force feeding hunger strikers: Frank Stagg documentary on TG4

Tonight TG4 is screening a documentary about Frank Stagg in the Finné series. The programme will look at the events that followed Stagg’s death on hunger strike on 12th February 1976. His brother George will tell the story of how Frank’s remains were seized by the Irish government in an attempt to prevent him receiving a republican funeral.

Stagg had been arrested in England in April 1973, charged with conspiracy to carry out bombing attacks and given a ten year sentence. Moved around various prisons, in March 1974 he and Michael Gaughan joined Gerry Kelly, Hugh Feeney, Paul Holmes, Dolours Price and Marion Price on hunger strike in protest at the refusal to grant them political status including setting a date at which they would be moved to prisons in the north (such movements, in either direction, were being routinely facilitated for non-republicans).

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Frank Stagg

Like the others, Stagg was subjected to force feeding during his hunger strike. Force feeding was believed to be a factor in Michael Gaughan’s death on 3rd June 1974.  While the others were moved to prisons in Ireland after Gaughan’s death, Stagg was moved to Long Lartin then Wakefield. He and his family claimed they were subjected to humiliating body searches prior to visits there and he spent much of the time in solitary confinement, as did many other republican prisoners. He participated in a number of further hunger strikes and was again subjected to force feeding. His last hunger strike  began on 14th December 1975 along with others like Gerry Mealy.

Force feeding of prisoners is described in various accounts. In the past Thomas Ashe and Terence MacSwiney had both been subject to force-feeding while on hunger-strike and it had contributed to their deaths. It had been introduced, and used, by the prison authorities during the hunger strikes by imprisoned suffragettes from 1909 to 1914. Afterwards, prison regulations in England appear to have permitted or directed the authorities to forcibly feed a prisoner from the sixth day of a hunger strike. Conor MacNessa, who led an IRA hunger strike in Parkhurst in 1940, states that this was the regulation in force at the time and gives an account of the impact force feeding had on Joe Malone (from Belfast). MacNessa states that the injuries sustained by Malone were left untreated by the prison authorities and ultimately led to his death the next year. In 1946, the prison authorities in Belfast force fed David Fleming when he was on hunger strike (Fleming’s case disproves the claim that force feeding was not used here after 1917).

Clamp

Clamp used in force feeding (drawn based on recollection Conor MacNessa, An Phoblacht, 17th May 1974)

The edition of Republican News published on 10th January 1976 carried an account of force feeding in it’s ‘Brownie’ column, based on information supplied by Gerry Kelly and Hugh Feeney.

If, as is likely, Frank Staff is force fed again he will suffer the following torture and, because his throat and stomach in particular cannot have healed properly, his health will deteriorate more quickly than it is doing at present.

He will face the possibility of at least one and maybe two ‘feedings’ daily. Force feeding is always brutal. No matter how often it occurs the victim does not get used to it. Some sessions are worse than others, but all are terrible experiences. If the ‘feedings’ are not at regular times each day, and usually they are not, then he spends his entire day trying to prepare himself emotionally. Trying to re-stock his determination to fight.

A team of screws are the first to appear. They come into the cell with varying expressions on their faces. These range from snarls, through impassive indifference to the odd sheepish apologetic smile. He will be ‘fed’ either in his cell or dragged outside into another one. He will be held in a bed or on a chair. Usually six or eight screws are involved. They swoop in an obviously planned manner, holding and pressing down on arms and legs. He will struggle as best he can even though he knows it is useless. One grabs him by the hair and forces his head back, and when he is finally pinned down in the proper manner the doctor and his assistant arrive.

Various methods will be employed to open Frank’s mouth. His nose will be covered to cut off air, or a screw or doctor will bunch their fists and bore their knuckles into the joints on each side of the jaws. A Ryle’s tube will be used. This is a very long thin tube which is pushed through the nose. It is supposedly for nasal feeding, but, in forced feedings it is simply a torture weapon used to force open the jaws. It rubs against the membrane at the back of the nose and, if not coated in a lubricant (which it seldom is), it causes a searing pain, akin to a red hot needle being pushed into one’s head.

