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Michael O'Reilly and the longest hunger strike

Updated: Feb 23

The Limerick man was one of nine who survived 94 days on hunger strike in 1920 as the world's press watched.

Ballylanders, Limerick, old church, pipe band
Ballylanders, Co. Limerick, in the 1950s. Owner unknown.

"If Ireland were to win freedom by helping directly or indirectly to crush another people she would earn the execration she has herself poured out on tyranny for ages. I have come to see it is possible for Ireland to win her independence by base methods.
It is imperative, therefore, that we should declare ourselves and know where we stand. And I stand by this principle: no physical victory can compensate for spiritual surrender. Whatever side denies that is not my side."

Terence MacSwiney – Principles of Freedom

“Would you do it again, Mr. Upton?” our reporter asked.
“Yes, but the cause would have to be good,” he replied.

Cork Examiner, 18 November 1963.

Michael O’Reilly

Michael O'Reilly was born in 1899 in Ballyfaskin (or Ballyfauskeen) outside Ballylanders, Co. Limerick, a son of Michael O'Reilly and his wife Johanna (née O'Dwyer). [1] Michael senior died in 1907 aged 44 of a sudden illness, leaving Johanna to support several children, including a newborn, Denis. She worked as a labourer and lived close to her brother Denis and his large family. In 1920 Michael junior worked for Christopher Upton as a temporary labourer, according to British military records. [2] He was also a member of the local company of the Irish Volunteers or IRA. In April and May 1920 he was involved in supporting operations for the attacks on RIC barracks at Ballylanders and Kilmallock, both signature victories for the East Limerick Brigade.

In early 1919, the Soloheadbeg ambush occurred. This marked a campaign against British armed forces including the Royal Irish Constabulary, by the Irish Republican Army. In 1920, many key barracks were seized, making it impossible for the RIC to operate as normal. The attacks on the barracks at Ballylanders (27 April 1920) and Kilmallock (28 May 1920) were key strategic and psychological victories for the East Limerick Brigade. In response, a new form of warfare known as counter-insurgency was implemented by the British. A later, euphemistic, description of this form of warfare was “winning hearts and minds". Counter-insurgency much of its early development to Britain's psychological operations in Ireland. In January 1920 the Royal Irish Constabulary was supplemented by new recruits from England, known as the Black and Tans. This group burned out creameries and other economic targets, looted houses and murdered civilians as well as IRA volunteers.

In early 1920, Michael Collins, Director of Irish army Intelligence, started a campaign of assassination of British intelligence agents. In July 1920 a force called the Auxiliaries was attached to the Royal Irish Constabulary. They engaged in assassination of Irish political figures. In March 1920, Cork's Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain was killed by the RIC and in March 1921, the Auxiliaries killed Limerick's Lord Mayor George Clancy and former Mayor Michael O'Callaghan on the same night. Correspondingly, the IRA regarded the rank-and-file members of the RIC as fair game for assassination.

In July 1920, the IRA's East Limerick Brigade flying column carried out an ambush at Ballynahinch outside Knocklong, and on the 16th, RIC and military from the Bruff district came to Ballylanders to arrest those they believed responsible. Gunfire was exchanged, and Michael O'Reilly, Peter and Jack Crowley, Christopher Upton, Tom Crawford and Jerry O'Callaghan were captured and brought to Tipperary and then to Limerick prison, where they were kept for a time before they were transferred to Cork County Gaol. The RIC District Inspector at Bruff recommended that the Crowleys' father, in whose house ammunition was found, and who had been the secretary of the local IRB branch, should be prosecuted, but the military declined due to his age and poor state of health. After his arrest, his house was burned out by Black and Tans.

Cork County Gaol was demolished in the middle of the 20th century and now forms the modern campus of University College, Cork. The gates and outer walls of the prison are still present at the Western Road entrance. It was at this prison that the hunger strike started in August of 1920. In early Irish law, troscud, consisting of a fast outside the defendant’s house from dawn to dusk, was a necessary first step when seeking justice against those with greater social power. It was a moral and public stance to induce the defendant to settle the grievance. Tom Pratt and James Vernon identify the modern hunger strike as originating in Tsarist Russia. It was then used by suffragists in Britain in 1909 and in Ireland in 1912, as a protest by Gandhi against the colour bar in South Africa in 1913, by Sikh migrants to Canada in 1914 and by conscientious objectors in Britain and Irish nationalists from 1916. [3] In 1917 Thomas Ashe died in Mountjoy prison following force feeding while on hunger strike. In 1918, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, H.E. Duke, announced the new official policy: force feeding would not be employed, but no intervention would be made, and that anyone who died on hunger strike would be regarded as having committed suicide. After this, hunger strikes were used as weapons against the practice of holding men for extended periods without charge or trial.

