Suffragettes, James Connolly and hunger-striking

The modern tactic of hunger-striking was largely devised by the suffragette movement in 1909. As a tactic it attempted to capture people’s imagination and, it was hoped, awaken an interest in the political issues at hand. By doing so it attempted to mobilise public opinion against the authorities. The suffragettes used hunger strikers in prisons in Britain and Ireland to take contemporary patriarchal chauvinist opinions on the ‘delicacy of women’s health’ and turn them to their advantage (albeit at a significant cost to the health of many of those who took part). In Ireland, the modern use of hunger-striking outside of the women’s suffrage campaign appears to be James Connolly’s hunger strike following his arrest during the tram strike in the summer of 1913.

Connolly had been arrested along with a number of others in Dublin on 30th August 1913, during the tram strike (Jim Larkin had managed to evade capture). Connolly was charged with inciting people to cause a breach of the peace in a speech he had recently delivered. While Connolly’s co-accused agreed bail and surety terms, he refused to either find bail or sureties and so was committed to Mountjoy Jail for three months. The following Saturday, 6th September, Connolly went on hunger strike in protest at his imprisonment.

Hunger striking had been a tactic employed by the suffragettes since 1909. Typically the authorities responded in one of two ways, either releasing the hunger strikers after a number of days fearful of public opinion or, from September 1909, by force-feeding the hunger strikers. At least one man, Alan Ross MacDougall, who was imprisoned for two months for assaulting Lloyd George (in support of the suffragettes) also went on hunger strike (in 1912). From 1911, Women’s Social and Political Union activists went on hunger strike on numerous occasions. Claims at the success varied wildly, the Home Office stated that in 1913 only 8 out of 66 suffragist prisoners had been released following hunger strikes (eg Irish Examiner, 19/3/1913). Dr. George Robertson, who had performed at least 2,000 force-feedings of hunger striking suffragettes, put the figure for early releases in 1912 as 66 out of 240 prisoners (see Examiner, 25/2/1913). As a proponent of force-feeding, he also noted that the main threat to life was prisoners struggling during force-feeding – which was later to be repeatedly demonstrated with Irish republican prisoners.

The hunger striking suffragettes did not just demand release, in some cases the demanded was for the political status of suffragette prisoners to be recognised. In Mountjoy Jail, a hunger strike demanding political treatment by three English suffragettes in mid-August 1912 – Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh and Lizzie Baker – saw them being force-fed within hours. They were joined on hunger strike by Irish suffragettes Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Jane Murphy, Margaret Murphy and Margaret Palmer by 15th August. But by the 19th August the Irish suffragettes had all been released and Lizzie Baker was also released relatively quickly. The force-feeding of Gladys Evans and Mary Leigh then continued into September (both had been sentenced to five years penal servitude). Mary Leigh’s deteriorating health saw her released on 20th September.

During the hunger strike, the following letter appeared in the Irish Independent (30/9/1912):

Sir—In a letter to the ‘Irish Independent’ of Thursday last, Caroline Smithwick says that the object of Mrs. Leigh in refusing her food, whilst in Mountjoy Prison was “…to, obtain political treatment the same as that given to men here and in other civilised countries for crimes that are political.” By all means, give political treatment for political crimes, but is an attempt to burn a public building a political crime? It may have a political motive, but that does not affect the crime in any way.

If an ordinary man attempted such a deed as the burning of a public building, you, may be sure he would get more than five years penal servitude; and what is more, he would have to bear it, too. If a prisoner is released from prison because she refuses to eat, all the criminals in Ireland should immediately start a hunger strike, so; if Mrs. Leigh died from the effect of her self-imposed starvation, would she not be guilty of suicide? And at present is she not guilty of attempted suicide and liable to arrest for it? People are inclined to make a heroine of Mrs. Leigh, but if she is as brave as they say she is, why didn’t she lie on the bed she made?

Charles J. Lanktree, Beechmount, Glanmire, Co. Cork.

Gladys Evans continued to be force-fed and began to physically resist the force-feeding on 30th September. The authorities then released her under license on 3rd October after fifty days on hunger strike. Afterwards the British government began to move towards formally adopting different tactics, releasing hunger strikers when their health deteriorated but reserving the right to return them to prison to complete their sentences once they had recovered. Gladys Evans herself was re-arrested within weeks (she went back on hunger strike).

Irish suffragists also staged a hunger strike in Tullamore Jail in February 1913. The same month, in London, men confined to Lambeth Workhouse went on hunger strike in protest at conditions. Hunger strikes, and the threat of hunger strikes, by women involved in the suffrage campaign continued during 1913 while the authorities devised legislation to allow hunger strikers to be formally released on license due to ill health then re-arrested. This was to be called the cat-and-mouse act.