If Frank cries out with this pain, a wooden clamp will immediately be pushed very forcibly between his teeth. If this fails to work, the doctor will use a large pair of forceps to cut into the gums, the ensuing pain again forcing the jaws to open sufficiently for the clamp to be forced in. Sometimes a metal clamp, rather like a bulldog clip, is used. It is forced between the teeth and a bolt is turned, forcing a spring and the jaws to open.

When Frank’s jaws are finally pried open, a wooden bit, rather like a horse bit, is forced into his mouth. This bit has two pointed ends which are used to force and to hold an opening. It ‘sits’ across his mouth with a screw holding each end, and there is a hole in the centre of it through which the feeding tube is forced. A flat piece of wood is inserted first to press the tongue down and then a three foot long rubber tube, coated in liquid paraffin, is shoved in and down his throat. A funnel is place on the open end and the will pour some water in. If the water bubbles, they know they tube is in Frank’s lungs. If so, the tube is removed and the whole process starts again.

Michael Gaughan was murdered in this way. When the tube is eventually fixed properly, it is pushed down into Frank’s stomach. There are different widths of tube and obviously the wider they are, the more painful the torture. Doctor’s usually use the widest as food goes down quicker and they don’t have to delay overlong. Frank will feel his stomach filling up and stretching, an experience has undergone before. Automatically he will vomit up, the disgorged food being caught in a kidney dish. If the doctor in charge is especially sadistic the vomit will be forced back down his throat again (this happened to Gerry Kelly). As the tube is removed it tears at the back of the throat, more so than before because the liquid paraffin has worn off on the way down. The last few inches will be ghastly.

Frank will get violent pains in his chest. He will choke, and, at this point, he will be sicker than before, as the tube coming out triggers more retching (Marion Price passed out at this stage once). After ‘feeding’ Frank will find it impossible to stand up, to sit up, or to move in any way.

You can watch the documentary on Frank Stagg on TG4 at 9.30 pm tonight.
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IRA memo from Chief of Staff, 13th June 1942

 

 

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Memo, Chief of Staff, IRA, to Director of Publicity, Northern Command, 13th June 1942.

This is an rare example of a surviving internal IRA memo from 1942. Sent from the department of the Chief of Staff, GHQ to the Director of Publicity, Northern Command on 13th June 1942.

At the time, the Chief of Staff of the IRA was Hugh McAteer, while the Director of Publicity in the Northern Command was John Graham. The memo covers the IRA’s attitude towards American troops in the north following the entry of the US into the world war in 1941. In the IRA’s view, the stationing of any troops on Irish soil (British, German or American) could only happen with the consent of what was seen as the legitimate government of Ireland. According to the IRA, this was the IRA. While this may seem laughable, de Valera had taken a somewhat similar view of the deployment of American troops in Ireland. His constitution, enacted in 1937, retained the claim to authority over the whole of the island of Ireland and, as such, de Valera believed that the deployment of US troops in the north should only have happened following consultation with his government.

As fanciful as this may all seem, there was a significant Irish-American lobby which could be mobilised. When the IRA Chief of Staff was detained in the United States at the behest of the British government in 1939, seventy-six members of Congress threatened to boycott an official event welcoming the British king on an official visit. After September 1939, there was pressure from Irish-America to make US aid for British war efforts conditional upon the British government addressing the issue of partition in Ireland.

Indeed, the IRA had continuously positioned it’s own strategy with an eye on, at the very least, avoiding damage to de Valera and Fianna Fáil’s ascent to power in the 1920s and 1930s in the expectation that, once in power, they would seek to end partition and create an Irish republic along the line of the republic declared in 1916. By the late 1930s it was apparent that this was not going to be the case and, in the short term, the possibility of leveraging Irish-America towards the same end replaced the IRA’s long term hopes for de Valera.

The IRA memo of 13th June 1942 was in the Director of Publicity’s Northern Command HQ when it was raided by the RUC on 10th September that year and, as it was used as a crown exhibit in the trial of Graham and David Fleming, it has survived in the Public Records Office.

Belfast Battalion available as ebook from today…

You can now read the newly published book on the Belfast IRA (1922-1969).

Ahead of schedule, I know, but the ebook/Kindle edition of Belfast Battalion has already gone live on Amazon at the link below (where you can also get a preview).

Anyone who doesn’t use Kindle or ebooks can read a sample chapter below. The plan is to have the printed book available by 1st November (you can still add your email to get updates here). By the way – if you’re kind enough to get the ebook version – don’t forget to give it some stars or a review.

book teaser…

Coming very soon, Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast I.R.A. 1922-69. Likely see ebook launched in October, print copies will be available for delivery/distribution in November.

