Death of MacSwiney had enormous significance as prisoners hunger strike drew global coverage

The second part of historian Ryle Dwyer’s examination of the events of the War of Independence leading up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Death of MacSwiney had enormous significance as prisoners hunger strike drew global coverage

The second part of historian Ryle Dwyer’s examination of the events of the War of Independence leading up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Two days after archbishop Mannix of Melbourne was essentially dumped at Penzance, Republican prisoners at Cork County Gaol went on hunger strike to protest their jailing without even charge or trial, much less conviction.

In his second article, historian Ryle Dwyer, argues that These hunger strikers, — especially Terence MacSwiney, whose protest won the admiration of some of the more eminent revolutionaries of the 20th century — had more impact, than the belligerent activities of the IRA, in compelling the British government to abandon its support of the terror tactics of the Black and Tans and seek peace with the Irish republicans.

The three Dublin morning newspapers — The Freeman’s Journal, The Irish Times, and Irish Independent, all shied away from any editorial comment on the seizure of Archbishop Mannix off the Cork coast, but The Cork Examiner waded in with a blistering denunciation of the British authorities.

This newspaper wrote: “The Government by its stupid and spiteful conduct has managed to focus the attention of the whole world upon the intrepid Prelate, whose only crimes were that he stood for the freedom of his native land, and gave a lead to the people of his adopted country.

To-day people all over the world, who under ordinary circumstances give little attention to the affairs of Ireland, will inquire what was the cause of all the row created by those personages in Great Britain whose object is to trample on liberty.

"They will ask, and, perhaps, investigate how far his denunciations of the tyranny exercised over Ireland were justified.

“If they go to the trouble of finding out the root cause of the Archbishop’s pronouncements they will be convinced that he was justified in everything he said and did; and the prestige of the Government, which seeks to prevent him from exercising the right of free speech and free criticism of Governmental action, will sink ever lower that it is in the estimation of all liberty-loving people…

“But from the broad national standpoint there are some compensations, for the more the Coalitionexhibits its incompetence, narrowness, and meanness, the sooner will come that day of reckoning, when theelectors of Great Britain, will have to pass judgment upon the men who have brought the prestige of their country so low.”

The British authorities were essentially aligning the Catholic Church with the Irish Republicanism, which handed a distinct advantage to Sinn Féin. Robert Browne, the Bishop of Cloyne, had a pastoral letter read at all masses in Cobh Cathedral that Sunday, in which he vigorously condemned the English government for its treatment of Archbishop Mannix.

“A son and a priest of this diocese,” he complained, “is not allowed to set foot upon his native soil, but is being dealt with as though he were an outlaw and a criminal, because he has been outspoken in his criticism of the English Government in its dealings with Ireland, and because of his plain and fearless exposition of the rights of his native country to freedom.”

The Cork Examiner's stinging editorial on Tuesday, August 10, 1920, after Archbishop Mannix was dumped at Penzcance by British authorities.
The Cork Examiner's stinging editorial on Tuesday, August 10, 1920, after Archbishop Mannix was dumped at Penzcance by British authorities.

The Bishop of Cloyne said that the archbishop was coming to Ireland to meet his 89-year old mother, who had not seen him for seven years. He had no intention of acting as an agitator.

“I was not going there to tell the people my views at all,” Mannix said, “because they have made up their own minds without any reference to me.”

ArchbishopMannix helped to develop a platform that was exploited by both the continued resistance of the IRA and the quiet determination of a group of Republicans who began to hunger strike in Cork Gaol, two days after the archbishop was landed at Penzance.

The hunger strike that began in Cork Gaol onAugust 11, 1920, ultimately had probably more impact on the Irish independence struggle than any of the fighting, because all of the battles and confrontations in this country were little more than skirmishes, in comparison with the military confrontations of the recent world war.

Almost two years earlier, Tomás Ashe became the first person to die in Ireland on hunger strike, but his death was the result of injuriesreceived while he was being forced-fed, just five days into his protest. Ever since, the hunger strike had been a potent weapon against prison authorities.

