoise. According to Liam Rice, McCaughey’s decision to go on hunger strike came out of the blue. On the 16th April, in the Caidreamh, the indoor space afforded to the republican prisoners in Portlaoise for their short periods of exercise, McCaughey informed his colleagues and handed a letter to the prison governor stating that he would go on hunger strike that Friday (19th), unless he was released. Another prisoner shouted at McCaughey, “What have you done, they will let you die”.

The conditions in Portlaoise were brutal. In June 1943, a level of political status had been given to a small group of IRA prisoners who had been refusing to wear prison clothing since 1940. As they had been sentenced by the Military Tribunal rather than a court, 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 outdoor 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. Those conditions were to persist until 1946.

For the next few weeks, the two hunger strikes unfolded in tandem[4]. Externally the two protests were linked together in the public eye, yet in both cases McCaughey and Fleming were even, to a large extent, acting independently of their colleagues within the prisons. Indeed, in both cases, the other IRA prisoners were concerned as to their mental well-being having seen them endure the conditions of the two prisons over a number of years. How far McCaughey was aware of Fleming’s case, and vice-versa, isn’t clear. Certainly, there was no outside direction of their protests by the IRA.

In Belfast, the prison authorities began to attempt to force feed Fleming on Friday 19th April, the day McCaughey began his hunger strike. The timing suggests the two events are linked, even though there is no immediate evidence to suggest that is the case. While the northern government may have decided to force feed Fleming rather than allowing him to continue with the hunger strike, the fact that McCaughey had advised of the start date of his protest a couple of days earlier seems to reduce the chance that the timing can be merely coincidental.

As Fleming was now in the prison hospital, the other IRA prisoners on A1 could not monitor his condition or listen in on the prison staff trying to force feed him. He was also kept on a punishment regime of isolation, with no books or newspapers. When Harry Diamond, as chairman of a National Amnesty Committee, was granted access to Fleming, though, Fleming was able to tell him he was being badly manhandled when being force fed[5]. Diamond reported that, by 23rd April, Fleming was very weak. The IRA prisoners were rumoured to be threatening to go on hunger strike en masse if Fleming died. Outside, other groups, like the Green Cross, were also calling for Fleming’s release on medical grounds. After Diamond’s visit the force feeding was stopped, with Warnock (Minister of Home Affairs) later stating that the last day Fleming had been force fed was 25th April after which it was discontinued due to “…attacks made by the convict on the medical officer and prison officers who were assisting him”. Warnock also later claimed that Fleming was put into a padded cell for three hours and ten minutes after that the last attempt at force feeding him on 25th April[6]. By that date, it was forty days since the start of Fleming’s protest. He was hardly in a condition to attack anyone.

Subsequently the northern government tried to claim that Fleming had only been on the protest since the 23rd April (contradicting even its own dates). International media reporting the hunger strike cite information from the Home Office, in London, saying his strike began on 23rd April (and not 20th March). Similar disinformation had persuaded the IRA to end the 1944 hunger strike rather than risk deaths.

McCaughey, only a few days into his protest, was nowhere near as weak as Fleming. He then announced that he was also going on thirst as well as hunger strike, shouting from the hospital to Liam Rice who was in a cell nearby, “Liam, I am going off the water wagon”. This raised the stakes as both his life, and Flemings, were now under imminent threat from their protests. Again, the timing is curious. That morning, 24th April, Irish Times and other papers carried stories about Diamond’s visit to Fleming in the prison, and that Fleming was very weak. Someone among the prison staff must have told MacCaughey what was being said in the press and that prompted him to accelerate his protest.

MacCaughey would have known that in 1940 Tony D’arcy had died after 52 days on hunger strike and Jack McNeela had died after 55. David Fleming was then 39 days on hunger strike and would soon be at risk of death. Refusing liquids would mean the two protests would reach the critical stage at the same time. Prison hunger strikes rely on embarrassing the authorities into concessions, usually by one of two methods. The protest tests the patience of the authorities with regard to the smooth operation of the prison service with all the associated disruption that comes with a hunger strike, and the potential to further sour warder-prisoner relations. On the outside, good publicity and a protracted protest can build the weight of public opinion into pressure to give concessions and resolve the dispute before a death occurs. MacCaughey clearly understood the timings and must have believed the combined crises would work to his and Fleming’s advantage.

In a hunger strike all food is refused and all liquids except water (although salt is often allowed to regulate the body). In a hunger and thirst strike, water is also refused. The body slowly deteriorates during a hunger strike although initially it uses up any reserves it can find within the body including fats and muscle. Beyond a certain point, though, the body begins to break down with the risk of permanent damage and death. Most deaths, in Ireland, have occurred well beyond 50 days. However, without taking water, the body deteriorates rapidly during a hunger and thirst strike and leads to a horrific death within a couple of weeks. The impact on the striker’s health and stamina would be a rapid deterioration with sight loss by ten days, the tongue shrivelling up and the body practically reduced to a skeleton. Death would follow within days[7].