Cork prison, University College Cork, Western Road
Though Cork prison no longer exists, its outer walls can now be seen at one of the entrances to UCC at Gaol Walk, off Western Road, Cork.

The start

The Cork prisoners were led by Michael Fitzgerald, O/C of the First Battalion, Cork Number 2 Brigade and an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. He was held without trial for a year for his role in an ambush on British soldiers in which one was killed. Fitzgerald and two others signed a demand for unconditional release and issued an ultimatum, which was ignored. Sixty-five prisoners started a hunger strike on 11 August, and prison authorities were given orders to quickly transfer many into English prisons to try to break up the strike. At first glance, the event in Cork prison did not seem too significant. However, events were occurring which would stiffen the resolve of the prisoners. Two days before the start of the hunger strike, the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act was given royal assent. This enabled trial by court martial of civilians for anything deemed a military offence. Combatants were not recognised as such, except in the harshness of sentencing, which included execution by firing squad. Coroner's inquests were abolished and substituted with military inquiries. This was probably because RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy was identified as Tomás MacCurtain's killer by witnesses at a coroner’s inquest. Swanzy was shot dead by agents of Michael Collins in Lisburn, Co. Antrim on 22 August 1920.

One of those seeking the status of a political prisoner was Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork. His election came after the execution of the previous mayor, his friend Tomás MacCurtain, by the RIC.

Terence MacSwiney was arrested on August 12 under ROIR for being in possession of a cipher key and a copy of his own speech, and swiftly court martialled at Victoria Barracks and sentenced to two years in an English prison. He told the court that he was refusing food and would be "free, alive or dead, within a month." The hunger strike was about to become, not the dramatic but short-lived manoeuvre familiar now to many political movements, but a deadly battle of wills, and a political statement of very public resistance to British militarism and to British rule.

MacSwiney was sent to Brixton prison but remained on hunger strike. The court martial of the Ballylanders men was scheduled for 18 August, but postponed when it was apparent the men could not appear. The British military claimed that they had always intended to try the men quickly, which is supported by the court martial files. By the end of the month, a core group of eleven hunger strikers remained in Cork. These included Seán Hennessy, imprisoned on suspicion of holding up an disarming a party of soldiers; Michael Burke, Vice/OC of the 7th Battalion, 3rd Tipperary Brigade [4] who was suspected of participating in a raid in Folkstown, Thurles; John Power of Cashel, arrested at Rosegreen on suspicion of being a republican soldier; Joseph Murphy of Cork city, arrested for having ammunition in his possession, and Joseph Kenny of Grenagh, outside Mallow, Co. Cork, one of whose seven children was born in September 1920. Both Upton and MacSwiney also had young children.

Cork, Western Road, UCC, historic, tram, postcard
Western Road, Cork, the location of Cork prison. Image courtesy of Cllr Kieran McCarthy,

The eleven were eventually moved the short distance to Bon Secours hospital, and there the nuns worked hard to keep their strength up, bathing them in olive oil daily. [5] All prisoners drank water and it was reported that MacSwiney agreed to take medication. In September, the British government sent two doctors to Cork to observe the situation. Dr. Battiscomb reported later that neither he nor Dr. Pearson had intervened or given any medical advice, but they reported privately that the cases of Murphy, Fitzgerald and Hennessy were the most critical. In O'Reilly's case, they noted a low pulse, "soft mitral bruit" (a murmur) and "sweats of severe precordial pain" (chest pain). The file also contained documentation regarding a reported threat to the life of the doctors by the Cork IRA No. 1 Brigade. [6] For the medical profession, it was a novel situation beyond the political considerations of the day: no hunger strike had yet been brought to this point, and it was not known beyond a guess how long a human being could survive with no sustenance except water, nor the long-term effects if the patient survived.

prison, hunger strike, mountjoy, macswiney, gonne macbride
Annie MacSwiney on hunger strike outside Mountjoy Prison in solidarity with her sister Mary's hunger strike within the prison walls in Novermber 1922. With her are Maud Gonne MacBride and other members of the Women's Prisoners' Defence League.

