The 1944 IRA hunger strike

Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.

The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.

The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.

Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.

By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.

In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.


Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.

Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.


The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.

The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.

The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.

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).


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 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.

Image uncredited, Republican News, 10th January 1976

The IRA’s ‘Northern Campaign’

Did the IRA mount a ‘northern campaign’ in 1942-43? According to some historians the IRA began a campaign against the northern government in 1942, which most call the ‘Northern Campaign’. Oddly, though, there is no evidence to suggest that the IRA ever formally began such a campaign.

In early 1942, under Sean McCool then Eoin McNamee, the IRA’s Army Council had debated its policy towards the northern government and the possibility of a northern campaign. The context of this was the long-standing conflict both within the IRA and between the IRA and the southern government over whether the IRA could endorse, passively accept or even just merely tolerate the legitimacy of the southern government. The real issue was whether the IRA should cease any form of military activity against the southern government and concentrate its efforts against the northern government. This was an ongoing bone of contention between the IRA structures north of the border, and, the IRA centre and GHQ in Dublin.

In the sequence of events that led up to the Belfast IRA removing Stephen Hayes as (Acting) IRA Chief of Staff in 1941, two major command meetings had been raided at which there was to be a decision  on whether to mount a formal northern campaign. The removal of Hayes is probably best understood in the context of a Belfast-Dublin dynamic within the IRA and northern frustration at IRA GHQ’s perpetual inability, or unwillingness, to engage in a northern campaign. Apart from brief spells under Kerrymen Sean Harrington and Charlie Kerins, the IRA Chief of Staff after Hayes was normally a northerner, with Pearse Kelly, Sean McCool, Eoin McNamee, Hugh McAteer and Harry White all filling the role up to 1945.

Not that the IRA hadn’t actually considered a ‘northern campaign’. Tom Barry, as Chief of Staff in 1937-38, had gone as far as preparing a plan (basically to seize Armagh in the hope that it would force the Free State to intervene on the side of the IRA). The plan, such as had been put together, was the subject of gossip in Cork then quickly abandoned. Barry hadn’t really consulted with the northern IRA leadership on the plan, though. The IRA Command meeting in Crown Entry in 1936 also appears to have been intended to consider a northern campaign but it too was raided. That it was to double up as a command conference would be the reason why many more senior commanders were present than required for a court martial (the meeting’s stated purpose). Arguably, the sabotage campaign in England, proposed by Sean Russell, was partly a compromise to avoid focusing the IRA’s efforts solely against the northern government (and by doing so, tacitly accepting the hegemony of the southern government south of the border). By 1942 the IRA’s internal debate had still progressed no further than a general proposal to relocate as much weaponry as possible to where it would be used in such a campaign. Much of this is related in Bowyer-Bell’s The Secret Army (although it is presented as part of a formal ‘northern campaign’).

After repeated changes of Chief of Staff in Dublin in 1941 and 1942, Hugh McAteer had taken over from Eoin McNamee and, by July 1942, relocated the IRA’s centre to Belfast where an IRA Executive was to be put together to oversee future activity. Sean Russell’s campaign in England had been the final realisation of a long-proposed strategy going back to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Fenians. It had been viewed with significant skepticism by the Belfast IRA who had supported it and enthusiastically built up the Northern Command created as part of the campaign, but was then very quick to declare Russell’s campaign as over. Some in Belfast even suspected that the IRB itself had been reactivated behind the scenes as part of the campaign (and that it included both activists on the Free State and IRA side). The relocation of the IRA’s centre to Belfast was equally the manifestation of a twenty-year long northern lobby within the IRA that wanted the organisation to concentrate on removing partition over any confrontation with the southern government. It was thought that all the intrigue, rumour and calamity that seemed to whirl around the IRA’s centre in Dublin would be removed by relocating that centre to Belfast.

As events then unfolded in late August 1942, the now Belfast-centric IRA intended to make a violent response to the six proposed executions of IRA volunteers in Crumlin Road prison (one being Tom Williams). These were to be carried out on 2nd September and this response is often what is described as the ‘northern campaign’. In IRA parlance, though, it had no official standing as a distinct campaign. Indeed, when Russell’s campaign was formally called off by the IRA’s Army Council in 1945, there was no mention of a ‘northern campaign’. However, as part of the preparations for an as yet unplanned future campaign, arms dumps were being assembled at various strategic locations, some close to Belfast. The northern IRA was also using this window of opportunity to get control of whatever weaponry the IRA had available, which would allow it to plan and execute a campaign at its own choosing.

As posted previously, on Sunday 30th August, the IRA issued a ‘Special Manifesto’ that restates the ‘…National principles actuating the Irish Republican Army…’. Again, nowhere does this declare that the IRA is embarking on a northern campaign. The previous day Tom Williams five co-accused had been reprieved meaning only Williams was to be hung. The IRA still intended to make some form of violent response. Politically and among civic society the very active reprieve campaigns continued to try and halt Williams’ execution.

At one of those assembled arms dumps, on the 31st August, at Budore near Hannahstown, an IRA volunteer, Gerard O’Callaghan, was surprised by an RUC search party and shot dead (allegedly finished off while wounded, although there was no inquest or autopsy to confirm the details). Another volunteer that was arrested at the scene, Charles McDowell, appeared to be suffering from shell shock afterwards, such was the volume of gunfire from the RUC during their raid. This happened against the already grim backdrop of Williams’ imminent hanging.

When the RUC raided two farms at Budore, the full inventory of what was recovered is extensive but gives an idea of the weaponry available to the Belfast IRA and its Northern Command. It included eight Thompsons (plus magazines), eight Lee-Enfields, forty revolvers, fourteen automatic pistols, a tear gas pistol, two older pistols, ten revolver barrels, ten revolver butts, twelve revolver cylinders, three automatic pistol barrels, five automatic pistol butts, four automatic pistol magazines, two rifle nose caps, one hand guard for a rifle, a .22 sporting rifle, a round of .40 rifle ammunition, four hundred and ten rounds of .45 Thompson ammunition, eight thousand six hundred and sixteen rounds of .303 ammunition, one thousand three hundred and seventy-eight rounds of .45 revolver ammunition, eight hundred and one rounds of .380 automatic pistol ammunition, thirty-five rounds of .380 revolver ammunition, one hundred and fifty-five rounds of .22 rifle ammunition, forty-one 12-bore shotgun cartridges, a sling grenade, two gas shells, a 3 inch shell, seven holsters, five leather webs/bandoliers, twelve cotton bandoliers, cleaning rods and rifle chargers.

