The 1944 IRA hunger strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

AntOglachMarch1943

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

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

RepNewsJuly1943

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

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

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

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

BBC apology to the British Army over its coverage of the British Army’s killing of Fr Hugh Mullan, #BallymurphyMassacre

On the 10th August 1971 the BBC was already reporting on the killings in Ballymurphy from the previous day and stating that an eyewitness was “…putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army”. The BBC quickly became the subject of attacks by the British government for its reporting on the actions of the Parachute Regiment. The British Defence Minister Lord Carrington even accused the BBC of “sniping” at the British Army and indulging in propaganda. The BBC called it an “error of judgement”.

On 9th August 1971, a neighbour of Fr Hugh Mullan, Bobby Clarke, was shot by soldiers after lifting a child to safety during the violence that followed the mass arrest of ‘Catholics’ that morning. After ringing the British Army HQ to advise them that he was going out to administer the last rites to Clarke, Fr Mullan ventured out, waving a white cloth and dressed as a priest, only to discover that Clarke was not fatally injured. He attempted to leave to get an ambulance for Clarke at which point he was shot by a British soldier. Frank Quinn, who attempted to provide assistance, was also shot dead.

Coverage of Fr Mullan’s death included an interview with the local Catholic bishop, William Philbin, broadcast on BBC the next day. The same day Bobby Clarke was also interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 programme, World at One, where he gave an eye witness account of Fr Mullan being shot in the back by a British soldier. Reporting of Fr Mullan’s death in many of the British newspapers repeated the claim that he had been shot as he went to administer the last rites to a wounded gunman.

Father-Hugh-Mullan-978721

Fr Hugh Mullan

After the items were broadcast the Conservative MP for Dorset South, Evelyn King, wrote to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army. Obviously, the use of the word ‘sniping’ was deliberate as this was the term conventionally used by reporters when describing physical attacks on the British Army in the north. The intention was clearly to use the term to associate the views of the BBC with those that were actually ‘sniping’ at the British Army. This is pretty unsophisticated censorship in that it is intended to diminish future reporting critical of the British Army as merely ‘sniping’ from the BBC.

Carrington responded to King’s letter by writing to the head of the BBC, Lord Hill, and King, stating that the radio interview in particular “…fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect” although he included other unspecified BBC items in his criticism. Carrington also seemed to be concerned that the items were also an attack on him personally since he had expressed his ‘utmost gratitude’ on the BBC for what the British Army had done. In his letter, Carrington admonished the BBC that when its “reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public”. It should be borne in mind that, at this time in 1971, British public opinion on the deployment troops in the north wasn’t clear as there were calls for troops to be withdrawn both from the likes of the New Statesman and the National Front (see, eg, Irish Press, 24th August 1971). The latter even advocated Irish reunification, although it also wanted the forced repatriation of all Irish from Britain on the grounds that they were all mere “white wogs”.

The BBC accepted Carrington and Kings criticism and stated that “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.” However the BBC did reject the overall criticism.

You can read the letter here (thanks to @papertrailpro): https://twitter.com/papertrailpro/status/1042342802867347457?s=21

While this may seem like another footnote to the broader issue of the behaviour of the parachute regiment in Ballymurphy between 9th and 11th August 1971, it points to one of the wider issues that is not yet satisfactorily addressed. The role of the media lies both in reporting events and ensuring that those in positions of responsibility are suitably held to account. This means it is critical to understand how the media subsequently reported on events and what influenced how the media framed their reporting. The potential chilling effect of criticism, such as came from Lord Carrington, is fairly obvious. The long term repercussions, though, are significant. A glaring omission from contemporary media coverage of ‘legacy’ cases involving individuals killed or injured by state forces is a clear articulation by the media of what differentiates these cases from other violent conflict deaths. For those unsure what that means: when a meaningful inquest or investigation of the circumstances has not occurred the default position is that the information given by the British Army (etc) becomes the official account of a death. Fr Hugh Mullan, like others killed by the state, is thus deemed as being culpable in his own death unless the British Army itself, or some legal process, formally recognises the killing was unjustified. It is solely victims of the state that are, in this way, deemed guilty until proven otherwise. The repeated failures to hold the state and its leading figures to account is one legacy of the real error in judgement of the BBC (and media in general) in allowing itself to become the propaganda tool of the likes of Lord Carrington.

