After their arrest at Crown Entry in 1936, the senior IRA men charged and found guilty of treason felony had agreed on a campaign for political status after they had been sentenced (this happened on 22nd July 1936). Sean McCool was O/C of the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time, while Tony Lavery was section O/C of B wing.
Their first step was to go individually to the prison doctor to demand they receive the Ordinary No 3 Diet. At the time there was a rumour that all republican prisoners would be freed at the time of the upcoming coronation in London (there were twenty-three political prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time). This acted as a brake on taking action which unfolded relatively slowly over the next few weeks. Ironically, there was equally a rumour that the long term prisoners in A wing would be moved to Peterhead in Scotland which was designed as a penal settlement (while Crumlin Road was only designed for short term prisoners).
McCool and Lavery (as O/Cs of A wing and B wing) then both went to the prison governor, Stephenson, to again demand No 3 Diet, association, razors, Irish books, a letter a week and visit a month. By the middle of August there was no clear decision on further action and Lavery wanted to be replaced as O/C (he intended to hold no rank in the prison and to resign from the IRA on his release). The prison chaplains were also refusing sacraments to the IRA men. Eventually, on Sunday 16th August, McCool passed a copy of their demands to Lavery (see below).
The prisoners in A wing agreed that there would be a no work protest from the Tuesday against the conditions under which they were being held prisoner and that every prisoner who felt able to would commence a hunger and thirst strike. Mick Traynor also took over as O/C in B wing. On the day the protest started, each informed the warder who opened his cell that he wasn’t going to work that day . He was told he would be reported and was locked back into his cell. A short time later, half a dozen warders and the Chief Warder appeared at the cell and asked him to go to his place of work. He again refused and was physical removed from the cell and brought to his place of work in the yard.
Jimmy Steele, Sean McCool, Jim Killeen (being held as James Grace), Mick Gallagher, Mick Kelly (being held as Michael O’Boyle) and Johnny McAdams stood where they were left in the yard by the warders and refused to do any work. They were rounded up by the warders and brought back to the circle where they were held whilst their refusal was reported to the governor. Next they were summoned to the governor’s office. Each prisoner was asked why he was refusing to work and they told him that it was a protest as he was a political prisoner, not a criminal, and had been sentenced and charged under a political offence, the Treason Felony Act of 1848.
They each demanded political treatment including their own clothes. Stephenson replied that there was no provision for political prisoners in the jail. He ordered one month of punishment on number 2 Punishment Diet. On return from the governor’s office each republican prisoner discovered that his cell had been stripped of the table, stool, bed board, mattress, blankets, a basin, dustpan, brush, mugs, comb and spoon. The bed board, mattress and blankets were removed between 7.30 am and 8 am and only returned at 8 pm or so. The number 2 Punishment Diet of bread and water for breakfast, potatoes for dinner and a half pint of porridge for tea was delivered directly by warders to each cell. Those on punishment also had a loss of exercise.
After the A wing prisoners went through this, the B wing men suffered more or less the same consequence for a refusal to work. It is clear that there was no consensus among the prisoners on whether all, or indeed any, of the demands, would be met. The most realistic scenario was that if the prison authorities breached normal prison rules and protocol to treat with them, this was tantamount to recognition of their political status (i.e. when they started collective negotiations rather than dealing with them as individuals).
The hunger and thirst strike also began on the Tuesday (18th August) with eighteen of the twenty-three republican prisoners in Belfast Jail participating (everyone except the juveniles, Mick Kelly and Tony Lavery). Hunger strikes were not a new tactic in Belfast Jail, with Patrick Cavanagh having carried out a five day hunger strike there the previous year. The Crown Entry men included veterans of various jails, north and south, and prison protests including hunger strikes (including those who had been arrested at Gyles Quay and imprisoned in Arbour Hill the year before). Given the high profile of some of the prisoners, such as Jim Killeen and Sean McCool, there was the prospect of publicity, and it would be hoped, widespread sympathy for meeting their demands.
While the nominal demand was one visit and one parcel per month, the real focus of the protest was to establish that principle of there being a political liaison between those imprisoned and those in charge of running the prison. Other issues, such as the refusal to work, could be dealt with by non-compliance, relying upon the warders on the ground to ignore non-participation in work in return for a quiet life. Warders who wanted to enforce the rules and compel prisoners to work would not only require confrontations to enforce this, but also co-operation from their own colleagues. It seems that the desire for a quiet life could be relied upon to gloss over refusals to participate in work where that was done by simply not doing the work, rather than openly refusing to work. Some work, which related to the prisoners own comforts, such as the cook house and laundry, appeared to have been exempt from the protests.
On the Friday, three days into the hunger strike, Jimmy Steele told Mick Traynor that he was ‘going the whole hog’. On the Saturday after the hunger and thirst strike started, the A wing men were visited by the Chaplain who was nominally coming to give them the Catholic sacrament of confession. On advising them that a hunger and thirst strike ran contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church, he refused absolution. After he had been to A wing, the chaplain paid Jack McNally and the others a visit in B wing. He similarly refused absolution to them and also informed him that the A wing men had come off the thirst strike (which wasn’t true). It is clear from McNally’s memoirs that the protest began as a hunger and thirst strike, rather than a conventional hunger strike although contemporary press sources generally refer to it as a hunger strike.