There were also explosive materials including three barrels of potassium chlorate, one hundred and twenty-five grenade cases, eight grenade detonators, three hundred and five detonator sleeves, two hundred and ten grenade detonator screws, forty tear gas grenades, fifty-one tear gas grenade fuses, a coil fuse, an electric firer, three galvanometers, a box of percussion caps, one hundred and sixty sticks of gelignite, four 3-lb tins of gunpowder and an additional bag of gunpowder.

lRA Vol. Jerry O’Callaghan


Over that same weekend, the reach of the reprieve campaign gives some indication of the breadth of public sentiment the IRA hoped a northern campaign might ultimately be able to harness as a source of political support. Ironically, many of those involved were not to publicly oppose the six executions of IRA volunteers carried out by De Valera’s government. But that reflects how much deeper was the emotional resonance of IRA action in the north over the south. There were Belfast and Dublin Reprieve Committee’s. Tom William’s solicitor, D.P. Marriman had tried to get an interview with the northern government’s Prime Minister, Andrews, but instead got a meeting with Grandsen, Secretary to the Cabinet. Marriman was accompanied at the meeting by the Dublin secretary of Irish Licensed Vintners’ Association who, in turn had tried to get ex-Belfast Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh to use his influence (Marriman also wrote to the Governor of Northern Ireland). There was sufficient support in high places for pleas to be made to King George of England and the British Home Secretary, plus a message by Sir Hubert Gough to Mr. Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Hinsley and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council saying a reprieve would be timely and appropriate. There were also pleas sent to the Duke of Abercorn from former political rivals. The National Union of Seamen wrote to the head office in England, the British TUC was asked to intervene.

IRA Vol. Tom Williams

The Dublin Reprieve Committee made a call for all businesses, shops, manufacturers, offices and transport companies to close from 11 am to 12 pm on the day of the execution. Those that announced their members would close included the Licensed Grocers’ and Vintners’ Association, the Irish Newsagents’ Association, the Irish Retail Tobacconists Association, the Fruiterers’ and Confectioner’s Association, as did the Dublin Trades Union Council.  The Committee also asked people, where possible, to go to churches and other places of worship to pray for the repose of Tom Williams’s soul (which many did). The 11 o’clock mass in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin was to be offered for that intention. Similar calls were made in Limerick, Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and smaller provincial towns like Sligo, Portlaoise, Listowel and Portarlington. Some buildings, including public buildings, flew flags at half mast. One shop which did not close on O’Connell Street in Dublin had its front window broken. Most Dublin cinemas did not open until 6 pm.

In Belfast, pubs and shops closed for the day in nationalist districts. Transport workers and dock workers also downed tools for the day in Belfast in protest. Many factories and businesses close to nationalist districts also closed for the day, more in anticipation of trouble than out of sympathy. The RUC patrolled the Falls Road and other nationalist districts in armoured cars.

There was surprisingly little trouble in Belfast on the day of the execution. From 7 a.m., the Crumlin Road for a quarter of a mile on either side of the jail was closed by the police. Trams bringing workers to factories were prevented from stopping. Crowds, mostly women, began to gather at Carlisle Circus and the Old Lodge Road. The atmosphere inside Crumlin Road itself was dreadful. The republican prisoners had agreed to fast for the day and the Catholic prisoners were to attend mass at 8 am to coincide with the time set for the execution.

Out in front of the prison, by ten minutes to eight Catholics among the crowd knelt on the streets and recited the rosary. Women who had gathered at the relatively ‘mixed’ Old Lodge Road junction with Crumlin Road began singing loyalist songs like ‘Dolly’s Brae’ ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ and ‘God Save the King’ and shouted abuse at those kneeling in prayer. The RUC evenutally pushed the crowds back. At the corner of Cliftonpark Avenue and the Crumlin Road a group of kneeling women were ordered by baton wielding RUC men to to move on.

After 8 am when Williams’ was led through the adjoining door of his cell into the execution chamber. The Catholic chaplain had arranged that a key point in the mass, when he raises up the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution.

It broke up many of those present.

Outside, as the crowds then moved on from the prison, a group of mostly young women with black scarves marched down the Crumlin Road into the city centre, singing ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Kevin Barry’. In Wellington Place, near the City Hall, the RUC charged and scattered the crowd (which by then numbered around three hundred), who, in turn, responded by throwing bottles and other missiles taken from dust bins. By the time things were calmed, two men and a few women were arrested. Two of those arrested, James O’Hara and William O’Sullivan got three months for riotous behaviour. All the while the RUC was intensely patrolling the Falls Road and other districts in armoured cars and broke up any groups of people that gathered to prevent crowds forming.

Under these circumstances, that was surprisingly little violence.

It turned out that the RUC patrolling in nationalist districts was largely the prelude to a massive wave of arrests in Belfast and elsewhere that began the next day. After the relative calm in Belfast, the RUC detained over two hundred people on the morning of the Thursday including both men and women. The RUC chased a number of people through the streets before arresting them.

Immediately after the execution, on the Wednesday evening, the IRA had mounted a botched raid on the border in Armagh, in which a number of Belfast IRA volunteers had participated. Outside Belfast a small number of IRA attacks took place in the days after the execution, mostly in the first 48 hours including attacks in Randalstown, Belleek and Clady (where two RUC constables were shot dead).

In Belfast IRA actions were almost confined to the same time frame but all appear to be relate to the continuing RUC raids rather than a formal response to Williams execution.  One young IRA volunteer, Gerry Adams (who was sixteen), was wounded by the RUC when he opened fire at them with a revolver in Sultan Street. Another direct confrontation between the IRA and RUC occurred in Leeson Street where a B Special patrol encountered an IRA unit. During an exchange of fire, Special Constable Cochrane, firing from behind the cover of an air-raid shelter, shot James Bannon who had been armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Bannon collapsed to the ground and the IRA unit had to carry him away from Leeson Street with two providing covering fire with their revolvers. Bannon was taken in an ambulance from a house in Sultan Street and later arrested, he had wounds in his arm and stomach. In Servia Street, a follow up search by the RUC after more shots were fired, recovered a revolver that had been dropped in James Lynam’s house. Both Lynam and John McNally were arrested, although Lynam wasn’t an IRA volunteer. Gerald Hodgson (Grosvenor Road) was picked up and charged with possession of illegal documents, while Joe Quinn and Tom Collins were arrested over the finding of a revolver, ammunition and three Mills bomb in Distillery Street. Patrick Tolan and Michael Morris were also charged with possession of arms. Given the number of arrests made by the RUC, the number of formal charges is low (most of those arrested were simply interned without charge).

