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).

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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

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.

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