Hunger strikers

Michael Fitzgerald, a native of Ballyoran, near Fermoy, Co Cork, was arrested on September 8, 1919. Commandant of the 1st Battalion of the Cork No 2 Brigade, he was held in Cork Gaol for more than 11 months when he led 65 men on a hunger strike to protest their illegal detention, without ever being charged, much less tried or convicted, of any crime.

All of the men were avowed Republicans. None would have claimed to have been law-abiding supporters of the British crown.

The eldest of the hunger strikers, at 43, was Joseph Kenny of Grenagh, Co Cork. As a young man he had emigrated to the US, where he met and married Mary O’Connor of Ardrahan, Ardfert, Co Kerry, in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1905. They started a family there, but moved to Grenagh in August 1911, so he could take over the running of the family farm from his ageing parents.

Kenny joined the local Sinn Féin club upon his return, and was promptly appointed club secretary. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in October 1913, he became quartermaster of the local unit. Meetings of both organisations were held in his home. He cycled regularly to Macroom for executive meetings, at which he associated with Terence MacSwiney.

During the winter of 1917-1918, Kenny was involved in training and drilling.

He was elected to Cork Rural District Council, and was attending one of its meetings on the evening of July 9, 1920, when his IRA company attacked two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary near Grenagh, wounding a sergeant.

Kenny arrived home to find the Black and Tans scouring his neighbourhood. His pregnant wife and six children had taken refuge at the local priest’s house. He was apparently being targeted because of his prominence in the local Republican organisations.

The Cork Examiner's main headlines on Tuesday, August 10, 1920, after Archbishop Mannix was dumped at Penzcance by British authorities.
The Cork Examiner's main headlines on Tuesday, August 10, 1920, after Archbishop Mannix was dumped at Penzcance by British authorities.

“I did not stay at home for some nights afterward,” he noted.

However, he was at home on the night of July 15, when the military arrived at about 3am.

During a search of his house, he said, “they planted some rifle ammunition in a haversack, which they found, and charged me with possession of it and took me to Cork Military Barracks”.

“We were taken into the guard room, where for about six hours we listened to probably the worst language that could be uttered by man,” Kenny said.

Boy soldiers were there playing with rifles and we expected every moment would be our last until about ten o’clock, we were told to get into a lorry and were next landed at Cork Gaol.

He actually welcomed his transfer to jail: “It was like Heaven to get there, for we were once more among Christians.”

Untried prisoners were allowed to communicate with one another, and they soon learned that three-quarters of their fellow prisoners had essentially been stitched up.

“One of the raiding party would plant something on the person or house of the intended victim and another would come along and find it,” said Kenny.

“Whilst there, “I have seen boys and men getting imprisonment and hard labour of terms of from six months to five years whom I knew to be quite innocent of what they were charged with. Yet, they took their punishment cheerfully believing they were serving their country.”

After just two days in the gaol, Kenny was examined by a doctor and transferred to the prison hospital, where he went on hunger strike to protest his incarceration.

“I was for five days without tasting food or drink of any kind, but was then persuaded to give it up,” he recalled.

“At the beginning of August, I was sent for exercise with the other political prisoners.”

He met Maurice Crowe, who was arrested following the Soloheadbeg ambush, which is usually considered the start of the War of Independence.

He was quickly released but was arrested again in April 1919 and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour in Cork County Gaol.

Crowe went on hunger strike in Cork Gaol at the end of September 1919, but promptly abandoned it, after being transferred to Mountjoy jail in Dublin.

Archbishop Daniel Mannix was 'dealt with as though he were an outlaw and a criminal'.
Archbishop Daniel Mannix was 'dealt with as though he were an outlaw and a criminal'.

Shortly afterwards, he recalled, “a general smash-up” was organised in which “the prisoners wrecked their cells, tore or burned their bedding, smashed the windows, and so on”.

“We were attacked by the warders with fire-hoses, streams of water being directed at the prisoners, ostensibly to put out the fires of the burning bedding in the cells, but, in fact, to subdue the prisoners by drenching them with water,” Crowe recalled.

