Newspaper Artifact: “Dublin Hunger Strike as Reported by the Observer (London)” 21st October, 1923.
Group: Alex, David, Tyler, and Vikkie.
Significance of Hunger Strikes As a Means of Irish Protest
Fasting as a means to redress grievances and establish one’s rights has been a part of Irish law for thousands of years. Known then as the troscad, this method of protest played a large part in helping the Irish gain independence from the British government. Hunger Strikes are an effective way to bargain with others for various rights, as it shows that protesters would rather die than live in the conditions they have at that moment. Hunger Strikes are also notable for their nonviolence – the striker dies without harming anyone else and this senseless death can cause outrage in the community. Although Hunger Strikes share many similarities to self-immolation (non-violent protesting), self-immolation does not allow the opposing party to redress the grievances, as the self-immolation is usually fatal. Since Hunger Strikes take place over a duration of approximately 2 months, they give the opposing party the chance to change the terms and stop the strike. Hunger Strikes were not uncommon in the early 20th century. In 1904 Yeats dramaticized fasting in “The King’s Threshold”, and in the United Kingdom hundreds of women went on Hunger Strikes to protest the lack of women’s suffrage in 1909. The Irish Hunger Strikes that occurred between 1916 and 1923 took inspiration from these Strikes as a way to protest against the government.
Hunger Strike of 1917
There were two main Hunger Strikes that occurred in the lead-up to Ireland’s partial home-rule. The first influential strike occurred in 1917 and caused the death of Thomas Ashe . Ashe was a member of the Gaelic league as well as a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, and he participated in the Easter Rising of 1916. During a speech he gave in 1917, he was charged with sedition and arrested. He was one of forty prisoners at Mountjoy Prison who went on strike demanding “prisoner of war” status. Ashe was force fed, and it led to his death. Following this, many others were inspired to strike, realizing that the method was a weak spot for British authorities who had no experience dealing with this method of protest.
Hunger Strike of 1920
The second influential Hunger Strike occurred at Mountjoy in 1920 and ultimately led to the death of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork. MacSwiney was part of the Irish National Volunteers and was also a writer supporting Irish independence. He was first arrested in 1917 for wearing a military uniform illegally, but was released one month later after going on a Hunger Strike inspired by Thomas Ashe. In 1920, MacSwiney was made Lord Mayor after Tomas MacCurtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork at the time, was murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary. MacSwiney stated in his inaugural speech, “It is not they who can inflict the most, but they who can suffer the most, who will conquer” (Perlman 309). When he was arrested again during a British raid of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) meeting later that year, he went on his final Hunger Strike to protest his trial in military court that unfortunately ended with his death. As Lord Mayor of Cork, his decision to strike until his death made him a powerful martyr.
Hunger Strike of 1923
Shortly after the Irish Civil War, another Hunger Strike occurred in 1923 in Mountjoy Prison. This strike stemmed from conflicts that continued to arise after England, in July 1921, offered a treaty of partial home-rule to Ireland, known as the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This agreement gave Ireland “Dominion Status” allowing for an Irish Parliament to form which would still be required to take oaths of allegiance to the King. The decision to accept or reject the treaty, was a point of major contention and resulted in a Civil War in Ireland between those supporting the treaty, known as “Free Staters”, and Irish Republicans Army (IRA) members who viewed it as unsatisfactory. Both sides would engage in warfare with each other, resulting in Britain choosing to support Free Staters. Britain imprisoned many Irish Republicans in Mountjoy after their rebellions against the treaty, beginning another round of Hunger Strikes. In October 1923, a group of Republican prisoners went on Hunger Strike at Mountjoy, fighting for unconditional release. Inspiration came from the successful Hunger Strike led by Dan Breen at the time in Limerick prison. Breen was an active volunteer who was part of the Soloheadbeg ambush earlier in 1919 and was arrested by the National Army for fighting against the treaty. He was an influential leader who had also been elected to the Dáil in 1923, so his release after Hunger Striking had a large influence. The Mountjoy Strike lasted for forty-one days but was unsuccessful, with prisoners gradually ceasing Strike. The government did not show any sign of softening despite two deaths, so the prisoners called off the Strike on November 23, 1923.