A week later, on the afternoon of 10th September 1942, the RUC raided the publicity HQ of Northern Command at 463 Crumlin Road in Belfast. After a brief stand-off in which some shots were exchanged, John Graham and David Fleming were both arrested. The RUC recovered six revolvers and ammunition, a full print run of the September edition of Republican News (which the IRA pointedly had re-printed that night and issued the next day, regardless), a duplicator, typewriter and radio broadcasting equipment and more literature. This included booklets on the Constitution and Governmental Programme of the Republic of Ireland, the Constitution of Óglaigh na hÉireann, fifty copies of the Special Manifesto, a memo on the Hannahstown Arms Raid, a Report of Northern Command Convention held in March 1942, one hundred recruiting posters and headed notepaper entitled ‘IRA, Northern Command Headquarters, Belfast‘. There was no ‘northern campaign’ plan found.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the term ‘northern campaign’ is still used by some to describe this period after Williams’ execution, when there was literally a handful of IRA operations, no plan and no sustained activity. While, arguably, the loss of the dumps at Budore and the raids in the forty-eight hours after the 2nd September may have stopped a campaign from taking place, there was no operational plan for such a campaign beyond a general assault on the armed forces of the northern government as a response to Williams execution.

The next issue of Republican News, the first following Williams’ execution, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” This seems to confirm that there was no formal ‘northern campaign’ planned for the immediate future.

Militarily, in 1942, the IRA still lacked the depth of resources to achieve its goals. The main focus of its campaign by the start of 1943 was to generate publicity and win support for the cause of Irish unity and independence to feature in the political shake-up that would come with the end of the world war. The real target, in that sense, was Irish-America. There had been considerable pressure among Irish-Americans for any US support for the British war effort to be contingent upon concessions from the British over Irish unity. Even after US entry into the war on the allied side, this strategy made a certain amount of sense while the outcome of the war was still in doubt and there was the prospect of a negotiated settlement. It was only really in early 1943, as the Allies moved towards demands for an unconditional German surrender, that the prospect of an international peace conference receded. In that regard, the IRA’s policy, as such, by late 1942 and then in 1943, was not a ‘northern campaign’ but rather to attempt to stage set-piece operations intended to garner publicity with a view to appealing to a broader political constituency that might support the achievement of Irish unity and independence. By the end of 1943, though, the main footprint of IRA policy was dictated by the need to address prison issues north, south and in Britain and any thoughts of a formal campaign were pushed out into the future.

British rule in Ireland may, owing to gerrymander, be ballot proof but it is definitely not bullet proof…

I had written previously about David Fleming, who undertook several prolonged hunger strikes in 1944 and 1946, which had a severe impact on his health (and appear to have contributed to his early death in 1971). This month sees the 70th anniversary of his and Sean McCaughey’s parallel protests which ultimately ended in McCaugheys death and also shortened Flemings life. Against the odds (he was released from prison in 1946 on the assumption he was about to die), Fleming did survive until 1971, but what I had overlooked was one last tragic episode in 1947 that, in some ways marked the end of a chapter for the wartime era Belfast IRA.

And it was very much a sad one.

David Fleming

David Fleming

Fleming had written to the Minister of Home Affairs in the northern government, Edmund Warnock, from ‘G.P.O. Dublin’, on 18th September 1947, stating that he “…was returning to occupied Ireland on 20th on the 5 pm Dublin-Belfast plane… Enclosed is a medical certificate, just in case your puppet Government, plus your Empire, attempt to run up an alley-way. I am returning for one and definite purpose of continuing Ireland’s glorious struggle against foreign occupation in the only way I know to be effective – armed revolution. Yours is a puppet Government. Therefore I can only regard your cabinet and alleged police force as unexecuted criminals, and every further day you remain in society’s debt is a slur on my country’s honour. The only reason I inform you as to my intended movements is because I refuse to sneak from one city in my own country to another city also in my own country. Before God I am not a British subject. Rather than be considered as such, I prefer death any kind of death, even death from starvation. I shall return to occupied Ireland and I shall fight in occupied Ireland, and if it is necessary I shall die fighting and protesting against the foreign occupation of any portion of Ireland.

He also addressed a second letter to ‘Your Britannic Majesty’ in which he said “One of your subjects, alleged subjects, is discontented and wishes to inform you that he intends to revolt. Let us examine the cause and facts… Yours truly was born in Ireland in 1920. Ireland, 1920! What masterpieces of sadism, brutality and barbarity leap before the eye of the informed. A nation – a very old nation – whose boundaries God in his wisdom had clearly set out in rocks and soil, was fighting for its freedom. A gallant handful was fighting a powerful, cunning and brutal foe – a foe that resorted to the barabrities of the Dark Ages. Cottages and factories were looted and razed to the ground; juries were shot or beaten; old men and young girls were beaten insensible. Live youths were tied to the rear of army trucks and towed at great speed along public highways to their deaths. Prisoners were brutally battered to death in cells with the butts of rifles, or starved to death on hunger-strike rather than accept the slavery of a foreign crown. Left with the option of war or slavery, I prefer war . . .  British rule in Ireland may, owing to gerrymander, be ballot proof but it is definitely not bullet proof. The exploding land mine, the dead enemy, the Irish soldier patriot lying in his own warm blood-pool are to all necessities in Ireland’s road to nationhood. There is no other way. Before God. I am not a British subject, and I prefer death, any kind of death, even death from starvation, rather than suffer such a stigma. I shall, if your thugs lay hands on me again, hunger-strike my way to freedom, thereby obtaining your admission that I and all Irishmen are not British subjects, or I shall die of starvation in protest. Your father’s Government partitioned Ireland, your troops occupy it. Withdraw your troops, withdraw your insult to our national emblem (you have got it on your postage stamp), and Ireland is happy and free… I shall die with a gun in each hand, helping to establish a republic, de facto, or in a cell starved, attempting to wring recognition from the usurper.

A further letter stated: “In case you have not already grasped, I, David Fleming, am returning to Northern Ireland – Ulster, by nickname-on Saturday, 20th September, 1947, on the 5 o’clock Dublin-Belfast plane.

And Fleming did get on the plane and was seen handling rifle bullets during the flight by other passengers. He was arrested by the RUC when the plane landed, then searched and brought to Chichester Street RUC Barracks as he was still under an eight year exclusion order from the north. During the search he was found with some documents and three bullets in his pockets. He was held for the next few days in Chichester Street Barracks. On the Tuesday, after a conference with officials and the RUC, Warnock decided to hold him under the Special Powers Act and Fleming was brought to Crumlin Road.

As the northern government grappled with what to do with him, he immediately went on hunger and thirst strike. At the end of the week he was brought to court despite being already unsteady on his feet. After hearing his letters read to the court,  which he described as an ‘unlawful assembly’ and refused to recognise, he was found to have a case to answer and brought forward for trial in October. His last comment to the court was “Fight fair. Do not use a tube. I refuse to be a tube-fed British subject. I shall resist to the limit of my endurance.”

By the end of September, when he had been on hunger and thirst strike for nine days, his brother Patrick was allowed to visit him and arrangements were made for a doctor to see him. By the 6th October he was 16 days on hunger and thirst strike and was removed to the hospital. While he was by now very weak, he must have taken some liquid as he would have been at a fatal stage of a thirst strike by 16 days.

When the case was about to go to trial he had been on hunger strike for a further 9 days.  By now he had been assessed as to his state of mind. Even to a court of the northern government, the tragic legacy of Fleming’s prison experience clearly weighed too heavily on him and his brother, Paddy, a former IRA Chief of Staff, was allowed to collect David and return with him to a hospital in Dublin.

David Fleming: 155 days on hunger strike in 1946

The 1946 hunger and thirst strike

This is a brief account of a hunger and thirst strike that two prisoners staged in 1946. One involved David Fleming, a southerner imprisoned by the northern government, the other Sean McCaughey, a northerner imprisoned by the southern government (more precisely, De Valera’s Military Tribunal). While Fleming’s hunger strike began first, the agony of McCaughey’s death after a thirst strike is still almost beyond description. Fleming ended his hunger strike but a further protest later the same year was to some extent successful, although the price of gaining his early release was catastrophic damage to his body and he never returned to good health, dying in 1970 at the early age of 51.

Fleming, imprisoned in 1943 for IRA activities, had been at the receiving end of brutal beatings in Crumlin Road prison and had petitioned for his release in February 1946. That he petitioned for release rather than political status was confirmed in Stormont on 21st May that year (all internees had been released in 1945). The petition fell on deaf ears in the northern government so Fleming’s response was to decide to go on hunger strike again (he had previously taken part in a hunger strike for political status in 1944). He started to refuse food on the 16th March 1946. Clearly, statements by the Nationalist and Socialist MPs in Stormont imply that some of the IRA prisoners in A wing felt the conditions in A wing, and in his case, the beatings and 40 days on hunger strike in 1944 had taken a psychological toll on Fleming.

When he was twenty six days on hunger strike, Fleming was taken to the prison hospital on Thursday 11th April[1]. At around 4.30 am the next morning, he was carried from the hospital to his cell on A1. At 3.30 pm, prison officer Morrison and the deputy governor walked along A1 together, towards the grill gate from the circle. After the deputy governor left the wing, Morrison called to another warder, Adair, to join him and, together with another warder called Foster they went to David Fleming’s cell. There were raised voices in the cell and the sound of violence and groans from Fleming. Another warder, Noble, also went to the cell. Foster left the cell carrying Fleming’s pyjamas while Adair emerged, reportedly looking very pale and excited. Clearly, Fleming, even after a month without food, had refused to subject himself to a strip search and been forcibly stripped by the prison staff. As he insisted on continuing with his protest, Fleming had to again be returned to the hospital.

On the 19th April, while Fleming, a Kerryman, was testing the resolve of the northern government to hold him in Belfast prison, a northerner, Sean McCaughey, decided to put De Valera’s government to the test, demanding his release from Portlaoise. According to Liam Rice, McCaughey’s decision to go on hunger strike came out of the blue. On the 16th April, in the Caidreamh, the indoor space afforded to the republican prisoners in Portlaoise for their short periods of exercise, McCaughey informed his colleagues and handed a letter to the prison governor stating that he would go on hunger strike that Friday (19th), unless he was released. Another prisoner shouted at McCaughey, “What have you done, they will let you die”.

The conditions in Portlaoise were brutal. In June 1943, a level of political status had been given to a small group of IRA prisoners who had been refusing to wear prison clothing since 1940. As they had been sentenced by the Military Tribunal rather than a court, they claimed they were political prisoners not convicts. The punishment regime was severe and was believed to be directed straight from the Fianna Fáil government and De Valera[2]. Other than being brought out of their cell for a bath once a week, the strikers were never allowed outdoor of their cells or and at no time were able to go outdoors. They received no letters, had no access to the news, newspapers or radio and no visits. Limited association and letters were permitted from June 1943[3] although the protest continued and the prisoners were still not permitted to go out in the fresh air, receive visits, newspapers etc. Those conditions were to persist until 1946.

For the next few weeks, the two hunger strikes unfolded in tandem[4]. Externally the two protests were linked together in the public eye, yet in both cases McCaughey and Fleming were even, to a large extent, acting independently of their colleagues within the prisons. Indeed, in both cases, the other IRA prisoners were concerned as to their mental well-being having seen them endure the conditions of the two prisons over a number of years. How far McCaughey was aware of Fleming’s case, and vice-versa, isn’t clear. Certainly, there was no outside direction of their protests by the IRA.

In Belfast, the prison authorities began to attempt to force feed Fleming on Friday 19th April, the day McCaughey began his hunger strike. The timing suggests the two events are linked, even though there is no immediate evidence to suggest that is the case. While the northern government may have decided to force feed Fleming rather than allowing him to continue with the hunger strike, the fact that McCaughey had advised of the start date of his protest a couple of days earlier seems to reduce the chance that the timing can be merely coincidental.

As Fleming was now in the prison hospital, the other IRA prisoners on A1 could not monitor his condition or listen in on the prison staff trying to force feed him. He was also kept on a punishment regime of isolation, with no books or newspapers. When Harry Diamond, as chairman of a National Amnesty Committee, was granted access to Fleming, though, Fleming was able to tell him he was being badly manhandled when being force fed[5]. Diamond reported that, by 23rd April, Fleming was very weak. The IRA prisoners were rumoured to be threatening to go on hunger strike en masse if Fleming died. Outside, other groups, like the Green Cross, were also calling for Fleming’s release on medical grounds. After Diamond’s visit the force feeding was stopped, with Warnock (Minister of Home Affairs) later stating that the last day Fleming had been force fed was 25th April after which it was discontinued due to “…attacks made by the convict on the medical officer and prison officers who were assisting him”. Warnock also later claimed that Fleming was put into a padded cell for three hours and ten minutes after that the last attempt at force feeding him on 25th April[6]. By that date, it was forty days since the start of Fleming’s protest. He was hardly in a condition to attack anyone.

Subsequently the northern government tried to claim that Fleming had only been on the protest since the 23rd April (contradicting even its own dates). International media reporting the hunger strike cite information from the Home Office, in London, saying his strike began on 23rd April (and not 20th March). Similar disinformation had persuaded the IRA to end the 1944 hunger strike rather than risk deaths.