Media spotlight on Cork and Brixton

Primed by a very active Department of Propaganda in Dáil Éireann, the presence of Dáil diplomats in Germany, Spain, France, Italy, England and South America and Dáil President Éamon de Valera in the United States, the world media began to follow the events, giving almost daily updates. The British authorities were under huge pressure to release the men, and the Home Secretary, Edward Shortt, noted that almost the entire British press, and moderate unionist opinion in Ireland, were in favour of this. In August, the British administration in Ireland established a Public Information Bureau in an attempt to sway public opinion against the hunger strikers. [7] On 6 September, the Washington Times reported that British authorities had placed a ban on prison officials reporting on MacSwiney's condition. Rumours were put about among the press that the men were being fed secretly; this was denied by the doctors supervising the fast and by the nuns at Bon Secours. On 3 September, the day before the Irish Independent reported all the prisoners to be close to death, British Home Office files show physicians being consulted on the advisability of MacSwiney being administered glucose or dextrose and brandy as a means of keeping him alive. This would have been given to him by one of the doctors and presumably against his will. One of the doctors rejected it as an experiment and likely to cause harm. The British prime minister and Irish office were kept updated about MacSwiney's condition. [8]


Under the gaze of the world media, the men's ordeal went on for much longer than anyone had expected. MacSwiney told a family member that he was "dying by inches." On October 16, Michael Fitzgerald's condition was reported by the Freeman's Journal as extremely grave. Joseph Kenny, who was only semi-conscious, was also causing alarm by his weak circulation. Finally, on 17 October 1920, after 67 days on hunger strike, Michael Fitzgerald died aged 38. On 19 October Terence MacSwiney became unconscious. MacSwiney, who was 41, died on the 25th of October. Joseph Murphy, who was 25, died later that day. At MacSwiney's English inquest, the military pushed for a verdict of suicide. Under English prison law, it would allow them to retain the body for burial and prevent a public funeral. However, the jury's finding simply reflected the medical evidence and added no further comment or conclusion.

Dáil Éireann announced a day of mourning for 29 October. Businesses closed and requiem masses were held. MacSwiney and Murphy were buried in St Finbar's Cemetery in Cork, and Fitzgerald in Kilcrumper Cemetery in Fermoy. On November 12, Acting Dáil President Arthur Griffith appealed to the remaining men to end their strike, and they finally agreed to take some sustenance. Christopher Upton later said that the nine survived due to the expert medical care given to them and due to "our determination to go through with it." Dr Battiscomb observed in December 1920: "had it not been for the treatment they received at the hands of the nuns all of them would be dead." (Cork Examiner, 31 December 1920.)

Medical attention

Drs. Battiscomb and Pearson oversaw the care of the men until late December, when they returned to England. The men’s craving for food returned, and care had to be taken to prevent them from overeating. They were given small, easy-to-digest, nutritious meals. Christopher Upton was not able to assimilate food as well as some of the others. Care was also taken in the case of Michael O'Reilly, but no adverse effects had been noticed. Michael Burke had a gastric ulcer before the hunger strike and due to continuing stomach issues was kept on a milk diet for some time. Though it was noted by doctors during September that Seán Hennessy was in delicate health at the outset and had a history of tuberculosis, he was said to have been making steady improvement. According to his grandson, he had to be spoon fed for months. [9] Joseph Kenny, who was in his early forties, was taking longer to recover. The men were unable to stand for some months. Dr Battiscomb, who had continued in Cork even when he believed himself to be under threat from the local IRA, gave fulsome praise to Cork's prison governor, Joseph King, who he said treated the prisoners and their relatives with the utmost humanity. Medical opinion about the future health of the nine men varied. Dr Battiscomb, while acknowledging that there were no precedents from which to draw experience, thought they might regain their previous condition in a year. However, just after the hunger strikes were over, a reporter was informed that, while seven of the men could be restored to a tolerable state of health, they would always carry traces of their ordeal, and two would likely remain invalids (The Guardian, 13 November 1920).