You can read a balanced item about Fr Hugh Mullan on the BBC here along with footage of the interview with the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Philbin, on the day following his death (note the video may not work in every territory).

Here is the full text of a longish article on the BBC admitting an “error judgement” following Lord Carrington’s letter, as published in the Birmingham Daily Post 20th August 1971:

Interview about shot priest was an error: BBC

The BBC admitted yesterday that its use of part of an interview on the death of a Roman Catholic priest in Northern Ireland was an error in judgement.
BBC Radio 4’s The Word at One programme on August 10 carried an item on the death of a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan, the day before.
The item took the form of an interview with an unnamed Irishman who claimed to be the man to whom the priest was giving the last rites when he was shot. The man alleged that the priest had been shot in the back by a British soldier.

Army blamed
The programme chairman, Mr William Hardcastle, summed up: “An eyewitness putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army.”
But the Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington in letters to a Conservative MP Mr Evelyn King (Dorset S) and the BBC chairman, Lord Hill, has said that the item fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect.
Mr King had written to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army in its coverage of the Northern Ireland crisis.
In his reply to Mr King, Lord Carrington said: “I can assure you that the BBC items on Northern Ireland which you mention have not gone unnoticed by my Department. They are not the only items in this category.”
He then cited as an additional example, the item arising from the death of Fr Mullan and recalled that he had taken part in an interview on BBC Television News.
“I took the opportunity to express the utmost gratitude for the work of the Army in Northern Ireland. I believe quite firmly that this admiration and gratitude is shared by the vast majority of the people of this country and that, on those occasions when the BBC’s reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public.”
In his letter to Lord Hill, Lord Carrington said: “I hope my letter to Mr King makes it clear that I certainly do not regard all the BBC’s recent reports and discussions on Northern Ireland as unbalanced and unfair.”
But he was concerned about the instances cited.
“I hope you will agree that they are unsatisfactory and that everything possible should be done to prevent repetitions.”
Last night a BBC spokesman said “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.”

Difficult task
But the BBC reacted sharply to Mr King’s accusations of daily “sniping” and indulging in propaganda.
The spokesman said, “These accusations are deeply wounding to staff who are engaged in the difficult task of reporting the terrible events in Northern Ireland. Much that we have to report will be unwelcome to one of the many conflicting interests involved and there will be occasional errors of judgement. But to accuse the BBC of sniping and propaganda is unworthy. We reject the accusation entirely.”

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail

At 8.30 am on Friday 15th January, 1943, Jimmy Steele, Paddy Donnelly, Ned Maguire and Hugh McAteer escaped from A wing in Crumlin Road. In a well planned escape they broke through the roof, descended a rope to the yard and then scaled the perimeter wall in the morning before it got light. Only for a prison officer, Lance Thompson’s, son raising the alarm after seeing McAteer (the last over the wall), a second official escape team of three men would have followed them at 9 am and then the escape route was open to any others that could make it after that. The escape caused a sensation and significant embarrassment to the northern government which offered a £3,000 reward for information leading to the capture of any of the escapees. Details of the escape were published in Republican News in March 1943 and by Hugh McAteer in the Sunday Independent in 1951.

Diagram from Hugh McAteer shwoing where the prisoners exited the roof (black down arrow), direction they came from, and where they scaled the front wall. Published in Sunday Independent, 22nd April 1951.

Diagram from Hugh McAteer showing where the prisoners exited the roof (black down arrow), direction they came from, and where they scaled the front wall. Published in Sunday Independent, 22nd April 1951.

This is the view from the same spot today (note that the outer wall has been raised in height since).

This is the view from the same spot today (note that the outer wall has been raised in height since).

The Dublin edition of the March 1943 Republican News reported:

The Belfast Escape

The following Communique was issued from Northern Command Headquarters in the afternoon of 15th January 1943.

“At 8.30 this morning a daring and successful escape was made from Belfast Prison by four Irish Republican prisoners. The names of the four men are Lt.-General Hugh McAteer, Comdt.-General Seamus Steele, Capt. Patrick Donnelly and Lt. Edward Maguire, and all four reported to Command Headquarters within four hours of leaving the prison.”