McCaughey, only a few days into his protest, was nowhere near as weak as Fleming. He then announced that he was also going on thirst as well as hunger strike, shouting from the hospital to Liam Rice who was in a cell nearby, “Liam, I am going off the water wagon”. This raised the stakes as both his life, and Flemings, were now under imminent threat from their protests. Again, the timing is curious. That morning, 24th April, Irish Times and other papers carried stories about Diamond’s visit to Fleming in the prison, and that Fleming was very weak. Someone among the prison staff must have told MacCaughey what was being said in the press and that prompted him to accelerate his protest.

MacCaughey would have known that in 1940 Tony D’arcy had died after 52 days on hunger strike and Jack McNeela had died after 55. David Fleming was then 39 days on hunger strike and would soon be at risk of death. Refusing liquids would mean the two protests would reach the critical stage at the same time. Prison hunger strikes rely on embarrassing the authorities into concessions, usually by one of two methods. The protest tests the patience of the authorities with regard to the smooth operation of the prison service with all the associated disruption that comes with a hunger strike, and the potential to further sour warder-prisoner relations. On the outside, good publicity and a protracted protest can build the weight of public opinion into pressure to give concessions and resolve the dispute before a death occurs. MacCaughey clearly understood the timings and must have believed the combined crises would work to his and Fleming’s advantage.

In a hunger strike all food is refused and all liquids except water (although salt is often allowed to regulate the body). In a hunger and thirst strike, water is also refused. The body slowly deteriorates during a hunger strike although initially it uses up any reserves it can find within the body including fats and muscle. Beyond a certain point, though, the body begins to break down with the risk of permanent damage and death. Most deaths, in Ireland, have occurred well beyond 50 days. However, without taking water, the body deteriorates rapidly during a hunger and thirst strike and leads to a horrific death within a couple of weeks. The impact on the striker’s health and stamina would be a rapid deterioration with sight loss by ten days, the tongue shrivelling up and the body practically reduced to a skeleton. Death would follow within days[7].

Sean MacCaughey would also have been familiar with the use of thirst strike as a tactic in 1936 in Belfast prison. Then, IRA prisoners began a protest as a thirst strike, effectively to force the prison authorities to take the protest seriously from the start, then slowed it down by taking liquids but continuing as a hunger strike. They achieved some political recognition and ended the strike. None showed long term damage arising from the initial five days on thirst strike (although the protest appears to have had an adverse effect on Jimmy Steele’s health leaving him with congested lungs). That lesson appeared to have been lost on MacCaughey.

Outside the prisons there was some momentum behind public pupport for the protests. A demonstration was held in Clonard in Belfast calling for prisoner releases, and specifically Fleming’s, on Sunday 28th April, which was addressed by various Stormont MPs. It received a cable of support from 2,000 Irishmen at an Easter week ceremony in New York[8]. The two prison protests were also starting to be seen as reflections of each other, both casting shadows and light across the northern and southern governments. On the night of Friday 4th May, a meeting was held in O’Connell Street in Dublin, organised by Ailtiri na hAiserige demanding the release of both Fleming and MacCaughey. By the 5th May, despite the force feeding episode, Fleming had been on his protest for fifty days and urgent requests for intervention to save his life were starting to be be made. He was by now being described as very weak, but while his family were allowed to visit him twice over the weekend, he was still being refused his demands or removal to an outside hospital[9].

On the 7th May, 1946, Cahir Healy raised the condition of Fleming in Stormont and asked if Warnock was going to let him die rather than release him on humanitarian grounds. Warnock dismissed the question. The prison authorities or the Ministry of Home Affairs also circulated a story that Fleming had now been taking vitamin tablets and orange juice for the last few days. The next day, 8th May, Harry Diamond raised those statements saying that they were erroneous, and that Fleming had not gone off his hunger strike. Warnock also appeared to be delaying the end of debate on the budget to avoid discussing the prisons issue. Diamond’s motion, that the International Red Cross should be invited to set up an independent inquiry into prison conditions and ill-treatment of political prisoners and internees, was finally heard on the 21st May. But, in between, Sean MacCaughey died.

On the 11th May, having been on hunger strike since the 19th April and thirst strike since 24th, MacCaughey died at 1.10 am. Liam Rice saw him three days before he died. He said “It shocked me, for the 19 days had taken a terrible toll of his body. He was no more than a skeleton covered by a parchment of skin, that, were I to touch, I felt I would break. His eyes were dried holes, his sight gone. His tongue was no more than a shrivelled piece of skin between his jaws, while his body and his hands, from what I could discern, were those of a skeleton.[10]” Towards the end of his thirst strike, to stop him choking, a warder had to sit holding a teaspoon on his shrivelled tongue, so it did not fall back and block his airways. De Valera had been receiving daily updates on his condition at least since 2nd May and knew both that he was dying, and how he was dying. The Fianna Fáil government tried to quickly and quietly hurry through the inquest into MacCaughey’s death by holding it in the governor’s office in the prison on the same day. Sean MacBride was ready for them, and, despite the attempts by the Deputy Coroner, used the inquest to ask questions about the regime inside the prison. The publicity around the inquest, the conditions in Portlaoise and MacCaughey’s death saw changes in the prison regime and is believed to have contributed to McBride’s political rise and De Valera losing the next election.

Fleming ended his hunger strike a short time later, only to resume in autumn when, on the verge of death, he was released (Stormont being sensitive to prisoners dying in prison, as opposed to the health of the prisoners per se).

The afternoon of MacCaughey’s death, the undertakers at work and MacCaughey’s sisters sobs were heard in the prison corridor. The protesting prisoners, Liam Rice, Tomás MacCurtain, Jim Smith, Eamonn Smullen, Mick Walsh, Jim Crofton, Willie Stewart, Paddy Murphy, Frank Kerrigan and Joe O’Callaghan were all confined indoors in their cells, and naked apart from a blanket due to their refusal to accept the criminal status prison clothing signified. At the sounds of the coffin being carried by the door of their cell, each stood to attention in salute as MacCaugheys remains passed.

[update] you can read more about Sean McCaughey and Stephen Hayes here, and more on David Fleming here and here.


[1] Irish Times, 12th April 1946.

[2] At a later stage, De Valera was receiving daily reports on the strike.

[3] MacEoin 1997, 536.

[4] The two hunger strikes, the north-south aspects to them, and the background, were being reported as far away as, eg The Milwaukee Journal (see 11th May 1946).

[5] Irish TimesI, 24th April 1946.

[6] Irish Times, 22nd November 1946.

[7] See McEoin 1997, 538 for a horrific account of a hunger and thirst strike.

[8] Irish Times, 29th April 1946,

[9] Irish Times 7th May 1946.