UCC, University College, Cork, postcard, Western Road, College Road, campus, Cork prison.
Queen's College, Cork, now University College, Cork. This was adjacent to Cork prison and Bon Secours hospital. Image courtesy of Cllr Kieran McCarthy,

In March 1921, Michael O’Reilly was part of an unsuccessful attempt to escape from Cork County Gaol. He was tried by British army court martial at Victoria Barracks in Cork on 2 June 1921. He, John Crowley and Peter Crowley were found guilty of firing at police at Ballylanders and sentenced to 2 years hard labour on Spike Island, one of two strategic points off the coast of Cork on which military encampments and prisons were located. Christopher Upton was found not guilty and released. In November, they were transferred back to Cork prison, and on January 12th 1922, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, they, and Seán Hennessy, were released on the orders of the Lord Lieutenant. By the time the Irish civil war broke out on 28 June 1922, Michael O’Reilly was able to fight on the anti-treaty side. He commanded the Anglesborough (‘C’) Company, 6th Battalion of the East Limerick Brigade and became O/C of the 6th Battalion in 1923. [10]

The prison at Spike Island, now preserved as a heritage site. Image by Caroline McGrath.

The prediction that the men would have long-standing health complaints was sadly accurate. Seán Hennessy died suddenly on 11 March 1947 at the age of 46, and Michael Burke died in a nursing home in Clonmel in 1953, aged 55. [11] Joseph Kenny died the following year aged 77. While Kenny did get an award under the Military Service Pension Acts, his claim for injury compensation under the Army Pensions Acts was denied. [12]

Michael O'Reilly had several operations, including one in which half his stomach was removed, and he had a restricted diet for the rest of his life. He married Mary (Bridie) Dalton, a nurse at Fermoy Military hospital, now known as St Patrick's. They lived at Bank Place in Mitchelstown. A daughter of his first cousin, who was a young girl when he came to visit her home, recalls that he kept greyhounds to race. [13][14] In 1963 (November 18), Christopher Upton told the Cork Examiner that he and O'Reilly were now the only survivors of the hunger strike - Peter Crowley having died some months earlier - but that O'Reilly had been in "indifferent health" for some time. Asked if he would do it again, Upton replied, "I would, but the cause would have to be good."

The Irish Press reported Michael O'Reilly's death on 16 February 1965. It was subsequently reported in the Cork Examiner and Evening Echo.

Michael O'Reilly died on 25 January 1965 and was buried in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, a few miles from his old home in Ballyfaskin, Co. Limerick. Florence O'Donoghue made a note of the event in his papers. [15] O'Reilly's was the last funeral at which the traditional firing party given to War of Independence veterans would be composed of Old IRA comrades: due to their increasing years and the possibility of accidents it was no longer considered advisable. [16] From then until the death of the last veteran in 2006, the national Defence Forces provided firing parties. Michael's widow Bridie died shortly before Christmas in 1968. In 1977 (September 5) the Cork Examiner reported that Patrick O'Reilly had visited his youngest brother, Denis, in his home in Garryspillane, Knocklong, the paper observing that the event recalled memories of the hunger strike. The last of the nine survivors, Christopher Upton, died in July 1973 at the age of 82, his wife having predeceased him in 1948. His oration was given by Tomás Malone, alias Sean Forde, who had been an organiser sent by GHQ to Munster in (1920) and took a leading part in the attack on Ballylanders Barracks.

belfast murals, hunger strike, h block, bobby sands
Mural depicting the ten hunger strikers who died in 1981. Image by Hajotthu at Wikipedia Deutschland under GNU licence (

Seven short years after Upton's death, the trauma of a protracted hunger strike re-emerged, this time in the H-Blocks of Belfast. Ten men, including Bobby Sands M.P., died, and Sands's funeral was attended by 100,000 people. As a propaganda event, the hunger strike of 1920 was no less momentous. MacSwiney's writings, a collection of articles published in Irish Freedom in 1911-12, were published posthumously in book form by the Talbot Press in 1921. In India, the book was translated into several languages. Public figures in India such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were among those influenced by him though Gandhi disagreed with his strategy. Máire Ní Bhriain, Dáil Éireann's representative in Spain, described meetings held in support of MacSwiney in Barcelona, and later on, masses in memory of Kevin Barry. Robert Brennan, visiting Europe in the summer of 1921 was able to report: "Everywhere I went on the Continent I had evidence that we had broken through the paper wall with which England had surrounded us." The British response was characteristic. In December 1920, the centre of Cork city was burnt out by Black and Tans. Also in December, an act was brought into effect to partition Ireland on a sectarian basis. When Dáil President, Éamon de Valera, returned to Ireland in December 1920 from a lengthy publicity and fundraising tour of the United States, the political landscape in Ireland bore a changed character.