They were all put in handcuffs for the next six days, when they began a hunger strike.

“After just four days, “ he wrote, “we were released temporarily, and I was sent to St Vincent’s Hospital with some others.”

He was then freed under the so-called’ Cat and Mouse Act,’ or the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, as it was officially called. It allowed the authorities to release ill people until they were strong enough to continue their prison sentences. Crowe was arrested again on March 8, 1920, to finish his sentence.

On Easter Monday 1920, he and 53 others went on hunger strike at Mountjoy. All of them were released after 10 days. Crowe was arrested again in June and transferred to Cork Gaol, where he suggested the untried prisoners go on hunger strike to protest their incarceration.

They made a formal complaint to the prison governor, warning, that unless they received a satisfactory explanation for their jailing, they “would go on hunger strike at 12 o’clock on Wednesday, August 11”.

“We got no answer and the strike started,” Kenny said.

This was when the 65 men initially went on hunger strike. That morning, however, Kenny got an order from his brigadier not to take part in the protest.

“It was well known that I was not in the best of health at that time and that I had a wife and six children,” said Kenny.

On that Sunday, he was discharged from the hospital, and Crowe gave him permission to join the hunger strike, so he joined three days after the others.

Meanwhile, MacSwiney, the lord mayor of Cork, had been arrested and had joined the protest on August 12, even though he was quickly sentenced to two years in jail, after he was tried and convicted before a court-martial of the illegal possession of a police code.

Terence MacSwiney.
Terence MacSwiney.

“MacSwiney scolded me for disregarding the order of the brigadier, but said, as I started I may as well stick it out now,” Kenny said. “I never saw him afterwards.”

MacSwiney was moved to Brixton Prison, where he continued his hunger strike.

A number of the untried men in Cork Gaol were simply released, and others were transferred to British prisons.

On August 18, at the start of the second week of the hunger strike, 20 of the strikers, including Crowe, were transferred to Winchester prison in England, where they received orders from home to abandon their hunger strike.

MacSwiney received much of the international press attention, largely overshadowing the actions of those in Cork Gaol. By the end of the second week of the strike on August 24, there were just 11 men on hunger strike in Cork.

Three of those were from Co Cork. They were Fitzgerald, Kenny, and Joe Murphy, who was commandant of H Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Cork No 1 Brigade.

Murphy was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in May 1895, but was reared in Cork City from an early age. He was arrested and accused of involvement in an attack on British forces on July 15, 1920.

Five of the 11 hunger strikers were from CoLimerick, with four of those coming from Ballylanders — John Crowley and his18-year-old younger brother, Peter, along with Christopher Upton and Michael O’Reilly.

The other Limerickman was Seán Hennessy, 19, from Limerick City. The remaining three hunger strikers were from Co Tipperary — Thomas Donovan from Emly, 19-year-old John Power, from Cashel; and Michael Burke from Folkestown, near Thurles.

Grave condition

Although the hunger strike had been a popular weapon over the past few years, neither the authorities, nor the men themselves, actually knew what to expect.

Ever since the death of Ashe, the British authorities had tended to capitulate, and the longest strike had only lasted for 24 days.

In the circumstances, the British authorities decided that they had to resist the hunger strike as a tactic. They warned that there would be no concessions to MacSwiney, or to the 11 men on hunger strike in Cork.

By the end of August, there were distressing reports in the press about the condition of the men.

The Cork Examiner reported that Michael Burke was in an alarming condition after just one week. Ten days later there was a further report in the Nenagh Guardian that Burke had been visited by his sister, who found him “completely prostrate”, and only able to “utter a few words” with great effort.

“A crisis seems imminent, and unless the men are released without delay a tragedy must inevitably ensue within the next few days,” the Cork Examiner reported on August 28.

The same report noted that Peter Crowley, 18, the youngest of the hunger strikers, “is in a condition bordering on critical”.