[10] MacEoin 1997 538 (this account of the events inside Portlaoise on 11th May is largely based on Liam Rice’s account.

Some notes on the prison experience in Crumlin Road in the 1940s.

Here are some notes on the conditions in Crumlin Road by 1943-44. They cover the deaths of seven prisoners, conditions inside the prison and accounts of beatings handed out to individual prisoners over that two year period.

The dismissal of a prison officer and warders from A wing following the report into the January 1943 escape also saw the beginning of what Joe Cahill refers to as Lancelot Thompson’s ‘reign of terror’. That was to last for three years (and Thompson was also to be governor during internment in the 1950s). By 1943 there were around 100 sentenced republican prisoners in A wing. Internees, some of whom had been imprisoned without trial or charges since 1938, numbered in the hundreds. It included prisoners who had been on the Al Rawdah and moved back. Others were interned in Derry jail, while there were also women held in Armagh prison.

In March 1944, Jack Beattie, a Stormont MP for Pottinger, gave an account in Stormont on the 22nd March, detailing conditions in the prison since 1943[1]. Beattie was a regular visitor to the prison and, despite the fact that the IRA prisoners regarded the politician’s interest as purely self-serving, it is clear Beattie’s information was collected directly from A wing in particular. He said that “In the first place, the cells of the men are searched almost daily. Not only that, but the men are stripped periodically and their persons subjected to the indecent searching of the warders, who accompany the searching with vulgar and obscene language. The Governor promised that men would be stripped only once every three weeks. Yet men are being searched twice and three times every week. It should be noted that all these searches are without result…This searching is a violation of the code laid down in the King’s Regulations for the treatment of these long term prisoners…we brought them [long-term prisoners] to our jail on the Crumlin Road, which was unsuitable, and where, the accommodation was not in accordance with the King’s code laid down for the treatment of these men.

Now I want to draw attention to the food. The food rations are considerably less than the authorised allowance. It is badly cooked, almost cold, and is given to prisoners in vessels which bear visible traces of the previous meal. Cocoa and tea have been served in tins with considerable pieces of porridge or boiled turnips stuck to the bottom. Frequently during the past few months, when the orderly came into the Wing with the dinner or supper, he was told to take it back to the Circle, as the warders at the moment were searching the prisoners. This meant that the food was cold when brought back. Well, now, you would have thought that if the humanitarian touch had been there at least this process of search would not have taken place at the hour when the prisoners were to receive their food. Some have suggested that this was done deliberately. I do not know whether that is true or not. It often happens that some of the men cannot eat their porridge. The reason for this is that they cannot digest the half cooked inferior meal.

About nine months ago a man complained to the doctor that the milk was being watered. The doctor told an official to get him a mug of milk which at the moment was just coming into the wing. The official got a mug and skimmed the top of the milk. The prisoner objected, saying the test was not fair. He was brought before the Governor the following day and sentenced to three days bread and water for interfering.

I go on to recreation and exercise. It is deliberately set out in the regulations how these men must get recreation. They must get exercise. I will now show you what exercise these men get. During the winter months the men getting exercise must spend their time in an air-raid shelter which passes for a recreation hall.

This is approximately 20 feet broad by 50 feet long, but 120 men gather in this shelter and there is bound to be overcrowding. The exercise yard is approximately [2]15 yards by 30 yards. It can easily be seen that this yard is not large enough to allow 120 men to exercise in a proper manner. There are no sheds or shelters in this yard to shelter the men from the wind and rain. When it rains the men must await the warder’s judgment as to whether it will continue to rain or not. If he thinks it will not, they must remain outside. If he thinks it will, they are taken inside to exercise in the wing or to sit in the air raid shelter. The men exercise daily from 11 to 12. On Sunday they receive three hours’ exercise, never any more. Except for the time they are at church or chapel, they are locked up for 21 hours every Sunday. Considering the ill-ventilated workshops and the length of time they are locked up in their cells this system of exercise is totally inadequate.

Now in the British prisons to-day and in the prisons throughout the world at least justice is meted out to the prisoners in the grades which I am speaking of. Northern Ireland is the only place in the world where you find cruelty existing to the extent that I have outlined.

Beattie then went on to describe the treatment of one particular prisoner:

One of the prisoners, partially crippled in one leg, has during the past three years been allowed a bucket of hot water daily to bathe his leg, but on 29th February an official put colouring stuff in the water in case, he would use it for any other purpose. He put colouring stuff into the water the man was going to bathe his crippled leg with. Nobody knows what that colouring stuff was. What sort of conduct or treatment – certainly not Christian treatment – is taking place in this particular jail?

He was also scathing of the prison authorities attitude to complaints:

The questions which I have outlined have all been brought to the notice of the authorities, and here is what happened without any of these people reporting the matter to the proper authority. Here we have a man named Charles McCotter who, for reporting, was punished ten times and was put on bread and water eight times. Because he found it humanly impossible to exist under such conditions he took the only way, the legitimate way, of making his report, and because he did that he was punished ten times and placed on bread and water ten times. That is a boy of 24 years of age.

Another case is that of James Kane. He also found the conditions of life so unbearable that he reported eleven times. He was punished eleven times, and was placed on bread and water five times, all for crying out for the justice and treatment for which the law provides.

Then we have another case, that of Edward Dalzell. He reported seven times. He was punished seven times, and he was put on bread and water six times. Again I say people would think that those Gestapo methods of dealing with long term prisoners could be used only in Germany, and yet we find them operating in Northern Ireland. I say now that my statement in London was correct and to the point-that we were more akin to the Nazis in Germany than we were to the democratic world outside it.

Then we have Francis Dunlop who is 22 years of age. He was punished twelve times and put on bread and water seven times for reporting against the unchristian and unlawful method of treatment which is being inflicted upon these people. I will be told that the majority of these people are political prisoners. They are prisoners who have been brought to trial and sentenced, it may be, for political crime, but because it is for political crime there is no justification for the Minister of Home Affairs allowing these things to go on as they are at the moment. Because they are political prisoners cruelty cannot be justified. If they were in any other country in the world they would be graded as political prisoners; in Northern Ireland they are graded as criminals.

Eddie Dalzell and Jim Kane may well have been singled out for their particular treatment as they had been orderlies in A wing on the day of the escape in January 1943. Frank Dunlop had been on the receiving end of ill treatment for a number of years. According to Billy McKee, after the escape in January 1943, the warders selected for duty in A wing, in particular, were chosen for their physicality and brutality. He says that Beattie’s description is accurate for that period and you could expect rough treatment and your cell to be searched and tossed at least twice a week, every week. Tossing the cell – throwing everything onto the floor in a heap – served no purpose other than to humiliate the prisoner. McKee also remembers that you could be, and were, regularly placed on punishment for practically anything and nothing. Geordie Shannon recalled that a prisoner found part of a dead mouse in his porridge and complained. He was given three days bread and water[3].