An exhibition about Cork's Lord Mayors Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney is now open at Cork Public Museum, and Clare Cronin and Conor Kenny have written a book about the nine survivors which will be released soon.

Thanks to Michael Hennessy, Violet Upton (Ahmed), Clare Cronin, Gillian Howley, and Deirdre Dempsey.

The writer, Claire Guerin, is a relative of Michael O'Reilly.

[1] Newspapers and other sources give his date of birth as 1897, but the Civil Register for the Mitchelstown district gives it as 7 October 1899 and the 1911 census lists his age as 12. His court martial record in 1921 lists his birth date as 1899 (British War Office records, WO 35/143). Michael O'Reilly is referred to in records variously as Reilly and O'Reilly, as are his parents. There were ten children were born to Michael and Johanna O'Reilly, with the youngest, Denis, born in 1907. Mary emigrated to the United States in 1911 and joined her sister, Kate. Interestingly, the 1901 census lists Michael and Johanna’s oldest daughter Johanna’s birthplace as “America”.

[2] Court martial records of Michael O'Reilly, Peter and Jack Crowley, Christopher Upton, Tom Crawford and Jerry O'Callaghan, WO 35/112/1, National Archives UK, Kew. Obtained via

[3] Pratt, T., & Vernon, J. (2005). “Appeal from this fiery bed …”: The Colonial Politics of Gandhi’s Fasts and Their Metropolitan Reception. Journal of British Studies, 44(1), 92-114. doi:10.1086/424944

[4] Military Service Pension records of Brigid Condon, MSP34REF28126, Military Service Pensions Collection (1916 - 1923),

[5] From a comment by Clare Cronin, a granddaughter of Joseph Kenny, at

[6] Evening Echo, 19 Nov 1963; IRELAND: Prison Medical Officers loaned for attendance on hunger-strikers in Cork Prison, HO 144/1633/408763, National Archives UK, Kew. Obtained via

[7] Murphy, William (2013) Dying, death and hunger strike: Cork and Brixton, 1920. In: Kelly, James and Lyons, Mary Ann, (eds.) Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe: Historical Perspectives. Irish Academic Press, Dublin, p.302, p. 304 Available online:

[8] File on Terence MacSwiney, 24 August 1920, HO 144/10308/313913/39 a, National Archives, UK, Kew. Obtained via

[10] Military Service Pension records of Annie G Riordan MSP34REF50337, Military Service Pensions Collection (1916 - 1923),]

[12] For comparison, Maurice Crowe of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade was awarded a wound pension of £180 per annum for rheumatism and neurasthenia due to hardships during active service, hunger strikes and imprisonment. Military Service Pension records of Maurice Crowe, MSP34REF2313, Military Service Pensions Collection (1916 - 1923),

[13] This was her name according to a member of the O'Reilly family on an ancestry website. The Ballylanders War of Independence Commemoration booklet (Ballylanders Commemoration Committee, 2020) gives Bridie's surname as Elder, but this may have been her name from a first marriage (her obituary in The Nationalist, 11 January 1969, lists children and grandchildren by the name of Elder).

[14] From a conversation with Margaret Guerin. Her mother, Bridget O'Dwyer from Ballyfaskin, was Michael O'Reilly's first cousin.

[15] National Library of Ireland, MS 31,281/4 O'Donoghue was head of intelligence in the Cork No. 1 Brigade and a historian who wrote No Other Law, a biography of Liam Lynch. Lynch was buried in the Republican Plot in Kilcrumper with Michael Fitzgerald by his own request. O'Donoghue persuaded Éamon de Valera to establish the Bureau of Military History, which recorded statements by veterans from the independence period. He also recorded objections to the demolition of Joseph Murphy's house later that year. (Cork Examiner, 25 November 1965, MS 31,281/5) O'Donoghue's papers also contain a letter from Fintan F. Faulker of the Irish Press regarding a manuscript about the Cork hunger strikers, but this appears to be lost. MS 31,281/7

[16] Ballylanders War of Independence Commemoration booklet

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