Watch this space…

You can add your email below for updates on when the book is available.

Time must pass as years roll by:

Early in the morning of 2nd September, 1942, seventy five years ago, prison staff moved a cupboard aside in Tom Williams’ cell in C Wing of the Belfast Prison, on the Crumlin Road. It revealed a door that led into the execution chamber. Williams was led into the chamber where he was hung at 8 am. Visitors to the prison today can visit the cell and are walked through the same doorway into the execution chamber. However, even after his execution, Williams remains were effectively imprisoned in Crumlin Road for nearly sixty years until his reburial in 2000.

Shirt in which Tom Williams was executed (in Republican Museum, Conway Mill).

Williams was executed as a reprisal for the death of an RUC Constable, Patrick Murphy, in April that year in Cawnpore Street (you can read the full story in Jim McVeigh‘s Execution: Tom Williams). Williams and Murphy were two of a handful of fatalities during the low intensity conflict between the IRA and northern government between 1938 and 1944. This included four other RUC officers, a prison warder and three IRA volunteers (a greater number died from the poor conditions in the prisons over the same period).

Only a matter of days before the execution Williams five co-accused had saw their own death sentences commuted. But a broad-based reprieve campaign (in the south) for Williams fell on deaf ears. The day of the execution was fairly chaotic. Crowds of nationalists who had gathered to pray for Williams outside the prison were jeered by unionists who sang songs and taunted them. A subsequent protest march into the city centre after the execution had led to small disturbances but these paled into significance alongside the trouble that followed a large scale swoop by the armed forces of the northern government. Large numbers of Catholics were detained, many eventually served internment notices (having no charges proferred against them). The subsequent violence and, weeks later, a number of reprisals for Williams execution led to a protracted curfew in the Falls.

There were over one hundred sentenced republican prisoners in Crumlin Road at the time of Williams’ execution and several hundred internees. They fasted on the day of Williams’ execution. Mass was to be said at 8 am and the chaplain had arranged to time a key point in the service, when he was to raise the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution. The resonance of the symbolism of sacrifice in Catholic theology was easily understood and it broke up many of those present.

One of those present, Jimmy Steele, later published a poem called ‘The Soldier’ which was dedicated to Williams. Another sentenced prisoner who was in A wing the morning of the execution, Arthur Corr, wrote a song called ‘Tom Williams’ (early versions of it in print appear anonymously). Corr wrote it in his cell in A wing after Williams’ execution.

It was published in the Belfast IRA newspaper, Resurgent Ulster, in 1954. It has been subsequently recorded by various people without assigning credit to Corr. I’ve linked a version recorded here by the great Eamon Largey who knew both Steele and Corr and would have learned it from them (it is also uncredited on the Flying Column album ‘Folk Time in Ireland‘). I have also reprinted it in full below. Corr undoubtedly wrote other songs for also which he appears not to have received any credit.

In that sense, the sentiment of the opening lines “Time must pass as years roll by, But in memory I shall keep, Of a night in Belfast Prison, Unshamefully I saw men weep…” is very much real.

The extent to which songs and ballads communicated political messages is probably worthy of more attention. A striking emotional theme and a catchy melody was surely the most effective of propaganda tools and, as we all know, once a tune is stuck inside your head, it’s hard to get it out of there.

Tom Williams

by Arthur Corr

Time must pass as years roll by

But in memory I shall keep

Of a night in Belfast Prison

Unshamefully I saw men weep.

But a time was fast approaching,

A lad lay sentenced for to die,

And on the 2nd of September

He goes to meet his God on high.

To the scaffold now he’s marching

Head erect he shows no fear

And while standing on that scaffold

Ireland’s Cause he holds more dear

Now the cruel blow has fallen

For Ireland he has given his all,

He who at the flower of boyhood

Answered proudly to her call.

Brave Tom Williams we salute you.

And we never shall forget

Those who planned your cruel murder

We vow to make them all regret.

Now I saw to all you Irish soldiers

If from this path you chance to roam

Just remember of that morn

When Ireland’s Cause was proudly borne

By a lad who lies within a prison grave.

[This is the updated version of a previous post]