On October 13, 1923, following the end of the Irish Civil War, Michael Kilroy, O/C of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners in Mountjoy Prison, announces a mass hunger strike by 300 prisoners. It soon spreads to other jails and within days 7,033 republicans are on hunger strike.
On the same day, the prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol go on hunger strike, and Ernie O’Malley writes eloquently of it in his book on the Civil War, The Singing Flame. He notes that “practically all volunteered; some were exempted, including myself, but I refused this concession.”
Previously, the Irish Free State government had passed a motion outlawing the release of prisoners on hunger strike. Dan Downey had died in the Curragh on June 10, and Joseph Witty, only 19 years old, also died in the Curragh on September 2. However, because of the large numbers of Republicans on strike, at the end of October the Government sends a delegation to Newbridge Camp to speak with IRA leaders there.
It soon becomes apparent that they are not there to negotiate the strikers’ demands, but rather to give the prisoners the Government’s message: “we are not going to force-feed you, but if you die we won’t waste coffins on you; you will be put in orange boxes and you will be buried in unconsecrated ground.”
O’Malley writes, “Any action was good, it seemed, and everyone was more cheerful when the hunger strike began. We listened to the tales of men who had undergone previous strikes and we, who were novices, wondered what it would be like. We laughed and talked, but in the privacy of our cells, some, like myself, must have thought what fools we were, and have doubted our tenacity and strength of will. I looked into the future of hunger and I quailed.”
All negotiations to curtail the strike are abandoned and the strike goes forward. Poorly planned, within weeks many are going off strike, but by the end of October, there are still 5,000 on strike. O’Malley does not know what effect the strike will have, but he feels he cannot ‘let the side down.’ “Hunger striking was an unknown quantity for me. I did not approve of it. I was frankly afraid, but I could not see boys of sixteen and eighteen take their chance whilst I could eat and be excused. Now, even though one thought one’s death could be of use, there was no passive acceptance. It was a challenge, a fight, and again resistance was built up……The mind would suffer more than the body. The struggle in the end would be between body and spirit.”
On November 20, Denis “Denny” Barry dies in the Newbridge Camp, and Andrew Sullivan dies in Mountjoy on November 22.
When Barry dies, the Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, refuses to let his body lie in a Cork church. When Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in 1921, Bishop Cohalan had written in The Cork Examiner, “I ask the favour of a little space to welcome home to the city he laboured for so zealously the hallowed remains of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney. For the moment, it might appear that he has died in defeat. Was Robert Emmet’s death in vain? Did Pearse and the other martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom die in vain? We bow in respect before his heroic sacrifice. We pray the Lord may have mercy on his soul.”
At the death of Denis Barry two years later, the very same Bishop Cohalan writes, “Republicanism in Ireland for the last twelve months has been a wicked and insidious attack on the Church and on the souls of the faithful committed to the Church by the law of the Catholic Church.” Denis Barry is not afforded a Catholic burial.
With the deaths of Barry and Sullivan drawing no positive response or concessions from the Free State government, the IRA command orders the strikes ended on November 23.
O’Malley writes that the strike ended with no promises of release, “we had been defeated again.” While the strike itself fails to win releases, it does begin a slow start of a programme of release of prisoners, the State being worried about the political impact of more deaths, though some prisoners remain in jail until as late as 1932.
O’Malley, writing of Tom Derrig who is in Mountjoy, relates that one of the strikers there, on the last day of the strike, had asked a doctor, “What day of the strike is this?” The doctor replies, “The forty-first.” The striker says, “Be cripes! We bate Christ by a day!”
(From: Stair na hÉireann | History of Ireland, http://www.stairnaheireann.net)