While the horrific circumstances of Sean McCaughey’s death on 11th May 1946 after a 23 day hunger and thirst strike are well known, less people are aware of the story of David Fleming, from Killarney, in County Kerry, who was serving a 12 year sentence on a treason-felony charge in Belfast prison since 1942. Fleming had been subject to severe beatings at the hands of prison staff and had participated in a blanket protest in 1943 and a 40 day hunger strike in 1944. He began a hunger strike on 22nd March 1946 which ran alongside Sean McCaughey’s in Portlaoise despite both prisoners being held in isolation.
His brother Patrick (a former IRA Army Council member who had himself spent considerable time interned in the Curragh), was allowed to visit him in Crumlin Road prison and gave a statement carried by the press (on 18th November 1946). He recorded that, when the three month blanket protest had ended in September 1943, David’s behaviour had been a cause of concern and he had been placed under observation for two months by the medical officer.
After the ending of the blanket protest in September, the IRA prisoners in A wing of Crumlin Road had debated what to do next about conditions inside the prison. Sixteen women interned in Armagh prison had gone on hunger strike in November and December 1943, and unfounded rumours had circulated in the press over the winter that Hugh McAteer (the former IRA Chief of Staff who had escaped and been eventually re-captured in 1943) had gone on hunger strike. On the 22nd February 1944, a hunger strike did begin, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.
The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.”
The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “...taken to bring them off.”
A couple of months after the hunger strike ended, David Fleming was given a particularly brutal beating by prison staff on 15th June (detailed here). Hugh McAteer described the blood stains after the assault on Fleming: “…the west wall of my cell was spattered with blood over a space of 42 square feet… On the north wall, where it joins the west wall, was a large, streaky, blood-stained patch which looked as if a blood-stained head had been pressed against it. The stains remained clearly visible until whitewashed out about a week later.”
As the end of the second world war appeared to be in sight during the remainder of 1944 and 1945, the prison issues became less pressing as there was an assumption that internees and even sentenced prisoners would be released once hostilities ceased. While the internees were released during 1945 (some having been first interned since 1938, long before the outbreak of the world war), the northern government appeared to have no appetite for remitting the huge sentences it had handed down over the previous five to six years (eg 10 to 12 years penal servitude for possession of revolver instead of a £2-£5 fine).
The stress of the beatings and the threat of lengthy imprisonment led David Fleming to embark on a further hunger strike on 22nd March 1946, in protest against his incarceration. After the severe assault he was subjected to in June 1944, his brother Patrick records that David’s mental health remained an issue for the prison authorities (see statement below). By the end of 1946, he had spent at least 155 days on hunger or thirst strike. This included the first hunger strike begun on 22nd March which he continued, despite a beating in his cell of 12th April and forced feeding the same month, for 82 days until the 12th June. As with the previous hunger strikes the press continued to report inaccurately, claiming he had taken food on occasions.
Between June and October, David embarked on a number of short hunger strikes of between 12 and 16 days, refusing liquids for 7 days on the longer protest. On the 12th October he again refused food and went on hunger strike. It was his tenth hunger strike (according to the Irish Examiner on 22/11/1946). During the strike he seems to have intermittently refused liquids as well as food for periods up to at least 6 days during the protest. As public concern about both his health and mental state continued, pressure seems to have told on the northern government. On the afternoon of 25th November, after 45 days, he ended the hunger strike. That Saturday, assuming David’s health was irretrievably broken, the northern government released him to his brother Patrick and a nurse and he was brought straight over the border to the Pembroke nursing home in Pembroke Street in Dublin. For good measure, the northern government served an exclusion order on David Fleming under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act.
This is Patrick Fleming’s statement as reported in the Irish Press (18/11/46):
“Owing to travel restrictions during the war he was not visited by any members of his family until eight months ago, when his mother was informed by the prison governor that he was dangerously ill, as a result of hunger strike.
“I visited him at that time and found that he had been on hunger-strike for 40 days. After having a conversation with him I formed the opinion that he was not normal mentally. Other persons who had seen him, including the prison chaplain, formed the same opinion. No amount of reasoning could prevail on him to abandon the strike. On the 82nd day, without giving: any reason, he took food. At this stage he was in a state of collapse and very confused mentally.
“After a period of three weeks, when he was recovering, he went on a succession of fasts, some lasting 12 and 16 days, the latter including the refusal of liquids for 7 days.
“On October 12 he again started a fast, and has since taken no food.
“Since I first visited my brother in May last, I learned some of the facts concerning his condition and treatment since his arrest. In the second year of his imprisonment he, with a number of other political prisoners, as a protest against their treatment, refused to wear convict dress. He was kept naked in solitary confinement for three months; even the bedding was removed in the daytime. After this it was noticed that he was acting in a peculiar manner, and the medical officer had him placed under observation, for about two months. He was then returned to a work party.
Mr. Fleming adds that later David was removed to the prison hospital. Whilst in hospital a government mental specialist was brought to examine him. After nine weeks he was returned to the prison, and some time later he began the first hunger strike.
“After 20 days’ fast he was forcibly fed three or four times, at intervals of five days. He resisted violently on each occasion, and was put in a straitjacket. He was afterwards locked in a padded cell.”
‘” I am convinced that my brother is not conscious of what he is doing-. I am further convinced that the Belfast Government are of the same opinion.“
Based on this statement confirming the duration, I’ve revised the dates and timings of David Fleming’s first hunger strike in 1946, to allow 82 days (as stated by Patrick) from start to finish. This means the strike started on 16th March and strengthens the suggestion that McCaughey had calculated that accelerating his protest by refusing liquids would bring both strikes to a critical point at the same time (ie between 50-55 days after Fleming’s began, similar to when D’Arcy and McNeela died in 1940).