After the calamities that followed in the wake of defending the Campbell College defendants, the northern government could usually rely on IRA prisoners to refuse to engage with the courts system for redress. Formal complaints to the prison authorities were seen by the IRA as similar to recognising the courts. But that wasn’t always the case with younger prisoners. Bobby Hughes, from Cavendish Street, was one of those arrested at the Clay Pits on the Springfield Road in 1943 (with Jimmy Steele’s nephew Arthur). While on remand in Crumlin Road in the summer of 1943, James Sloan, a warder, struck Hughes in the face, knocked him down and kicked him, then beat him across the back with a leather belt. Another warder, Harper, also beat Hughes on the back of the neck. The two warders also forcibly stripped Hughes. The defence claimed that the treatment had been given because Hughes and other prisoners were whistling, shouting and singing, and, that Hughes had refused to remove his coat or strip and had kicked out at the warders when they tried to strip him. Hughes father brought the case against Sloan but the authorities refused permission for Hughes solicitor to interview any of the six other prisoners who had witnessed the beatings. Despite that, Hughes was still awarded £12 damages by the court. According to Geordie Shannon, the internees in D wing were largely left alone by the prison staff and had political status (although the food and living conditions were still dreadful). The politicals, mainly the prisoners in A wing, were “kicked up to see the governor and kicked back down again” says Shannon[4].

Another measure, not described by Beattie, was the reality of being sentenced to solitary confinement. The solitary cell had nothing at all in it. Once penalised with solitary confiement you didn’t get out at all for the duration of your punishment. At night you were given a mattress and slept on the floor. The diet was a mug of water and four ounces of bread three times a day[5]. To put that in context, four ounces of bread is about 350 calories, not even 20% of recommended daily intake. The use of solitary confinement and the number one diet was commonplace after January 1943.

Official punishment also meant receiving marks that counted against remission. Jimmy had accumulated 200 remission marks during his Treason Felony sentence, adding 40 days to his term in Crumlin Road in 1940.

One cruelty that features in every memoir of the prison in the 1940s was the use of the whip (called the cat, or birch). When the courts sentenced prisoners, they were often, and apparently quite randomly, given an additional punishment of receiving ten or twelve strokes of the whip. This was to be carried out by the prison staff at an unspecified time. In their accounts of A wing in 1943, Joe Cahill and Liam Burke go into detail of how it was administered[6]. Without any notice, and sometimes months after the sentence, the prisoner would be brought to a cell in C wing where he would be stripped to the waist and left there. He would then be brought out through a gauntlet of off-duty prison staff and down to an underground boilerhouse where the prison staff would assemble to watch. There the prisoner would be suspended off the ground tied to metal rings while an unidentifiable warder administered the strokes of the whip, counted out by the governor. The prison doctor would check the prisoner’s heart after each stroke. Liam Burke was told this punishment was being carried out in accordance with instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The birch was regarded as a particularly cruel punishment and deeply resented by the IRA prisoners.

Another, and even more damning, measure of the severity of the prison regime may be taken from another statement made later in Stormont in May 1946[7], this time by Harry Diamond, as Stormont MP for Falls. He stated that: “If any proof is needed about the conduct of the prison warders towards those prisoners over a number of years, there is the fact that seven of those young men who got out died almost immediately as a consequence of the treatment they received, and that others were taken off to lunatic asylums absolutely insane owing to the conditions they endured.” No-one on the Unionist benches denied that this was the case.

The prison authorities in Belfast were usually careful to release prisoners whose health was in terminal decline to their families so that they didn’t die within the prison. Curiously, many republicans who died in this way, such as Pat Nash, Frankie Doherty and Thomas O’Malley (in 1959) aren’t usually included in the republican Roll of Honour for the early 1940s while others, like Jack Gaffney, who died aboard the Al Rawdah, Joe Malone and Terence Perry who died in Parkhurst Prison, John Hinchy who died in Mountjoy, and Charlie O’Hare who died in the Isle of Man internment camp are included. Jimmy, though, does include Doherty, O’Malley and Nash in his song Belfast Graves and his poem In Belfast Town[8]. Some of the young men who were released from Crumlin Road prison to die at home were Richard Magowan, Dickie Dunn, John McGinley, Peter Graham, Mickey McErlean and Bernard Curran[9]. There were also four confirmed cases of tuberculosis (one of which was Richard Magowan).

To take one example, Bernard Curran had been interned in May 1940 and first complained of illness to the medical officer in the summer of 1941. He was sent out to hospital for a minor operation but on his return, received no treatment and the wound kept re-opening for the next six months. It was still discharging when he was transferred to the prison hospital in January 1942. While there, the doctor still did not provide any treatment or bandages and he had to use toilet paper to stop his shirt sticking to the wound. After 28 days in which he didn’t receive any treatment, and even though the wound began to fester, he was returned to his cell. He was among the internees sent to Derry prison in November 1942. From there he was sent to the Derry Union hospital where he was put in isolation, with poor food and hygiene and no reading materials or newspapers. His health declined even further until his unconditional release was ordered and he was carried on a stretcher to a police car and returned to his home. He never recovered and died in October 1945[10].

At least six prisoners ended up in mental institutions, although one prisoner, Charlie McDowell, who built a spaceship from fruit tins to try and escape, and, claimed he had a paste that could dissolve prison bars, surprisingly didn’t end up in care. At least one internee tried suicide and ended up having to be accompanied by Jack McNally in his cell for a time[11].

The following are a couple of documented cases of beatings of prisoners from the 1940s:

On Thursday 7th October 1943, at 12.30[12], Jimmy Steele was in his cell after dinner when two prison officers came to search his cell, Joseph Boyd and William Pyper. As Steele had joined the strip strike immediately upon returning to A wing in August (having escaped in January and been recaptured in May), he had spent most of the time naked and on punishment in his cell. For the couple of weeks after the strike ended, he had experienced the regime that had been in place since his escape in January. When Boyd and Pyper ordered him to strip so they could search him, Steele refused. The refusal brought a serious beating. It was raised in Stormont in July 1944, and he provided a statement on the beating which Harry Diamond read out on 21st May 1946 during a debate on the treatment of prisoners:

At the latter end of September or the beginning of October-I cannot remember the exact date-my cell was visited by two prison officers named Joseph Boyd and William Pyper, for the purpose of searching it. The day was Thursday, the time about 12-30. On entering my cell Boyd approached me and ordered me to strip off my entire clothing. As this was the first occasion on which I had received such an order I naturally refused to obey it, as I deemed it rather humiliating to have to strip under such circumstances.