Crowley’s mother visited him. “He is too weak to raise his hands,” she said, “or even open his eyes.”

Seán Hennessy, who was only a year older, was not much better when family members visited him.

“He is now in the last stages of the fight,” his brother told a reporter.

On September 1, the Limerick Leader noted:

The political prisoners in Cork Jail were reported yesterday to be very weak and three or four were stated to be on the point of death. The prisoners were 21 days without food yesterday. Among the weakest was Michael O’Reilly, Ballylanders.

O’Reilly was 23. His sister found him in a very weak condition, and he asked her not to leave him that night, “as he did not expect to live until tomorrow morning”.

‘ALL IN GRAVE CONDITION’, the Cork Examiner headlined its story on September 1.

“It was not expected that those of them who appeared very far gone yesterday would live through the night,” the reporter wrote.

There had been many hunger strikes in the three years since Ashe’s death, but there was obviously still little understanding of the process.

Until the latest hunger strike, the longest one was over in 24 days, so in the first week of September they were heading into uncharted territory, and the press clearly did not know what to expect. This feeling was obviously widespread.

‘MacSwiney’s Death Due at Any Moment’, the New York Tribune headlined its story on August 31, while the headline in the El Paso Herald in Texas the next day was: ‘LORD MAYOR’S DEATH IS DUE AT ANY MINUTE.’

Despite the alarmist reports of imminent death, all of those so described were still less than a third of their way into the hunger strike.

The international press focused mainly on the protest of MacSwiney in Brixton. On August 29, 1920, the lead story in the Italian fascist newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia highlighted the MacSwiney story. This newspaper, edited by the future dictator Benito Mussolini, had already published a number of articles sympathetic to Irish independence.

The plight of the other hunger strikers remained in the forefront of Irish newspaper coverage, especially any specific news about them, such as a reportthat the Ballylanders duo, Michael O’Reilly and Chistopher Upton, had collapsed in Cork Gaol on the night of September 2, 1920.

“If released now, their condition is such that it is questionable whether they could be brought back to health,” the Cork Examiner noted.

Joseph Kenny of Grenagh, whose seventh child was born during the hunger strike, was also reported to be in a very bad condition.

“A friend who was with him this morning stated that all that could now be said of him was that he was still alive,” it was reported.

Seán O’Callaghan, the deputy lord mayor of Cork, spent a couple of hours with the prisoners on the night of September 2, the 23rd day of the hunger strike.

O’Reilly seemed in the worst condition, as he was scarcely able to move or turn, and was convinced that he would not survive the night.

“He is quite certain he is going to die to-night,” O’Callaghan told reporters, but added: “O’Reilly said he was prepared for death and he hoped that the Lord Mayor and the others would be released as the result of it.”

The British Home Office sent two doctors to Cork Gaol to observe the strike. Dr Alan C Pearson arrived at the start of September, and he was followed a few days later by Dr Eric G Battiscombe. They did not seemto know much more than the press about the actual impact of a hunger strike on the body.

When Battiscombe first saw the prisoners on September 8, he reported that “all wish to die and are prepared to die and have asked to be left alone”.

Pearson noted in his diary that day that “the desire for death is strongly marked in all”.

The men had lost their craving for food after the first fortnight, but they did suffer from thirst, so they drank from half a pint to a pint and a half of water each day.

The doctors realised the men had been living on water, and were being looked after by four Bon Secours nuns, who merely treated them from a nursing standpoint, without seeking help or advice of either doctor.

“Had it not been for the treatment they received at the hands of the nuns all of them would be dead,” Battiscombe later told the press.

He also gave great credit to prison governor Joseph King for the sympathetic ways in which he treated the men and facilitated their families, allowing them to stay with the men in the jail overnight.

There was a widespread belief that the deaths of the men were imminent throughout September. As the doctors felt their role was to save lives, Battiscombe quietly recommended the prompt release of the hunger strikers, but his advice was rejected.

Some of the men seemed concerned about the Christian morality of their actions, fearing that it might be considered suicide.