Interviewed at Command Headquarters one of the men said: “The plan almost failed when we reached the outer wall. We had miscalculated the height of the gaol wall and the overtopping barbed wire, and the pole for placing the hook on top of the wall proved to be too short. We tried to reach the top of the wall by placing one man on another man’s shoulders, but the height was too great, and thrice the men slipped and fell. For the next attempt a third man climbed on to the second man’s shoulders and reaching up he raised the hook to his utmost, and saw it barely clear the top of the wire and drop securely into position. The success of the escape was then assured.

In his 1986 biography, Harry. written with Uinseann MacEoin, Harry White mentions a poem about the escape published in the March 1943 Belfast edition of Republican News (which was edited by Jimmy Steele at the time, while on the run). I’ve not tracked down a copy of the March 1943 Belfast edition, but I found a poem in an undated issue of Rushlight magazine from the 1980s called The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail (which I’ve reproduced below). I suspect this is the same poem. The tone is correct for February/March 1943 as Ned Maguire was recaptured in Donegal on 22nd March (after assisting in the mass escape from Derry prison the day before). The poem may even be a first hand account, as internal details appear accurate, such as the escapees being named in the order in which they seem to have gone over the wall, as well as the line “it seemed like a dream“.

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail could have been written by Jimmy Steele himself as he published numerous self-penned poems and songs (and wrote much of that Belfast edition in March 1943). His work was published in newspapers and magazines that were banned under the infamous Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts (or expected to be banned), so author’s names were usually omitted. A brief list of publications he contributed to, or edited, from the 1930s onwards includes An Síol, Wolfe Tone WeeklyAn tÓglach, War News, The Critic, Republican News (in the 1940s and again in 1970), Resurgent Ulster (also printed as Ulaidh ag Aiséirighe), Glór Uladh, Saoirse and Tírghrá. He also produced a number of publications for the National Graves Association in the 1950s and 1960s containing some poems and songs under his own name that were published anonymously elsewhere.  I’m also pretty sure my granny (Jimmy’s sister-in-law) once told me that he also wrote Our Lads in Crumlin Jail. Billy McKee recalls that Jimmy wrote the original version of Belfast Graves to which verses were later added (and lines from which feature in Brendan Behan’s play Borstal Boy).

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail was also popularised as a song. My mother remembers that it was sung to the tune of The Old Orange Flute (I’ve linked a version recorded by The Dubliners). The melody used for The Old Orange Flute is really just an archetypal music hall standard also used for Six Miles from Bangor to Donaghadee (the link is a recording by Richard Hayward from 1948). The versions of The Old Orange Flute by The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers from the 1970s incorporated lines from both songs. I’ve inserted breaks in the lines of The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail to create verses that match The Old Orange Flute’s phrasing since it is a better fit. The premise of The Old Orange Flute – a dystopia where inanimate objects acquire political agency all of their own, is found in at least one other comic song – The Fenian Record Player. I’m sure there are others, too.

I’ve reproduced the poem below as it appears in Rushlight. The punctuation doesn’t fit the verses when put to the melody of The Old Orange Flute which does seem to be consistent with it originating as a poem. There is one error – the reward was £3,000 not £500 – and one spelling mistake – ‘dispair’. Obviously, the punctutaion and errors may have been faithfully reproduced, or originated, in Rushlight. There may have been other verses written about this particular escape, but I’ve not come across any others to date (or the March 1943 Belfast edition of the Republican News).

The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail

Oh gather round boys and I’ll tell you the tale

Of the daring escape from the Crumlin Road Jail,

It was the neatest and sweetest thing you ever saw,

When four Irish rebels broke all Prison law.

Oh, the deed was well planned and I’m sure you’d agree

That if you break out of prison you deserve to be free,

Well it seemed like a dream but in fact it was real,

And one of those lads was our own Jimmy Steele,

 

And then was Donnelly and the third was Maguire,

And now that they’re free they’ll set England on fire,

The peelers and Specials all trembled with fear,

When they heard that the fourth lad was Hugh McAteer.

The Police were all standing outside the big gates,

When up drove a car and out stepped Dawson Bates,

He said “This is an awful and terrible disgrace,

To let four Irish rebels break out of this place.”

 

He ordered a search throughout Belfast that day,

And £500 was the price he would pay

If anyone came forward to tell him the tale

Of how four Irish rebels broke out of his Jail.

But no-one came forward, the reward is still there,

The whole British forces went mad in dispair,

They searched every place where they thought they might be,

But the search it was useless … the rebels are free.