Frances Brady, Belfast Cumann na mBan on hunger strike, 1921

Found this interesting photo online of a Belfast Cumann na mBan member, Frances Brady, on hunger strike in 1921.

Frances Brady

(Credit – see post from @Is_Mise_Fiona added above – given MacEvilly)

Brady was from Earlscourt Street in the Falls. Her father, Hugh, was a builders clerk and he and Frances’ mother, Maggie, had seven daughters and one son. She became an active republican while working in the War Office in London where she had been censoring soldiers letters home. In 1917, Michael Collins made contact with her while she was on her summer holidays in Donegal. From then, she carried out espionage for him. She also collected money for the Irish Republican Prisoners Defendants Fund (IRPDF) and carried dispatches.

Brady worked under Collins in London until July 1919 when she returned to Belfast and continued her republican activism as a member of Cumann na mBan in the city, assisting in operations and carrying dispatches as well as continuing to do work for the IRPDF. The Brady house in Belfast was used as an office by GHQ and dispatches to and from Dublin routinely passed through it. From December 1920, Brady also worked with Ernest Blythe and Joe McDonagh in the Belfast Boycott (of unionists business that expelled Catholic workers). Usually she worked out of her sisters address in Lower Leeson Street in Dublin, which was often used for meetings by Collins, Richard Mulcahy and others.

On the 3rd June, secret instructions* were sent from Captain Hudson in Kilmainham to raid 46 Lower Leeson Street as it was known to be used by a republican courier, Kathleen Brady (Frances’ sister who lived at the address). Hudson directed that a female searcher was to be picked up at Room 2 in City Hall and brought on the raid, while anything found was to be returned directly to Kilmainham.

[*you need a subscription to view this link]

Frances Brady and Joe McDonagh were in the house with its other occupants – Professor, Madame Chauvire and their daughter – when a raiding party of the 2nd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment appeared on the road outside at 7.30 pm the very same day. Lieutenants Barton and Bone and Sergeant Hurrel went straight to Brady’s top floor flat. When they burst in they found her undressed and she told them to wait a minute. Barton then sent for the female searcher to come up. When she arrived they entered and found Brady had used the time to burn papers in an otherwise empty grate. During a search of the room they found a revolver in an attaché case, binoculars, her Cumann na mBan membership card and badge, copies of An tÓglach, and, Dáil Éireann (and other) papers. McDonagh, who had remained downstairs dressed as a priest, made his excuses to the raiding party, then left the house via the back door and escaped. The military took Brady from Lower Leeson Street to their barracks then the Bridewell, which refused her entry until Barton (much to his annoyance) slowly managed to acquire the appropriate papers from the Chief of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

On 15th June Brady was tried at a general field court martial in Kilmainham. While refusing to recognise the court, she noted that it included reference to the ‘Irish Volunteers’ in the charges, pointing out that the organisation no longer existed as it had been replaced by the Irish Republican Army. She also noted that the order referred to in the charges against her wasn’t in force at the date on the documents mentioned in the same charges (the press do not record the courts response, eg see Freeman’s Journal 16th June 1921). Her sentence was promulgated and a couple of days later she was given two years hard labour and taken to Mountjoy.

On the 30th October, four of the women prisoners in Mountjoy (including Eithne Coyle, Linda Kearns, Aileen Keogh and Mae Burke) used a rope ladder to escape while a football match was taking place. The authorities were acutely embarrassed by the escape and placed the remaining women prisoners under the guard of the Auxiliaries from the next day. The response of the women prisoners, including Frances Brady, was outrage. They were also equally annoyed at the escapees for not informing them of the plan (Eileen McGrane, in charge of the Cumann na mBan prisoners, had refused Coyle and the others permission to make an escape attempt).

On the Tuesday (1st November), the women prisoners inside Mountjoy – Brady, Eileen McGrane, Kate Crowley, Madge Cotter and Lily Cotter – went on hunger strike in protest at being guarded by the Auxiliaries (see Freemans Journal, 10th November 1921). The hunger strike lasted until the 9th November, by which date Cumann na mBan had sent in instructions to come off the protest, presumably since the hunger strikers had not asked for permission to mount the protest from the Cumann na mBan leadership.