Not everyone was sympathetic to the suffragettes. A Belfast Newsletter editorial on 22nd February 1913 opined that “The Suffragists have forced the overwhelming majority of the community to the conclusion that effective measures must be taken to put an end to their exploits. If some of the hunger-strikers were now allowed to starve, there would be a general feeling that they had brought their fate on themselves. But since it is undesirable that any real martyrs should be manufactured, it would be well to devise other methods for dealing with these misguided women.

James Connolly’s hunger strike in 1913 was supported by the suffragettes in Ireland. Connolly had publicly supported the suffragettes and contributed to the Irish debates on the likes of ensuring the Home Rule Bill include a provision for women to have the vote. The Irish Women’s Franchise League issued a statement to say that “…we protest against the treatment meted out by the Irish Executive [i.e. Dublin Castle] to Mr James Connolly is on hunger strike since the 6th for political motives and that we demand in the interests of justice and humanity his instant and unconditional release.” (Evening Herald, 13/9/1913). While the practice of fasting in protest at an injustice is reported in various Irish medieval texts, the modern use is clearly rooted in the adoption of hunger striking by the suffragettes in Ireland. Connolly then appears to be the first to use the hunger strike tactic in prison over a non-suffrage political issue in Ireland. A number of others involved in the strikes went on hunger strike in prison that year, some of whom were force-fed. The tactic continued to be used by the suffragettes up to August 1914.

Connolly himself was released on Saturday 13th September, reportedly in a weak condition after a week on hunger strike. None of the contemporary newspaper reports suggest that he was force-fed. On the following Wednesday he returned to Belfast. The Evening Herald carried the following report of his arrival in the city (18/9/1913):

TURBULENCE IN BELFAST Mr. James Connolly’s Arrival

The arrival of James Connolly, the strike leader, in Belfast, last, night, was marked by tumultuous scenes, and a serious riot was narrowly averted. A procession, organised by the Belfast branch of the Transport Workers’ Union and the Textile Workers’ Union marched through the city to the Great Northern railway station, where Connolly was due to arrive on the 9 o’clock train. The vanguard of the procession consisted of a body of textile operatives, all young girls, who were cheering and singing, while accompanying the transport workers were two bands.

The parade through Royal Avenue and Donegall Place attracted large crowds.

Outside the station, Great Victoria street was congested, and the presence of a hostile element was indicated by the singing of “Dolly’s Brae” and “Derry Walls.” It was evident that a political aspect was being imparted to the demonstration, and matters looked serious when a pretty large opposition crowd drew together opposite the main entrance to the station. Just as the procession came along, the largo sliding doors, with glass panes, at the station entrance were closed, and a party of police moved in between the processionists and the crowd. When the train arrived the passengers were allowed out singly, but a rush was made by the crowd, and a volley of stones hurled over the heads of the police, one missile smashing the glass in the station door, and two men in the vicinity were struck and received scalp wounds.

A great cheer and the beating of drums greeted Mr. Connolly’s appearance, and this was answered by revolver shots and cries of execration from the crowd, who were driven further back by the police, but Without the use of batons. Mr. Connolly, looking pale and worn, mounted an outside car with some friends, and the procession then returned through the central streets. At Donegall Square corner stones were thrown at the car, and a small party of police turned from the rear of the procession and scattered a crowd, which was following up.

The procession made its way to the Custom House steps, where a mooting was addressed by Mr. John Flanagan, organiser of the transport workers, and Mrs. Gordon, of the textile workers. Matters were looking very ugly at Castle Junction as the procession moved past, and there were cries of “No Home Rule” and “No Pope,” while from a number of side streets missiles were thrown, but the police prevented the opposition from mustering in any force, and the meeting passed off quietly. Mr. Connolly did not speak, and afterwards drove away to the Union.

Some further posts:

On James Connolly:

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/where-oh-where-is-our-james-connolly-connolly150/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/james-connollys-time-as-a-british-soldier-some-new-evidence/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/they-told-me-how-connolly-was-shot-in-the-chair/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/nora-connolly-obrien-on-her-father-belfast-and-1916/

On hunger striking/force feeding:

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-womens-hunger-strike-armagh-1943/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/the-1972-hunger-strike/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/force-feeding-hunger-strikers-frank-stagg-documentary-on-tg4/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/the-1944-ira-hunger-strike/

 

 

 

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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Image uncredited, Republican News, 10th January 1976