A previous post looked at the hunger strike by the female internees in Armagh in November and December 1943. The background to the hunger strike included an episode in which the prison authorities had used high-powered jets to hose the internees out of their cells leaving most of them injured to some degree or other. At the time their cells were then searched and all the contents thrown out into the corridor and deliberately damaged.
After the subsequent hunger strike ended in mid-December 1943, the female internees managed to raise some publicity by bringing an action for damages against one of the warders, Joseph Spence. The women were able to use the case to shed more light on their experience. The internees who brought the case were Agnes McDowell, Norah McDowell; Norah McKearney, Mary Dempsey, Margaret Burns, Margaret Agnew and Rosaleen McCotter. They were represented in court by James McSparran.
Their claim was that the hosing caused great suffering and was unjustifiable and illegal. McSparran told the court that internees were entitled to the best possible treatment as they had never been charged. He also provided further evidence on the background to the dispute. A female prisoner, known as Wee Hughie and subject to ‘fits of dementia and temporary insanity’, had been placed into a cell, two cells away from Norah McKearney. While she was there during the day, and for a considerable part of the night, she was shrieking and kicking up a terrific din. After complaints she was taken away but there had been a protest by the internees about the issue where they kicked up a row.
When they were punished for this protest three internees (the two Ashtons and Mary Ward, all from Derry) left the wing and were put in the convicts wing at their own request. In court, Norah McDowell, said that before this incident she felt had been fairly well treated. When the three Derry internees asked the Governor to separate them from the others, the remaining internees called them traitors. It was alleged that the three Derry internees gave information to the Governor about the protest in order to then get preferential treatment (it’s not clear if this was the case or the authorities seeking to divide the internees – afterwards both sets of internees wanted to let it go and refused to discuss it).
As the dispute with the prison authorities escalated, on August 30th the internees refused to take their evening meal and would not go into their cells when ordered by the governor. The internees continued to insist that they receive the same treatment as the three Derry internees in the convict wing. When the Governor again ordered them to get into their cells, they refused. He then said he was sending for the police so the internees armed themselves with jamjars and whatever else they could find. The Governor later said the internees were booing, shouting, hissing and yelling at him so he ordered Joseph Spence to take a power hose out and sent for the RUC.
The internees were now standing in the open space of the wing and were subject to the power hose by Spence, who pointed out in court that he was merely acting under orders. The Governor, George Brush, claimed in court that he and Spence had been met with a shower of jamjars, tins and hot tea. Spence used the power hose for around five or six minutes and managed to push the internees into a corner at the bottom of the wing. Then twenty RUC men rushed in and pulled the internees into the cells. Most were pushed into the closest cell rather than their own cell. The power hose had left the internees and the cells soaking wet.
Female prison staff then arrived and ordered the internees to undress. In two cases policemen assisted them. In some cases they undressed voluntarily, but in most they were undressed forcibly by the wardresses. Some had their clothes, including shoes, taken away. All were left in their cells with just wet blankets for the night. The cells were also emptied of their property which was broken up on the landing.
During the case McSparran managed to put George Brush on the stand and cross-examine him.
McSparran: They got good treatment on this occasion?
Brush: They deserved, it.
McSparran: Have you any precedent in Britain or Europe of a hose being turned on a political prisoner?
McSparran: Then with regard to these women you have established a precedent?
McSparran: Is there any provision in the prison code for using a hose?