Whether the Auxiliaries continued guarding them isn’t clear, but within weeks Frances, along with Eileen McGrane, Lily and Madge Cotter and Katie Crowley, were release from Mountjoy (on 9th December 1921). After her release, Eileen McGrane had charges brought against Eithne Coyle and Linda Kearns for escaping without seeking approval from Cumann na mBan but the charge was eventually dropped (clearly, when it comes to giving/taking orders, Cumann na mBan didn’t mess around).

On her release, Frances Brady continued to work as secretary to the IRPDF in Belfast and carried dispatches from Dublin to Belfast, between the likes of Ernie O’Malley and Oscar Trainor and the Belfast IRA and Cumann na mBan leaders like Annie Ward, Pat Thornbury and Hugh Corvin. After the outbreak of the civil war, she continued in this role, along with escorting IRA volunteers and carrying arms between Dundalk and Belfast.

After the 1920s she remained and married in Dublin where she died in 1977.

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The 1972 hunger strike

In 1972, an IRA hunger strike was successful in achieving the recognition of the political status of those held as prisoners by the British government. The hunger strike provided significant lessons for later republican protests in 1980 and 1981 and, in itself, was modeled on earlier hunger strikes.

The numbers of prisoners had increased dramatically since 1969, when a wave of detentions in August had preceded the burning of Bombay Street by unionists. Two of those detained were interned until later that year, foreshadowing the widespread use of internment to repress opposition to the northern government from August 1971.

From August 1971, there was a constant increase in the numbers held at Belfast Prison (Crumlin Road), Armagh Gaol, the Maidstone prison ship and the camps at Magilligan and Long Kesh. Many of those detained had been imprisoned by the northern government on one or multiple occasions from the 1920s to the 1960s. Collectively there was a deep well of knowledge of dealing with the systems the northern government deployed to keep its opponents in captivity. This included forms and modalities of protest and resistance, such as hunger strikes.

Republicans had participated in various forms of hunger strike against the northern and southern government in the previous thirty or so years. Open-ended group hunger strikes had taken place in 1936 (in Crumlin Road), 1939-40 in Mountjoy and 1940 and 1941 (in Crumlin Road), 1943 (in Armagh) and 1944 (in Crumlin Road). In 1939, republicans had gone on hunger strike to pressure the southern government, successfully, for release from captivity. In 1940 republican hunger strikes had saw two fatalities, Jack McNeela and Tony D’arcy, but had achieved recognition of their political status by the southern government.

Token, or defined period hunger strikes had also taken place at times (either in solidarity with other protests, or to disrupt the prison system), such as in Crumlin Road in January 1942 and November 1943. They had also taken place more recently, such as on the Maidstone prison ship in 1971. There were also solo hunger strikers, like Paddy Cavanagh in 1935, Sean McCaughey in 1946 (in Portlaoise) and David Fleming in 1946 and 1947. Notably Fleming’s was in parallel with Sean McCaughey’s. He had died quite quickly in Portlaoise after he also refused water as well as food. That tactic dramatically accelerated the point at which a crisis would arise.

A long debate about a hunger strike in D wing of Crumlin Road in 1958-59, ultimately ended in the IRA’s Army Council refusing to endorse such a protest. Many of the senior IRA figures inside and outside Crumlin Road in 1958-59 had been active during the 1940s and were only too aware of the risks and variables that would dictate the likely successful or failure of a hunger strike.

Various initiatives proposed by the IRA leadership in 1971 and 1972, which included ceasefire proposals also called for the release of all ‘political prisoners’. During 1938-45 and 1956-61, when there was widespread use of internment without trial by the northern government, those held as ‘internées’ were accorded special status. As IRA proposals referenced ‘political’ prisoners, there appears to have been a growing consciousness that those awaiting a formal trial or who had been given a prison sentence might be deemed to be outside of this framework, since this happened in 1945 and again in 1961. Senior IRA figures held in Crumlin Road in 1972, like Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been present at the time of the releases in 1945 and again in 1961.

Many of the conditions that had limited the effectiveness of previous hunger strikes were not present in 1972. There was a significant level of overt public support for the IRA and the publicity tools that the IRA had access to, such as Republican News, and international media coverage, offered much greater leverage than had been available in the past.

