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The 1923 Mountjoy Prison Hunger Strike

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)


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The Kilmeena Ambush

The Kilmeena ambush takes place at Kilmeena, County Mayo, on May 19, 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. The ambush ends in defeat for the local West Mayo Irish Republican Army (IRA), with six IRA volunteers killed and seven wounded. Two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and one Black and Tan are also killed in the action.

The IRA in west Mayo is relatively quiet until January 1921, when Michael Kilroy, described as “a puritanical and ascetic blacksmith” takes over command of the Brigade after Thomas Derrig is arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Kilroy forms a relatively large “flying column” of 40 to 50 men to carry out attacks on Crown forces in the area. On May 6 they suffer a reverse at Islandeady, when a police patrol comes upon the IRA men cutting a road. Three volunteers are killed and two captured.

On May 18, 1921, the IRA decides to attack an RIC/Black and Tan convoy at Kilmeena. Two small-unit attacks are made on the RIC barracks in Newport and Westport to try to draw the police out of their well-defended barracks. One RIC man dies in these attacks.

At 3:00 AM the next day, May 19, the column of 41 IRA men take up position close to Knocknabola Bridge. The British convoy, traveling from Newport to Westport, consists of two Crossley lorries and one Ford touring car and a total of about thirty men. The convoy does not arrive until 3:00 PM and its arrival sparks a two-hour fire-fight. In the battle, one RIC man is wounded and later dies. The British regroup around the house of the parish priest, Father Conroy, and launch a counterattack.

Four IRA volunteers are killed. They are Seamus Mc Evilly, Thomas O’Donnell, Patrick Staunton and Sean Collins. Paddy Jordan of the Castlebar battalion is injured and dies later at Bricens Hospital in Dublin. Seven more IRA men are wounded.

The remainder of the column, carrying their wounded, flee over the mountains to Skerdagh, where they have safe houses. However, the police track them there and, in another exchange of fire, another IRA man is killed, Jim Brown from Newport, along with one RIC Constable and a Black and Tan.

The Black and Tans throw the dead and wounded IRA men onto the street outside the RIC barracks in nearby Westport, causing widespread revulsion among the local people and local police. The Marquis of Sligo, no friend of the republican guerrillas, visits the barracks to complain of their treatment of enemy dead. At the funerals of those killed, in Castlebar, the authorities allow only close family to attend and forbid the draping of the Irish tricolour over the coffins.

The local IRA blames their defeat in the ambush on the failure of an IRA unit from Westport to show up in time.

Kilroy’s column manages to get some revenge for the setback at Kilmeena the following month in an action at Carrowkennedy on June 3, where they kill eight policemen and capture sixteen.