Daniel Cohalan, the bishop of Cork and Ross, who had visited MacSwiney in Brixton Prison on September 2, visited Cork Gaol 10 days later, but refused to speak to the press after his visit, so there were no details, other than the mere mention of the visit in the Cork Examiner.

Another ecclesiastic with strong links to Cork — Robert Spence OP, the archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, — visited Cork Gaol about the same time as Bishop Cohalan. The archbishop was born and reared in Cork City, before joining the Dominicans. After serving as prior of Black Abbey in Kilkenny, he emigrated to Australia in 1898, and was appointed archbishop of Adelaide in 1914.

His visit to the hunger strikers received considerable international attention, because he did not mince his words in speaking out afterwards. He explained: “I went to the several cells of these 11 men. The sight in each was intensely pathetic.”

Young Seán Hennessy was in a particularly poor condition.

Arthur Griffith, Eamonn Duggan, Erskine Childers, Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy, Robert Barton, and John Chartres on December 6, 1921, the day the treaty forming the Irish Free State was signed. Picture: Getty.
Arthur Griffith, Eamonn Duggan, Erskine Childers, Michael Collins, George Gavan Duffy, Robert Barton, and John Chartres on December 6, 1921, the day the treaty forming the Irish Free State was signed. Picture: Getty.

“I put my ear right over his mouth and could not even detect his breathing,” the archbishop said. “I lifted his closed eyelid and there was no sign of life whatever.”

“On opening the Examiner,” next morning, Archbishop Spence told journalists, “I was surprised to see that poor Hennessy was still alive.”

The former high sheriff of Cork, Harold Barry, told the archbishop he had proof of Hennessy’s innocence, but had no chance to produce this in court.

“That young man has never been brought to trial,” the archbishop told the press. “Neither have the others.

“The statement of Mr Lloyd George, the prime minister of England, that these men by going on hunger strike, by their own act, rendered it impossible to bring them to trial, is as audacious as it is untrue.

There was plenty of time, if there were any charge against them, to bring them to trial long before they went on hunger strike. The case of Mr Lloyd George is a tissue of lies.

“The responsible Government which treats men in this way is just as malignant as Oliver Cromwell.”

Those remarks were published on the front pages of The Herald in Melbourne, The Ballarat Star in Victoria, and The Advocate in Burnie, Tasmania.

Worldwide news

The hunger strikers were making huge news around the world — especially across the US, Canada, and Australia.

During September the story of the lord mayor and the Cork hunger strikers made front-page news in more than 500 daily newspapers throughout the US, as well as newspapers across Canada, from the Daily Gleaner in New Brunswick on the east coast to the Vancouver Sun on the west coast.

The story was also making news in other countries.

Le Petit Journal, the Paris daily, which was once reputed to have the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world, selling more than 2m copies a day, devoted its whole front page to an artist’s depiction of MacSwiney’s plight on September 19, 1920.

In addition to Mussolini, some figures who were later recognised as leading international revolutionaries, professed to have been greatly moved by MacSwiney.

They included the Indian revolutionaries Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, along with Nguyen Tat Thanh, a 30-year-old Vietnamese kitchen-hand working in a London hotel.

On later returning to Vietnam, Thanh changed his name to Ho Chi Minh and led his country’s struggle for independence over the next three decades, against Japanese incursions, French imperialism, and eventually against the incursion of the US.

Desmond FitzGerald told the Dáil, as its director of publicity in January 1921, that MacSwiney’s hunger strike received more coverage in the international press than any other Irish story in 1920. Those would have included the events of Bloody Sunday and the burning of Cork City.

Throughout September alarmist reports of the men’s conditions continued. In Montana, the Great Falls Daily Tribune carried an Associated Press report on its front page on September 13 that seven of the hunger strikers in Cork Gaol— Burke, Donovan, Hennessy, Kenny, Murphy Power, and Upton — appeared to be “in a critical condition”.

The Cork Examiner noted three days later that Kenny had seriously deteriorated during the past two days and was in as much danger as Hennessy.