Upon my refusal to take off my clothing Boyd said to me, “We’ll soon see about that.”

He immediately grasped me by the waistcoat and pulled it off my back. He then threw me down on my back on a mattress which was lying on an iron bedstead about three feet from the ground. In the process of doing so he had managed to pull my shirt up to my head. In this position he then pushed his knee into my chest and pulled the shirt completely off me. After that he pulled me from the bed on to the ground, holding me by the feet in doing so, with the result that my back hit the concrete floor in falling. He then trailed me by both feet along the ground, at the same time pulling the trousers off me, and while doing so he also kicked me on the left side. After this both men left the cell leaving me completely naked. I may mention that Officer William Pyper did not in any way take part in the assault. I was then locked up in my cell until the following day when, at 12 o’clock, I was paraded before the medical officer, Dr. McComb, who examined me. I still bore a mark on my left side from the kick I had received, but the M.O passed me fit for further punishment. At three o’clock on the same day I was paraded before the governor and charged with (1) refusing to obey an order; (2) attempting to assault an officer; (3) threatening an officer; and (4) making false allegations against an officer to the effect that he had kicked me. I admitted No. (1) charge; giving my reasons for same, but I emphatically denied all other charges, and I pointed out that I had actually been kicked. The governor replied that according to the medical officer’s report there were not any marks on me to prove my allegation. I replied that I still bore the mark on my side, and I offered to strip off my shirt, so that he could see the evidence for himself, but he refused my offer and said that he had to accept the officer’s evidence before mine. I was then sentenced to two days’ No. 1 solitary confinement diet. My diet during these two days consisted of four ounces of bread morning and night, whilst at dinner time four ounces of bread and two potatoes were supplied. No liquids were supplied except cold water. All utensils were removed from my cell, except my chamber and drinking water. Even my stool was removed, whilst my bedding, mattress, etc., were removed each morning at 7-30 a m and handed in again at 8 o’clock each night. I was denied all exercise. I may mention that I have been afflicted with a bad chest and a weak heart since boyhood, whilst I have also developed lung trouble since 1936, after a hunger strike in that year. The late Dr. O’Flaherty, Dr. McComb, and his assistant, Dr. Dickie, have all warned me about my weak heart. Before my arrest I had also pleurisy (twice) and congestion of the lungs. The doctors who attended me for same were the late Dr. McLaurin, Antrim Road; Dr. Alex. Dempsey, Clifton Street (April, 1935); Dr. R. McNabb, Donegall Street-(January, 1935, and June, 1940). Also X-rayed in the Royal Victoria Hospital, June, 1940.

Diamond also added that Jimmy had included a footnote that said “…Officer J. Boyd is about 6 ft. 4 in. in height and about 13 st in weight, whilst I am about 5 ft. 3 in in height and 8 st. 6 lbs in weight.” Jimmy wasn’t the only one. Samuel Holden and Dan Rooney also were on the receiving end of beatings.

On Thursday 15th June 1944, Gerry Adams and David Fleming were working beside each other in the shoe shop. As there was no work, Adams went to another prisoner’s bench. That prisoner, Dan Duffy, was a non-political and former British soldier. A warder, Jackson, then ordered Adams into the middle of the floor, saying, “You are raising a storm.” Duffy did as ordered and turned to face the wall and was told to leave. Jackson then ordered Adams to face the wall, which was not a typical order given to prisoners, telling him “I’ll soften you”. Adams refused and was then punched by Jackson while Thompson hit him with his keys. Adams was put on report and ordered to see the doctor. On the way to the doctor, Adams was pushed downstairs by another warder, Noble. A short time later, Jackson was joined by twenty warders including Moore, Kearns, Thompson and the chief, Crowe.

By this time, Adams, David Fleming, Charlie McCotter, Frank Hicks and Kevin Barry McNulty were stood with their backs to the wall outside the doctors office. The warders lined up facing the prisoners and Boyd and Moore ordered them again to face the wall. Boyd and another warder started beating Adams to try and turn him around to face the wall. Boyd started kicking Adams from behind. Foster, Jackson, Moore and Noble started beating Fleming, with McCotter, Hicks and McNulty receiving similar treatment. The prisoners tried to put up resistance, but Adams recalls Fleming, in particular, being badly beaten, with Foster hitting him on the head with his baton until Fleming collapsed, bleeding heavily from a head wound. When Fleming managed to get back to his feet, thirty seconds later, he was dragged into Hugh McAteer’s cell on A1. Among the sound of violence coming from the cell were Fleming’s body hitting the wall, groaning from Fleming and Moore shouting “Take that you republican bastard.”

Adams states that they were then brought to the doctor but he was beaten again by Noble, Moore and Boyd while being returned from A1 to his cell on A3. The beating started again when Adams was being brought down to the face the governor that afternoon. At the grill gate, he was assaulted again by warders Moore and Neeson, with Neeson grabbing him by the hair and hitting him with his knee, to the extent that Adams recalled “…water came from me”. Adams fell to the ground. Moore continued to beat him and Neeson tried to pull him by his hair to force him back up onto his feet. When he was finally brought in front of the governor, Adams was charged with refusing to face the wall. Adams’ punishment was three days’ bread and water and the loss of three months’ privileges. He was barely 18 years of age.

At mid-day, Hugh McAteer returned to his cell to find that “…the west wall of my cell was spattered with blood over a space of 42 square feet… On the north wall, where it joins the west wall, was a large, streaky, blood-stained patch which looked as if a blood-stained head had been pressed against it. The stains remained clearly visible until whitewashed out about a week later.” Fleming also received three days’ bread and water punishment, after which he confirmed to McAteer that he had received a further beating in McAteer’s cell. The prison staff didn’t even acknowledge the blood stains on the cell wall and they were whitewashed over a week later.

[1] See Stormont Hansard for 22nd March 1944 for the full debate.

[2] This must have occurred in June 1943.

[3] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[4] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, 139.

[5] Anderson 2002, Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, 94.

[6] In Anderson 2002 and MacEoin 1997 The IRA in the Twilight Years

[7] Stormont Hansard, 21st May 1946

[8] Brendan Behan heard Belfast Graves sung in a pub in Belfast and has himself singing the lines about Frankie Doherty in Borstal Boy.

[9] McGuffin, Internment, 1973, p75, also details on Curran were given by Harry Diamond in Stormont on 30th October 1945.

[10] When Harry Diamond related the account of Curran’s death and the deaths of seven internees. William Lowry.

[11] McNally 1989, 91.

[12] On 27th July 1944, a question was asked in Stormont dating this to October.