By: Marion O’Callaghan
On the October 25, 1920, Terrence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died in Brixton Prison, London. It was the 74th day of his hunger strike. His death followed that of his friend and predecessor Tomàs MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, shot dead in his house before his wife on March 20, 1920.
Both Lord Mayors lie side by side, their high mounds of graves overlooking the Irish Republican enclosure in Cork’s public cemetery. There are no tombstones, only small, unobtrusive plaques. Rather, the graves are marked by the memories of the people of Cork.
Terrence MacSwiney was Ireland’s second hunger striker. The first was Thomas Ashe, the schoolteacher originally from Kerry. Thomas Ashe’s history was part of the history of that Easter week of 1916. The Easter Rising, as it is sometimes called, began that phase of Ireland’s anti-colonial revolution which would end not only in Irish Independence but in our own. Connolly, the Irish Labour leader executed for his part in Easter 1916, would call it “the pin in the giant’s heart”. The giant was Britain’s colonial empire. J J Lee in his Ireland: Politics and Society 1912 to 1985, underlines the importance of the acquisition of arms by Ulster Protestant Unionists in 1914. The threat of a mutiny by Protestant paramilitaries rendered any British “mediation” with the Catholic south unlikely. To obtain arms to balance an armed North, became a major ingredient in the Easter Rising. Conscription in the last years of the 1914-1918 war added to Irish dissatisfaction and consolidated Irish nationalism.
Thomas Ashe had led a successful attack on Ashbourne barracks during that Easter week. The Easter Rising failed. Some of Ireland’s Republican leaders were arrested and executed for treason. Ashe’s sentence was commuted to “penal servitude” for life. He was released under a general armistice then re-arrested for sedition. That first hunger strike ended in five days. Thomas Ashe died from forced feeding.
Cork is Sacked
Terrence MacSwiney’s hunger strike was the result of the increase in British repression after the Easter Rising. On September 10, 1919, one year before Terrence MacSwiney’s hunger strike death, a British Government proclamation suppressed Sinn Fein, the IRA, the Gaelic League and other Nationalist organisations in County Cork. On September 12, the first conquest of the Irish parliament by Republicans was declared illegal. They had refused to meet at Westminster. They met in Dublin, announced the first bail (Irish parliament) and issued a Declaration of Independence. On November 10, Cork was sacked and the shops in its commercial centre looted by British Armed Forces. Winston Churchill, speaking in the British parliament, reported that troops in Ireland numbered 43,000. Commentators estimated that in the first nine months of 1919, approximately 5,588 private houses had been raided by British forces. The worst was yet to come: the retired British soldiers of the 1914 war were recruited to supplement the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Black and Tans, they were called. Of sulphuric memory.
This is the context within which Terrence MacSwiney’s hunger strike took place. No one fooled themselves that this would change the price of British cocoa. It was rather a declaration of Irish Republican courage in the face of failure and the fearful weapon which remained in Irish hands. The debate within Ireland was not about non-violence. It was about the “blood sacrifice” which may be needed if Ireland was to be freed. It was Terrence MacSwiney’s hunger strike and the massive funeral procession in both England and in Ireland which inspired Gandhi. Ghandhi’s weapon however, was not primarily the hunger strike. His non-violence depended on the mass mobilisation there in the Salt March. It also depended on the image of the Hindu holy man, opting out of the normal relationships of property and family. Non-attachment was the other arm of non-violence. The hunger strike was only a punctual tool within this. In using it Gandhi knew that the British could not let him die. If they did, the Quit India campaign would turn into the uncontrollable riots of millions of Indians. Neither mass Indian mobilisation nor hunger strike was successful in the most bloody of conflicts: the civil war which followed partition and independence.
The ambulance waiting on Dr Kublalsingh “in case”, the salt water baths, the weekends “at home”, St Clair’s private hospital beyond the pockets of much of the Trini population, the private on-hand medical care was luxury hunger striking which Ashe and MacSwiney never knew. Neither did Gandhi. Rather, their hunger strike was inserted into a much wider political struggle. Not all hunger strikers were successful. In an independent Ireland, De Valera allowed Kerry hunger strikers to die. Their demands would have imperiled a fragile State. In 1981 in the H block Northern Ireland hunger strike, ten prisoners would die beginning with Bobby Sands. It had nothing to do with non-violence.
formerly Director of Social Science Programmes, UNESCO