“It was learned this morning,” the report continued, “that one could scarcely know whether these two were breathing.”

Even if Hennessy were released immediately, his friends said there “is very little hope” that he could be nursed back to health.

British prime minister David Lloyd George with two of his negotiating team, Frederick Smith and Winston Churchill. Picture: Getty.
British prime minister David Lloyd George with two of his negotiating team, Frederick Smith and Winston Churchill. Picture: Getty.

One week later, the Cork Examiner noted that the 11 hunger strikers had undergone no further material change. Hennessy, Kenny, Murphy, and Burke were still “in a very weakened state”. The public concern was already apparent.

“Last night,” the report continued, “an immense crowd gathered outside the gaol and joined in the prayers offered for the prisoners. It was a most impressive sight. After singing ‘The Soldiers Song,’ the crowd quietly dispersed.”

“All the prisoners are in a weak condition and it is believed that the end of their struggle is fast approaching,” the Cork Constitutionreported on September 29. “It is truly remarkable that the men have lived so long, and even the doctors are surprised that death has not claimed some victim among the numbers before now.”

As the press had been depicting the men on the brink of death, for the past month, a number of people began to suspect that somebody was somehow providing food for the men. There were various suggestions in relation to MacSwiney.

The lord mayor was obviously as surprised as anyone that he had survived so long. He was convinced at the outset that he would be free, or dead, within a month.

“I never thought it could drag on so long,” he complained to his sister Annie on September 21. “I am just dying by inches.”

In early October, Mick Fitzgerald was among several of the prisoners who vomited “bilious-looking fluid mixed with some dark blood”, and he began to lose his sight.

At 9.45pm on October 17, he became the first hunger striker to die in Ireland, as a direct result of starvation.

The medical orderlies warned that the shock of Fitzgerald’s death would have a deleterious impact on the others, especially Joseph Murphy, whom they described as “just alive”.

However, Murphy lasted eight more gruelling days, before dying on October 25, 14 hours after MacSwiney died in Brixton.

That night, the nine surviving hunger strikers were “all reported to be in a very weak condition,” according to the Cork Constitution. “Three of them, Donovan, Burke, and Kenny are notexpected to survive another day.”

However, the trio continued to hang on for the next two weeks with “no material change in their condition”, according to the Cork Examiner on November 8.

At that point, Arthur Griffith, acting President of the Irish Republic, stepped in and essentially ordered that the strike be called off.

“I am of opinion that our countrymen in Cork Prison have sufficiently proved their devotion and fidelity, and that they should now, as they were prepared to die for Ireland, prepare again to live for her,” said Griffith.

The hunger strike in Cork Gaol was, therefore, ended.

The nine survivors tasted their first food after more than 90 days.

Ho Chi Minh professed to have been greatly moved by MacSwiney. On hearing of his death, the future founder of the Communist Party of Vietnam and president of his country reportedly burst into tears, saying ‘a country with a citizen like this will never surrender’. Picture: Getty.
Ho Chi Minh professed to have been greatly moved by MacSwiney. On hearing of his death, the future founder of the Communist Party of Vietnam and president of his country reportedly burst into tears, saying ‘a country with a citizen like this will never surrender’. Picture: Getty.

Their craving for food returned and became intense, so great, in fact, judgement was necessary to prevent them from over-eating. They were led carefully over several months back into regular meals.

Medics marvelled at the speed of recovery of teenagers Hennessy and Crowley, while Joe Kenny, the eldest hunger striker, made much slower progress back to full health. It took at least a year before all could be said to have returned to their previous condition.

The hunger strike of MacSwiney had more international impact that any other event of the whole struggle.

On hearing of MacSwiney’s death, for instance the future Ho Chi Minh reportedly burst into tears, saying “a country with a citizen like this will never surrender”.

Ultimately, Lloyd George was persuaded by the dire warnings of Jan Smuts, the South Africa premier, that the Irish situation would undermine the developing concept of the British Commonwealth of Nations unless Britain tried to negotiate a settlement with the Irish republicans.

This led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

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