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:
On hunger striking/force feeding: