Hunger strikes are a familiar weapon in the war against colonial policies and wrongful imprisonment. Although today it is associated primarily with Gandhi or with the IRA, like Bobby Sands, it is an old tactic practiced all over the world and by all genders, such as revolutionaries in Imperial Russia, suffragettes in Britain and the U.S., and men kept in Guantanamo or the U.S.’s concentration camps on the American-Mexican border.
The tactic of voluntarily giving up food until a political demand is won, originated with the Russian Revolutionaries in the 1890s. It is a versatile weapon that requires utmost dedication from the striker while placing all the moral and legal responsibility on the oppressor and highlighting the wretched conditions that enables a striker to go on hunger strike in the first place.
The British, in particular, often made hunger striking worse with their inept attempts to force feed their prisoners (Thomas Ashe is a famous example of someone dying from being force fed) and their inability to prevent martyrdom from being granted to all who went on hunger strike. Additionally, the Irish added their own twist when they ran election campaigns for hunger strikers such as Terence MacMacSwiney and Bobby Sands, ensuring their names would remain in the news until the election cycle was over (both men would win their seats, but die in prison).
The ultimate power of hunger striking is that it asks the revolting and uncomfortable question: can this government be just if it allows its prisoners to die in a slow and excruciating manner, often for nothing more than a matter of principle or legal technicality. For example, the IRA went on hunger strike because they wanted to be imprisoned as political prisoners, not as criminals. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher would refuse their demand and watch ten men die, basically, because she didn’t want them to wear civilian clothing and have freedom of association while in prison.
Since this month is Women’s History Month, I want to spend some time on the many women who went on hunger strike throughout Ireland’s long fight for independence.
1912-Suffragette’s Fight for the Right to Vote
Hunger striking in Ireland started in 1912 with the suffragette’s fight for the right to vote. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and seven other women broke fifty window panes in Dublin governmental buildings to protest John Redmond’s refusal to include women’s suffragette in the third Home Rule bill. They were arrested, sent to Mountjoy Prison, requesting to be treated as political prisoners, instead of criminal prisoners. Instead, the British granted women differential treatment for women, sidestepping acknowledging ‘political crimes’.
While Hanna was in jail, other suffragettes protested Asquith’s visit to Dublin by throwing a hatchet at his car and setting fire to curtains in a theater Asquith was supposed to speak at. The three women were arrested and in total six women went on strike: Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh, Jennie Baines, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (who would go on hunger strike again in 1918), Marguerite Palmer, and Margaret Murphy. The Irish women weren’t force fed but the British women were forcibly fed until they were released due to fragile health. From 1912-1914 the British officials avoided force feedings, often giving into Irish demands as the practice of hunger strikes traveled north into Ulster, including many women. The suffragists claimed hunger strikes as feminine tactic, challenging men to meet their dedication. Many would.
1921-Irish Civil War
During the Irish Civil War, many people would go on hunger strike, especially women such as Kathleen Clarke, Mary and Annie MacSwiney, Eithne Coyle, Nellie Ryan (who was the Minister of Defense, Richard Mulcahy’s sister-in-law), Grace Plunkett, Maud Gonne (and her son Sean MacBride-child of John MacBride who was executed in 1916).
Mary MacSwiney may have been one of the most famous women to go on hunger strike, given that her brother was Terence Sweeny-an IRA man who died from hunger striking during the Anglo-Irish War. Mary was a powerful feminine force in nationalist circles. She participated in Easter Rising, spent time in jail, and after her brother died, she was elected as a Sinn Fein candidate for Cork Borough. She then went on tour of the U.S. to talk about her brother’s death and the Irish cause. During the civil war, she was a severe anti-treatyite and was arrested twice, once at Nell Ryan’s house (a safe house for the anti-treaty side) and again while she was driving to Liam Lynch’s funeral. Both times, she went on hunger strike (once for twenty-three days and the second time for thirty-four days), and both times, the Cosgrave administration released, afraid that she would die while in jail. The Catholic Church refused to give MacSwiney the sacrament and wrote that hunger striking was a sinful attempt at suicide (which she found insulting). She remained anti-treaty after each release and may have been behind the Sinn Fein flyer: “Why doesn’t Mulcahy get the Bishops to burn us at the Stake as they did Joan of Arc? It would save him trouble and salve his conscience.”
After the civil war, Mary MacSwiney win during the 1923 election, but refused to sit in the Dail. When DeValera created his own party, MacSwiney remained loyal to Sinn Fein and supportive of the IRA. She would be one of the seven members of the Second Dail who transferred their powers to the IRA, making the IRA the only ‘legitimate’ government over Ireland. She would die in 1942 from a heart attack.
Eithne Coyle was a prominent member of Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League and gained a reputation of being more of an IRA officer than a Cumann na mBan organizer. She began her nationalist career by providing the County Roscommon IRA with sketches of local police stations. She would spend most of her time during the Anglo-Irish War, in and out of jail.
During the Irish Civil War, she was vehemently anti-treaty and helped reorganize and recruit in County Donegal, Londonderry, and Tyrone. When she was arrested by the Free State in 1922, she became the first member of Cumann na mBan to go on hunger strike. It stopped when she was moved to Mountjoy Prison and reunited with other members of Cumann na mBan. Soon, though, the prison became crowded and they protested against the horrible conditions, that protest that turned into another hunger strike. She would be transferred again to North Dublin Union, which she would escape from on May 7th, 1923, only to be recaptured the next day.
Frances Brady spent most of the Anglo-Irish War running errands for Michael Collins before returning to Belfast to bring the work of the Cumann na mBan to that city. In 1920, she would return to Dublin and assist with the Belfast Boycotts (boycotting any union that expelled Catholic workers). Frances would be arrested in her sister’s house in Dublin on June 3rd. She would be sent to Mountjoy. From November 1st to 9th, Frances, Eileen McGrane, Kate Crowley, Madge Cotter, and Lily Cotter went on hunger strike. The Cumann na mBan leadership told the women to call off the hunger strike and they were released a few days later.
Annie ‘Nan’ Hogan was a member of Cumann na mBan who went on hunger strike. She is also the only woman to have died from hunger striking. During the Anglo-Irish War, she organized safe houses and was leader of the East Clare Brigade of Cumann na mBan. In late 1922, Annie Hogan took part in a prison escape attempt. A handful of anti-treaty prisoners were attempting to break out of Limerick prison. The plot was betrayed and Annie was arrested along with a handful of other conspirators. She was sent to Kilmainham jail and went on hunger strike to protest the poor prison conditions and to be recognized as a political prisoner, not a criminal. The Free State refused to budge and the hunger strike was called off. Annie was released, but would die a few months later and her family said she died because of the hunger strike and poor prison conditions.
1970s and 80s Hunger Strikes
The best and worst of hunger strikes are personified in Bobby Sands, however, he wasn’t the only IRA member to go on hunger strike in the 70s and 80s.
The most famous women in the Provisional IRA to go on hunger strike may be Dolours and Marion Price. The Price sisters join the IRA in the early 1970s, taking part in policing their own IRA members and several bombings, such as the car bombing of the Old Bailey. At one point, they were considered to be the most famous members of the Provos. The Price sisters, along with their co-conspirators, would be arrested on the day of the Old Bailey bombing and the Price sisters would be sentenced to 20 years in prison. Dolours immediately went on hunger strike, followed by her sister Marion, in support of the IRA men who were also on hunger strike. The strike would last for 208 days because the British kept the sisters alive via torturous force-feeding. Dolours would be released in 1981 on humanitarian grounds, Marion shortly after. Dolours would grow disillusions with the IRA, especially after the Good Friday agreement and spent the rest of her life vilifying Gerry Adams for his betrayal and struggling with her own personal demons.
While focus on the 1981 Armagh Hunger Strike has traditionally been on Bobby Sands, three women also went on hunger strike one year prior: Mary Doyle, Mairead Farrell, and Mairead Nugent. In total, ten men would die during the strike, and although the women survived, their ordeal was just as harrowing. Mary Doyle would first be arrested in 1974, at the age of eighteen, released only after her mother had been murdered by the UVF. She would be in and out of jail again throughout the 70s, experiencing harassment, strip searches, and forced isolation. Soon, the treatment grew worse, they were denied the right to use the bathroom for long stretches at a time and received little food. Mairead Farrell took it upon herself to speak with the warden. She demanded the harassment to stop, they be allowed out of their prison cells, and for the right to use the bathroom. The women started with a no-wash protest that which morphed into a hunger strike. It ended after an agreement with Britain was seemly reached-one the IRA thought the British reneged on. Then Bobby Sands went on his hunger strike, leading to the death of himself and nine other men. Mary would be released in 1983 and returned to IRA activities.
Grant, Kevin Last Weapons: Hunger Strikes and Fasts in the British Empire, 1890-1948 2019, University of California Press, CA
Keefe, Patrick Radden Say Nothing: a True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, 2019, Doubleday, New York, NY