Prison hunger strikes became an integral part of protesting in the struggle for Irish independence over the course of a century. Two recently opened collections at Burns Library, both newly processed, include materials that reflect how hunger strikes were used during times of rebellion and struggle in Ireland.
The Loretta Clarke Murray collection of women in revolutionary Ireland documents the critical roles women held during the years of conflict surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising. Women not only fought alongside the men involved in the Rising and subsequent struggles, but, according to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, were also the first to implement hunger strikes as a form of protest in the movement.
On June 13, 1912 Sheehy Skeffington was arrested and imprisoned for smashing windows at Dublin Castle as a protest for women’s rights. She and three other female prisoners went on hunger strike in prison in support of fellow suffragettes. In her memoirs, Sheehy Skeffington wrote, “Hunger-strike was then a new weapon–we were the first to try out in Ireland–had we but known, we were the pioneers in a long line. At first, Sinn Féin and its allies regarded the hunger-strike as a womanish thing…But the public was, at least, not apathetic, and a feeling began to be voiced that there was something unreasonable in refusing women the vote” (Sheehy-Skeffington, Hanna, and Ward, Margaret, Editor, 2017, 77). The suffrage and Irish independence movements were closely interconnected, so it’s no surprise that hunger strikes became a means used by both men and women to fight for political causes throughout the 20th century.
Irish republicans began to see the effectiveness of using this form of protest for their own uses, starting in 1917 with Thomas Ashe, whose death by force-feeding while on hunger strike caused a rise in anti-British sentiment. Hunger strikes began to gain popularity in the following years and garnered much attention and support for the republican movement. Handbills from the Loretta Clarke Murray collection show how popular propaganda leveraged what was happening inside the prisons.
Years after the Irish War of Independence, hunger strikes once again became a major focal point in bringing public attention to political struggles in Ireland, this time on an international scale. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in 1981, ten men died during a hunger strike at the Maze Prison. This included Bobby Sands, a prominent republican who had been elected to British Parliament.
The Raymond G. Helmick, SJ papers reveal the tension involved in trying to negotiate an end to the strike of Long Kesh, later HM Prison Maze. Helmick was a Jesuit priest and former Boston College professor who dedicated his career to conflict resolution around the world. While working for the Centre of Concern for Human Dignity in England, he acted as an informal mediator between the various parties involved in the strike–including the prisoners, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Northern Ireland Office–to seek a compromise. Father Helmick corresponded extensively with various people involved, including Gerry Adams, a leading Irish republican politician, and Humphrey Atkins, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Some British Catholic leaders were called upon by those opposing the strike to denounce the protests as suicide in order to promote the idea of the strikes as immoral. Helmick spoke out against this stance in his article, “Northern Ireland in moral focus,” which ran in the The Tablet, a Catholic journal. Although unsupportive of the violence surrounding the strikes, he reached the conclusion that “there is no dignity…in trying to impugn and discredit the good faith of young men who have gone through such an excruciating death ordeal as these hunger strikers” (Helmick, 1981, 516-518).
Although the hunger strikes were only one part of a bigger conflict, they played a major role in bringing attention to the republican causes over the course of many years in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the opening of these two collections at Burn Library, it is possible to get a glimpse at how the protests became an important part of Irish history.
To see more of the Raymond G. Helmick, S. J. papers and the Loretta Clarke Murray collection of women in revolution Ireland, please contact the Burns Library.
–Stephanie Hall, Archives Assistant, John J. Burns Library
Flynn, Barry. Pawns in the Game : Irish Hunger Strikes 1912-1981. Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2011.
Sheehy-Skeffington, Hanna, and Ward, Margaret, Editor. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington : Suffragette and Sinn Féiner, Her Memoirs and Political Writings. University College Dublin Press, 2017.