In 1943, the women interned by the northern government in Armagh Prison went on hunger strike over their status and conditions in the jail. The hunger strike lasted for twenty-two days and ended when one woman was close to death (although the northern government did make minor concessions after the protest ended).
With the widespread use of internment after 1938, the northern government used the Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road, the Al Rawdah prison ship, Derry Gaol and Armagh Gaol, . The latter was used to intern women , mainly from 1942. Although the jail in Armagh had first been built in 1780, it was modified and rebuilt on the Pentonville model (similar in style to the Belfast Prison on the Crumlin Road), with two wings extending from a central ‘circle’. It also housed debtors and short-term sentenced prisoners.
The republican prisoners were housed in B wing, on B1, alongside what they initially described as ‘shoplifters, prostitutes and wine-victims’ although the experience gave them a greater insight into the experiences of the other women they met there (see John McGuffin in his 1973 book Internment). A maximum of 18 republican prisoners were held in Armagh, twelve from Belfast and three each from Tyrone and Derry. Most, like Madge Burns, were in their late teens. One, Nora McDowell, had children. Her daughter Una was interned with her in Armagh and she also had a son, Vincent, interned in D wing and another son, Charles, in A wing in the Crumlin Road prison. Others interned in Armagh included the likes of Teresa Donnelly, Bernadette Masterson, Mary McDonald, Nora McKearney, Cassie O’Hara (O/C of the Armagh prisoners) and Nancy Ward. Some, but not all, were members of Cumann na mBan and were highly thought of by their male colleagues in the IRA. For example, Jimmy Steele described Cassie O’Hara as “…one of the best republicans in the country. I wish we had a few leaders like her. She has everything which a Republican should have and I used to love to get the opportunity of dropping in with her for a yarn. She always seemed to keep on the right path and I may tell you candidly that I would rather have discussed a matter with Cassie than with some of my Staff colleagues.”
Like other internees, they were at first held for 28 days, then formally presented with internment orders. Conditions were every bit as poor (if not worse) than in Crumlin Road, Derry and even the Al Rawdah. At first, unlike the male internees, the women in Armagh were not accorded internee status and were treated as ordinary prisoners, accumulating privileges, such as visits and parcels, rather than being accorded them automatically. Each was locked into their own, bitterly cold, cell for twenty hours or more a day, with no formal recreation room and a limited range of handicrafts.
Tensions soon developed within the group, although most were very reluctant to discuss what transpired after their release. By September 1943, the internal rows had spilled over, apparently to the extent that some of the republican prisoners wanted to be kept separate from the three women from Derry. Certainly this was later cited in the brief newspaper reports that mention the prison (eg The Irish Times, 1st December 1943). From September 1943 internal relations had deteriorated to the extent that an argument escalated and prison staff intervened. According to Madge Burns, the staff used high-power jets to hose them out of their cells (leaving most badly knocked around). Their cells were searched and the contents thrown out into the corridor and broken up. All ‘privileges’ were stopped too. The northern government ensured there was no publicity and the issue was never discussed in Stormont. Republican News was, at this time, being issued erratically by Harry White and Dan Turley Jr but too infrequently to be of any use in raising awareness of the issues the women faced.
The prisoners had then been moved into empty cells with beds hinged to the walls. As a protest against their treatment by the prison authorities, they banged the beds against the cell walls. There were also constant confrontations between prisoners and prison staff. According to John McGuffin, “…Added to this were the moans and cries of those prisoners who needed psychiatric help but who, instead, were merely locked up in the padded cells where they screamed all night.” In Belfast, the Al Rawdah and Derry, similar psychological impacts were known although the men had been removed to asylums.
The prisoners in Armagh had one further protest left to them. Those John McGuffin interviewed remembered that the food was ‘abominable’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘shocking’ and ‘disgusting’ and one claimed she could “…still remember the endless prunes and beans…. At the same time, food parcels were rare. In November, the internees decided to undertake a hunger strike. Beginning on 21st November, they refused all food. The physical condition of the prisoners prior to the strike was already poor. Madge Burns and others had to leave the hunger strike as they were simply in such poor physical shape. Two had already had to drop out by 1st December.
The key to a hunger strike is building the pressure on the authorities to find an accommodation, both through the internal strain on the prison system, and through external agitation to reach a solution. Censorship ensured there was no external agitation. This was brought home when Teresa Donnelly, who had a weak heart, was so bad that she was given the last rites. After twenty-two days, on 13th December, starved of publicity and having weighed the risk of a fatality against the likelihood of success, the hunger strike was called off.
The only positive outcome from the strike was that, after an interval, the authorities allowed the women to share cells. The lessons from the hunger strike were not learned by the male prisoners, who embarked on a similarly vain strike in 1944.
Just as with the male internees, family hardship on the outside led some to eventually sign out of prison. Madge Burns was refused compassionate leave when her brother, Rocky, was shot dead by the RUC in February 1944 (when Rocky had escaped from Derry Gaol in March 1943, the warders feared he would break Madge out too).
The last eight prisoners were only finally released in July 1945.