That said, the hunger strike began on 15th May 1972 with little fanfare. This was down to the lack of any real advance notice as, apparently, the IRA inside Crumlin Road had only notified the outside leadership of their intentions on 10th May (it also leaked into the media almost immediately), even though there had been an ongoing protest inside the jail. The first group to join the hunger strike included Billy McKee, Kevin Henry, Malachy Leonard, Martin Boyle and Robert Campbell. The hunger strike cut across high level contacts between the IRA and British government as the Army Council sought to illustrate its capacity to command and control IRA operations through implementing (and insisting on strict observation of) a ceasefire. Brief reports of a possible IRA ceasefire were mentioned by the press during late May, adding further pressure on the authorities to find a settlement to end the hunger strike. Based on previous hunger strikes, the critical period when a hunger striker was going to be at risk of dying, would be around 50 days, which would be early July.

There was a short article about the hunger strike inside the 18th May 1972 edition of Republican News. It mainly quoted Action, a newsletter published in Newington, which “…British justice finds political prisoners: – ‘Guilty’, British justice finds internees – ‘Guilty’. Are they then willing to release only internees? What is the distinction between ‘Guilty’ and ‘Guilty’? The distinction is this: – There has never been enough clamour for the release of ALL. Amnesty is often considered only in terms of internees. THE ‘GUILTY’ MUST BE FREED WITH THE ‘GUILTY’.”

The format of the hunger strike followed that used in the open-ended hunger strike of 1944, as small groups joined at intervals. Unlike 1944, when external publicity was frequently outdated and inaccurate, Republican News could now provide an effective platform for the hunger strikers to increase pressure on the British government. By the next issue, Republican News covered the hunger strike on its front page, stating that it was “…breaking the wall of silence that has been maintained by the authorities…”. This wasn’t strictly true, as the press had issued some reports on the hunger strike, such as nationalist MPs and senators calls on 22nd May to grant political status. The same day, a second team had joined the hunger strike, including Tony O’Kane, John Cowan, Malachy Cullen, Billy McGuigan and Paddy Monaghan.

On 25th May, it was announced (by the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau) that McKee was also now refusing liquids. If the authorities had anticipated some time to review their options, until mid or late June, McKee’s thirst strike meant a crisis could arise in the first week of June. The IRPB statement pointed out that a thirst strike could be fatal after seven or eight days. That weekend, there were twenty-four and thirty-six hour hunger strikes held at various towns and cities in Ireland, Britain and the US in solidarity with those in Crumlin Road. They were also joined by hunger strikers in Armagh jail, the Curragh and Mountjoy.

That Friday (26th May), the southern government re-instituted Special Criminal Courts and carried out a wave of arrests of senior republicans, including leaders of Sinn Féin. Ruairi Ó Bradaigh and Joe Cahill, who were arrested as part of the swoop, went on hunger strike in protest. Now, both the southern government and British government faced hunger striking republicans. On the 29th May, the ‘Official IRA’ called a ceasefire. This coincided with reports that the ‘Provisional’ IRA was considering a ceasefire.

The same day, a third team joined the hunger strike in Crumlin Road, including Ciaran Conway, Gerard McLoughlin, Michael McCrory, Tony Bradley and Noel Quigley. A team had also joined the hunger strike in Armagh jail on 25th May, including Seamus Connelly, Hugh McCann, Tom Kane, Jackie Hawkie, John Haddock and Tom Kearns. Susan Loughran, also in Armagh jail, now joined the hunger strike on 30th May. At the start of June, more women internees in Armagh would join the hunger strike in solidarity, as would internees in Long Kesh. Public hunger strikes in solidarity, petitions and calls from individuals and organisations to grant political status continued to make the news.

By that weekend, McKee had once again begun to take liquids but Kevin Henry, who had started the hunger strike with McKee, had become so weak that he once again began to take food. Unlike previous hunger strikes, the republican O/C in Crumlin Road, Prionsias MacAirt, could have statements carried in the press clarifying misinformation about the progress of the hunger strike. Claims that Billy McKee had ended his hunger strike on 30th May and that the hunger strikers had abandoned the protest on 1st June were immediately dismissed by MacAirt and the IRPB by the next day.