With some prisoners on a hunger and thirst strike, it put immediate pressure on the authorities to consider concessions. Whether it was agreed beforehand or left to a certain amount of chance, the decision to begin with everyone on a hunger and thirst strike appears to have been tactical. A hunger and thirst strike could potentially see fatalities after the first week and gave the authorities little opportunity to ignore the protest.
Having raised the stakes so high to begin with, those on the protest then began taking water again on the Saturday, the fifth day. This, in effect, took the protest down a gear. The change in pace allowed the prisoners to gather their strength for a more protracted battle of wills. It also offered some respite to the authorities after the stress of a potential fatality on a hunger and thirst strike. It didn’t offer much respite to the hunger strikers, though. Anyone who has participated in a hunger strike is quick to dismiss the idea that somehow the hunger pangs leave as the lack of food normalises. Apparently, the hunger persists every day from the beginning of the strike and presents a constant challenge to the discipline and motivation of the hunger striker.
That Saturday afternoon, McNally was visited by a warder and the deputy prison doctor, Dr McComb. After examining McNally he directed the warder to bring him down to the prison surgery, McComb found that his kidneys were not functioning properly. McComb then gave him a glass of water with some powder dissolved in it. The doctor also ordered that McNally be allowed an hours exercise a day on medical grounds. Back in his cell, McNally still refused the food on Sunday morning but drank the water.
At 2 pm on the Sunday, the authorities began to negotiate. A Catholic warder, called Murphy and nicknamed the Blind Man, brought an offer from Allingham, the chief warder. If they called off the protest, their cards would be marked as if they had been at work all week (this is taken into account when it comes to remission and shortening the sentence). McNally told Murphy that he would have to meet the other Crown Entry men held in B and C wing to discuss the offer before he could respond to Allingham or the governor Stevens. Allingham directed Murphy to assemble the men in B and C wing, and, that he would meet McNally to discuss the matter.
McNally immediately noted the fact that Allingham was at work on a Sunday and agreed to collective negotiation as evidence that the authorities were taking the protest seriously and was a form of political recognition. They all agreed that they would allow themselves to be brought out to work the next day, whilst remaining on the number 2 Punishment Diet. While they would be on a go slow, or not work at all, this would be disregarded. They would keep privileges like attending the lectures and Friday night concerts. Next Murphy brought McNally’s response to Allingham that he would meet him. When Allingham agreed and met him on the Sunday evening, McNally considered it as a step towards political recognition. The Crown Entry men on B wing regarded this as a moral victory. The hunger and thirst strike had lasted to its fifth day.
Over on A wing, the protest had stepped down a notch, but it wasn’t over. The demand for a visit and parcel a month still remained and the Crown Entry men were now taking water, but refusing food, and it was day six of the hunger strike. The authorities had not conceded the point yet and the scene was apparently set for a more protracted hunger strike. By 1st September, on day 16 of the hunger strike, Sean McCool and Jim Killeen had come off the strike (this was reported in Irish Press on 4th September) and only Jimmy Steele remained on hunger strike.
The logic of Steele staying on the hunger strike was likely to promote support in Belfast in a way that perhaps Killeen or McCool might not have attracted. In the event that he grew weak, it left Killeen and McCool in a position to negotiate with the authorities.
But Steele’s body was already weakened by refusing food and having had pleurisy and lung congestion the previous year. After the initial hunger and thirst, he had already started to show further signs of problems. By the 3rd September, day 18 of the hunger strike, his condition had weakened sufficiently that his brother Bill was summoned by the prison authorities. Despite the health problems, he insisted on staying on hunger strike until the demands were met. The demands were still that they would receive one visit and one letter a month from relatives. Finally, he came off hunger strike on the Saturday morning, the 5th September, the 20th day of the hunger strike (this was reported in the Irish Press on 7th September) as a deal appeared to have been brokered.
On Monday, the 7th September, the A wing men expected to be in a position to receive a visit (according to newspaper reports in October the authorities had even agreed to weekly visits but that wasn’t part of the demands). Over the course of the next week the authorities appear to taken a different interpretation of whatever was agreed before the 5th, or simply chose not to honour it.
Having just completed five days on hunger and thirst strike, followed by fifteen further days of hunger strike, Jimmy Steele went back on hunger strike on the 17th September. Given his weakened condition and the problems with his lungs, his continuation of the protest raised the stakes. His condition continued to worsen and he was transferred to the prison hospital. His brother Bill and others attempted to get in to see him, whilst political figures like Harry Diamond tried to get permission for family members to get in to see him. They also requested that he be treated by an outside doctor. In the end, severely weakened, Steele came off the hunger strike on 30th September. It was the fourteenth day of his second hunger strike and he had been on hunger or thirst strike for thirty-four of the last forty-five days. He remained in the hospital for some time.
Mick Traynor, who took part in the hunger strike in 1940 that saw the deaths of Tony D’arcy and Jack McNeela, said that compared to 1940, the 1936 protest was a ‘cantering strike’. However, Jimmy Steele was later to record how the hunger strike had impacted significantly on his lungs which were to remain a problem for the rest of his life and lead to intermittent bouts of ill-health.