Sean MacCaughey would also have been familiar with the use of thirst strike as a tactic in 1936 in Belfast prison. Then, IRA prisoners began a protest as a thirst strike, effectively to force the prison authorities to take the protest seriously from the start, then slowed it down by taking liquids but continuing as a hunger strike. They achieved some political recognition and ended the strike. None showed long term damage arising from the initial five days on thirst strike (although the protest appears to have had an adverse effect on Jimmy Steele’s health leaving him with congested lungs). That lesson appeared to have been lost on MacCaughey.

Outside the prisons there was some momentum behind public pupport for the protests. A demonstration was held in Clonard in Belfast calling for prisoner releases, and specifically Fleming’s, on Sunday 28th April, which was addressed by various Stormont MPs. It received a cable of support from 2,000 Irishmen at an Easter week ceremony in New York[8]. The two prison protests were also starting to be seen as reflections of each other, both casting shadows and light across the northern and southern governments. On the night of Friday 4th May, a meeting was held in O’Connell Street in Dublin, organised by Ailtiri na hAiserige demanding the release of both Fleming and MacCaughey. By the 5th May, despite the force feeding episode, Fleming had been on his protest for fifty days and urgent requests for intervention to save his life were starting to be be made. He was by now being described as very weak, but while his family were allowed to visit him twice over the weekend, he was still being refused his demands or removal to an outside hospital[9].

On the 7th May, 1946, Cahir Healy raised the condition of Fleming in Stormont and asked if Warnock was going to let him die rather than release him on humanitarian grounds. Warnock dismissed the question. The prison authorities or the Ministry of Home Affairs also circulated a story that Fleming had now been taking vitamin tablets and orange juice for the last few days. The next day, 8th May, Harry Diamond raised those statements saying that they were erroneous, and that Fleming had not gone off his hunger strike. Warnock also appeared to be delaying the end of debate on the budget to avoid discussing the prisons issue. Diamond’s motion, that the International Red Cross should be invited to set up an independent inquiry into prison conditions and ill-treatment of political prisoners and internees, was finally heard on the 21st May. But, in between, Sean MacCaughey died.

On the 11th May, having been on hunger strike since the 19th April and thirst strike since 24th, MacCaughey died at 1.10 am. Liam Rice saw him three days before he died. He said “It shocked me, for the 19 days had taken a terrible toll of his body. He was no more than a skeleton covered by a parchment of skin, that, were I to touch, I felt I would break. His eyes were dried holes, his sight gone. His tongue was no more than a shrivelled piece of skin between his jaws, while his body and his hands, from what I could discern, were those of a skeleton.[10]” Towards the end of his thirst strike, to stop him choking, a warder had to sit holding a teaspoon on his shrivelled tongue, so it did not fall back and block his airways. De Valera had been receiving daily updates on his condition at least since 2nd May and knew both that he was dying, and how he was dying. The Fianna Fáil government tried to quickly and quietly hurry through the inquest into MacCaughey’s death by holding it in the governor’s office in the prison on the same day. Sean MacBride was ready for them, and, despite the attempts by the Deputy Coroner, used the inquest to ask questions about the regime inside the prison. The publicity around the inquest, the conditions in Portlaoise and MacCaughey’s death saw changes in the prison regime and is believed to have contributed to McBride’s political rise and De Valera losing the next election.

Fleming ended his hunger strike a short time later, only to resume in autumn when, on the verge of death, he was released (Stormont being sensitive to prisoners dying in prison, as opposed to the health of the prisoners per se).

The afternoon of MacCaughey’s death, the undertakers at work and MacCaughey’s sisters sobs were heard in the prison corridor. The protesting prisoners, Liam Rice, Tomás MacCurtain, Jim Smith, Eamonn Smullen, Mick Walsh, Jim Crofton, Willie Stewart, Paddy Murphy, Frank Kerrigan and Joe O’Callaghan were all confined indoors in their cells, and naked apart from a blanket due to their refusal to accept the criminal status prison clothing signified. At the sounds of the coffin being carried by the door of their cell, each stood to attention in salute as MacCaugheys remains passed.

[update] you can read more about Sean McCaughey and Stephen Hayes here, and more on David Fleming here and here.


[1] Irish Times, 12th April 1946.

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

[3] MacEoin 1997, 536.

[4] The two hunger strikes, the north-south aspects to them, and the background, were being reported as far away as, eg The Milwaukee Journal (see 11th May 1946).

[5] Irish TimesI, 24th April 1946.

[6] Irish Times, 22nd November 1946.

[7] See McEoin 1997, 538 for a horrific account of a hunger and thirst strike.

[8] Irish Times, 29th April 1946,

[9] Irish Times 7th May 1946.

[10] MacEoin 1997 538 (this account of the events inside Portlaoise on 11th May is largely based on Liam Rice’s account.


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