By the 6th June, Billy McKee was so weak that he was confined to his cell. Robert Campbell, who had also been on hunger strike since 15th May, was removed to the Mater Hospital the same day. Reports of Campbell’s condition apparently sparked riots in the New Lodge Road area, but on the morning of the 7th June he was sprung from the hospital by the IRA. The next day, the British government’s Minister responsible for direct rule, William Whitelaw, faced awkward questioning in the Commons over the escape and hunger strike and stated that the British would not be blackmailed.

On the 11th June, Brian McCann, Liam O’Neill, D. Power, Hugh McComb and Denis Donaldson joined the hunger strike. By now there were eight women in Armagh who had joined at a rate of one a day after Susan Loughran, including Margaret O’Connor, Brenda Murphy and Bridie McMahon. A full list of women participating does not seem to have been published although press statements referred to ‘all eight sentenced women’ in Armagh. There were also forty internees in Long Kesh on the protest in solidarity (listed in Republican News, June 11th 1972). Later press reports would claim up to eighty internees were taking part in hunger strikes.

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List of internees joining the hunger strike, Republican News 4th June 1972

The condition of the hunger strikers was often unclear in press reports, with conflicting reports in the press on whether Malachy Leonard and Billy McKee had been moved to Musgrave Park military hospital. However, there was significant co-ordination of related protests by republican, with the image on the front of Republican News on 4th June featuring as a poster and placard at protests, as well as regular press statements being issued from the Kevin Street offices of Sinn Féin in Dublin.

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Front cover, Republican News (4th June 1972)


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Women carrying “DO YOU CARE IF THIS MAN DIES” posters (Republican News, 18th June 1972)


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Poster in display in window of a house, McDonnel Street, Belfast (Irish Press, 12th June 1972)

Behind the scenes, contact between Whitelaw and the IRA leadership saw the SDLP taking on the role of facilitators to try and arrange a direct meeting. The IRA had offered a ceasefire in return for some pre-conditions, which included the granting of political status. The IRA made its position public on 13th June at a press conference in Derry. Behind the scenes, for the next week, the SDLP attempted to broker a meeting between Whitelaw and the IRA against a backdrop of reports on the worsening condition of McKee, Leonard and Boyle. A foretaste of what might happen in the event of the fatality was seen on the day of the IRA statement in Derry, when rumours spread in Belfast that Billy McKee had died and led to widespread rioting in the city.

In late June, press reports also listed ‘Official IRA’ prisoners who had joined the hunger strike, starting on 22nd May (Peter Monaghan and Pat O’Hare), 29th May (Sean Bunting, Mick Mallon, Seamus Carragher and Franky McGrady), 4th June (Brendan Mackin, Artie Maguire, Gerry Loughlin, Jim Robb and Sam Smith) and 11th June (Jim Goodman, Peter O’Hagan and Frank Quinn).

Whitelaw finally agreed to the preconditions on 19th June. That night word reached the hunger strikers in Crumlin Road. As this included political status, a discussion late into the night followed with an agreement to end the hunger strike in Crumlin Road early on the morning of the 20th June. Billy McKee was finally moved to hospital that day. The same day, Joe Cahill ended his hunger strike in Dublin as he was released without charge by the Special Criminal Court (Ó Bradaigh had already been released a week earlier). As news reached Armagh and Long Kesh, those on hunger strike there also ended their protest. In Armagh, the end of the hunger strike was delayed until 21st June as the British hadn’t made clear that the same status would be extended to women prisoners there. Press reports claim it took an additional twenty-four hours to clarify the issue.

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Back page of Republican News (18th June 1972), showing messages of support.

The 1972 hunger strikes represent the template adopted for the republican hunger strikes of 1980-81, in terms of the tactical approach, public protest and publicity strategies, particularly in 1981. There were to be subsequent major hunger strikes, including the group hunger strike of 1974, in which Michael Gaughan died and were the strikers were force-fed, and, the solo hunger strike in which Frank Stagg died in 1976. While neither the group that embarked on the open-ended hunger strike of 1980 or the individuals who joined at intervals in 1981 strictly followed the same format as 1972, the co-ordination of publicity and the scale of the protest bear closest parallels to that of 1972 from which (as from other protests in between) lessons were clearly applied in 1980-81. The 1972 hunger strike itself, though, was modelled on experiences gained by republicans over the 1930s and 1940s. Where the earlier hunger strikes were not successful, the success of the 1972 hunger strike may have been central to the hope, after 1972, that the tactic would work again.