Interactions between Prisoners, the British Government, and the Public
The Irish public and the prisoners themselves were crucial to the success of both the 1917 and 1920 Hunger Strike movements. Prisoners were the main participants, fasting from within the prison, while members of the public served as vigil-holders and rested outside the prisons to support them. Many of the prisoners participating in the Hunger Strikes were Irish Volunteers or members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who had been locked up under the Defense of the Realm Act for offences that were not entirely criminal. Additionally almost two-thirds of the prisoners on strike had not been convicted and were being held awaiting trial. In the 1920 Hunger Strike, Peadar Clancy, an active Irish volunteer who demonstrated leadership during the Easter Rising of 1916, had decided to lead the 1920 Hunger Strike at Mountjoy in a radical way. He refused to accept any compromise with the authorities. His approach led to the release of all prisoners, both those convicted and unconvicted, which was an accomplishment beyond the original goal of protesting for prisoner of war status. After initially giving in to the earlier 1920s Hunger Strikes, authorities changed their tune and threatened to let hunger strikers in the 1923 Strikes starve. In response, these prisoners briefly changed their forms of protest. Alternate methods included disobedience against prison rules and regulations, escape attempts, mass riots, and “racket” strikes that involved singing and banging objects in order to make noise over extended periods of time. Eventually, prisoners returned to hunger striking and authorities again started to give in. Despite the success of hunger strikes, they were never an easy feat for participants. Very few strikers were voluntary participants, with the main recruiting factor being a social pressure to demonstrate the strength and unity of Irish nationalism. Many were pushed to the brink of death and several ended up losing their lives as a result. While tragic, these individuals served as martyrs for Irish nationalism and were crucial in rallying support from outside the prison walls.
News of the Hunger Strikes did not take long to reach the public. Newspapers reported that members of the Irish Volunteers and the IRA being held as prisoners were on Strike for the principles of Irish nationalism, drawing action from the public to support the efforts of those on Strike. Funeral services for the deceased drew packed crowds and many more Irish nationalists gathered at the gates of prisons to support the Hunger Strikers. As the number of Strikers grew, press coverage rose, bringing more attention to the Irish nationalist cause. Soon high profile organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Trade Union Congress rallied for the cause by calling for general strikes and protests against British authorities. This put British authorities in a difficult situation as they felt the need to enforce the law through imprisonment, but did not want to allow martyrs from the Hunger Strikes to die, which further fuelled the Irish nationalist cause. Authorities eventually tried to demonstrate good will by giving in to the Hunger Strikers and releasing prisoners, but public demonstrations of joy and celebration upon their release resulted in violent reactions by members of the army and police. At a celebration for prisoners released from Mountjoy, members of the army and police fired upon the crowd and killed three men. Though British authorities tried to prevent the creation of martyrs, their actions against the public garnered even more nationalist opposition to British rule in Ireland.
Media Representation of The 1920 and 1923 Hunger Strikes
Newspapers were critical in providing updates regarding the developments of the Strikes, as prisoners were limited in communicating with the public outside of their cells. In both England and in Ireland, the media presentation of the Hunger Strikes and the prisoners kept at Mountjoy differed. This is seen here in two pieces of news circulation: the English newspaper article published in “The Observer” documenting the Hunger Strike of 1923, and this article published in the Irish paper “The Cork Examiner” pictured below discussing the Hunger Strike of 1920. Both strikes involved the arrests of IRA members by the British Government.
In the clipping from a London paper “The Observer”, the reporter refers to the Hunger Strikes as “one of the ugliest problems the government has had to deal with.” Whereas “The Cork Examiner” pictured above, described the strikes as an event of “extraordinary excitement.” The casting of this event in “The Cork Examiner, ” shows the strikes in a positive and hopeful light. The London paper’s description of Hunger Strikes as an “ugly problem,” succinctly illustrates popular English opinion on the matter. Interestingly, the lack of willingness to understand or convey the background of the Hunger Strikes in the English article reads as an intention to remove any sense of their potential legitimacy. The reasons for the strikes are outlined simply as “demands for unconditional release”, while “The Cork Examiner” article adds additional information about the prisoners, including their reasons for unconditional release. In “The Observer” article, phrasing such as “…For some reason”, and referrals to the strikes as a “game”, portrays the strikes as meaningless, confused events. In reality, there were intense underlying feelings of nationalism, dedication, and purpose behind the prisoners’ decisions to strike.
Artifacts such as “The Observer” clipping and “The Cork Examiner” article, while important as historical records documenting the Irish Hunger Strikes in real time, also bring awareness to the heavy presence of perspective and bias in media circulation. Media was used on both sides, English and Irish, to spark popular sentiment and this is very evident in the differences in language and reportage of similar events between both papers.
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