The Armagh hunger strike

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 over time, such as visits and parcels, rather than being immediately accorded them as an automatic right (as applied to internees). 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 apart from each other. 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.

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 all 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. Later, in a court hearing, 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 allegedly called them traitors. It was also intimated to the remaining internees that the three Derry internees had given information to the Governor about the protest in order to get preferential treatment. However, collectively the internees seemed to be happy that this was actually the authorities seeking to divide them and afterwards both sets of internees let the issue 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. A few days later they tried to hold a commemoration for Jerry O’Callaghan and Tom Williams who had died in early September the year previously. The Governor, George Brush, again ordered them to get into their cells and 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 later pointed out in court that he was merely acting under orders. Brush later 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. Brush was later cross-examined over the use of the power-hose as it was claimed to be unprecedented and outside the prison code. 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. All ‘privileges’ were stopped immediately. The northern government ensured there was no publicity and the issue was never discussed in Stormont. While Republican News was, at this time, still 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, without the publicity that would help build public pressure 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.

After the 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 who cross-examined Brush about the power-hosing.

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, the treatment of ‘wee Hughie’ and the escalation of events in August 1943 (as outlined above). The presiding magistrate, Robb, dismissed their case.

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.

This is an updated version of a number of previous posts.

The hosing of female internees, Armagh, 1943

The women’s hunger strike, Armagh 1943

A brief history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the 1920s to 1960s

See also

“…their own voluntary abstention from food”: the 1943-1944 hunger strikes

The Al Rawdah prison ship, 1940-41

Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking



2 thoughts on “The Armagh hunger strike

  1. It’s unlikely that the prison was modelled on Pentonville. Most prisons were derived from 18th century, then progressive, notions of imprisonment. Also, it would be interesting to hear about the women’s political credo. Did they, for instance, have ideas about unionist/protestant women? Were they all Catholics?


    1. Pentonville was opened in 1844. It’s layout was taken as the model for many prisons built after that date (I think Pentonville itself had a design based upon a prison in the United States). It was laid out with wings radiating from a central circle (basically the shape of Crumlin Road Jail). This allowed the movement of prisoners to be controlled from the central circle, was considered healthier and was designed to match contemporary ideas about what a prison should look like. Armagh was an older building but in 1845 the Commissioners put out a tender to have the prison rebuilt in the same style as Pentonville. This took until around 1848 to be completed.


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