 

Hunger strikes and contesting narratives in republicanism

Historically, hunger strikes and prison protests have been a recurring aspect of conflict in Ireland. Generally, increasing rates of incarceration have coincided with the continuation of a campaign of resistance to the status quo inside the prisons by demanding recognition of the political status of imprisoned republicans (as an overt and highly public critique of the legitimacy of the various administrations in Ireland). Republican writing provides some quite intimate insights into the realities of such protests and the impact on the body of refusing food (and at times liquids). The use of the body to articulate resistance to challenge the status quo, historically at least, has had deep resonance in the public psyche in Ireland.

Critically, though, it highlights that the theatre of conflict here is the media and public discourse. A prison protest behind (literally) closed doors, for all the bravery and resilience of its participants, can be readily ignored by the authorities without a coordinated publicity campaign to apply pressure. In a hunger or thirst strike, the protestors try and trade increasing public concern as to their physical well-being against mobilising that public opinion to bring pressure on the authorities to reach and settlement, and by doing so, achieve some of their demands.

This is clear in the various protests I’ve blogged on here, from the 1936 hunger strike, through to the Armagh hunger strike in 1943, the 1944 hunger strike and 1946 strikes involving Sean McCaughey and David Fleming. Another significant hunger strike had taken place in 1940 (in which Jack McNeela and Tony D’Arcy died). The failure of newspapers like The Irish News to provide publicity and the role of nationalist and other politicians in undermining the protests. The cumulative impact was to give republicans a greater grasp of the necessary interplay of strategy and publicity that was evident both in the absence of major prison protests in the 1956-62 campaign and in the role of Republican News in reporting on the hunger strike led by Billy McKee in 1972.

This appreciation of publicity and propaganda shouldn’t be a surprise, since wider republican strategy consistently relied on mobilising public opinion, rather than being expected to culminate in a military victory, to achieve its aims. The extent to which that strategy was conscious or subconscious is perhaps a different argument. What makes this contentious for some, too, is that it centres on a key republican narrative that violence was political rather than some inchoate urge to simply commit ‘criminal acts’ (as its opponents would consistently claim). I would argue that, retrospectively, IRA strategy from the 1920s to (at least) the 1960s, was largely political only with little or no actual military dimension.

All this does, to some extent, explain why some have tried to contest the narrative around the 1981 hunger strike. Currently The Irish News is promoting a reading of events that is pushed by republicans and others who oppose the political strategy being followed by Sinn Féin, despite it appearing to be flatly contradicted by the evidence. While others can tease out the details of this elsewhere, my point is simply that the dispute illustrates the extent to which republicans (both on and off the Sinn Féin bus) understand the centrality of publicity and narrative. Ironically (in light of me having this blog), contesting historical legitimacy is a zero sum game of interest to less and less people as it progresses. To paraphrase the political scientist, Wallace Stanley Sayre, “Historical politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

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.

Pat Nash, 1916 veteran

Pat Nash, O/C Belfast Brigade (taken from Belfast and nineteensixteen).

Pat Nash of Belfast was the first Belfast soldier of the Republic to be arrested before 1916 and sent to prison for trying to buy a rifle from a British Soldier. He with his brother George later went with the Belfast contingent to Coalisland to take part in the Easter manoeuvres arranged for Easter Sunday 1916.

On being ordered back to Belfast on Easter Sunday night he took it very badly. He was arrested the following week and interned in Frongoch.

On his release he again became active in the movement and was again interned in Ballykinlar. Released from internment again he threw himself wholeheartedly into the movement and he became a great guerilla fighter and leader in the Leeson Street and “Loney” area of the Falls Road, right up to the signing of the Treaty in 1921.

He was again arrested and interned in Belfast Jail, Derry Jail, Larne Workhouse and the Prison Ship S.S. Argenta.

During his internment he became a great Prison fighter and endured hunger-strikes which had their effect on his health. About a month after his release he died on the 31st January 1925 – and was buried in Milltown Cemetery.

Nash had been Vice O/C of the Brigade earlier in 1922, having been involved with the Irish Volunteers in Belfast since before 1916 (as mentioned in Belfast and nineteensixteen).

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.

Notes

[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.