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Michael O'Reilly and the longest hunger strike

The Limerick man was one of nine who survived 94 days on hunger strike in 1920


Terence MacSwiney, Joseph Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald did not survive


The event was chronicled by media worldwide as it was not then known how long a person could survive without food



Ballylanders, Co. Limerick, in the 1950s. Owner unknown.

After the end of World War One, during which Irish nationalists had engaged in an armed rebellion against British rule, the British government continued to apply the Defence of the Realm Act in Ireland and imprisoned over 100 members of Sinn Féin without trial some months before a general election. Lord French, a military officer, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and planned a military campaign against Sinn Féin. In early 1919, the Irish Republican Army started to target the Royal Irish Constabulary in field ambush. In response, a new form of warfare known as counter-insurgency was implemented. "Winning hearts and minds" - a later, euphemistic, description of this form of warfare - owed 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, who burned out creameries and other economic targets, looted houses, randomly shot at and killed civilians and tracked down and killed local IRA men based on the information of local informants. In July 1920 a separate force called the Auxiliaries was recruited which engaged in targeted assassination of 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.


Michael O'Reilly


Michael O'Reilly was born in 1899 in Ballyfaskin (or Ballyfauskeen) outside Ballylanders, Co. Limerick, [2] a son of Michael O'Reilly and his wife Johanna (née O'Dwyer). Michael senior died in 1907 of a sudden illness, leaving Johanna to support several children, including a newborn. [3] She was not completely alone, as her brother Denis and his family lived close by. Michael joined the local company of the Irish Volunteers, and in April and May 1920 was involved in operations surrounding the attacks on the barracks at Ballylanders and Kilmallock, both signature victories for the East Limerick Brigade. According to British military records, he worked for Christopher Upton as a temporary labourer at this time. [4] 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 prison. 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.


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.

Gaol Walk and the outer walls of Cork prison are highlighted, as is Bon Secours hospital, where the hunger strikers received medical care. The hospital was established in 1915 and still operates. The red arrow points in the direction of Cork city, about 2km away.

Much of the modern campus of University College, Cork was built on the site of Cork prison, the gates and outer walls of which are still extant. The rest of the prison was demolished in the middle of the last century, except for the grave site of Volunteers executed in Cork prison during the independence period. It was here that the hunger strike started in August of 1920. 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. Since then, several hunger strikes had occurred in Irish prisons where men were often held for extended periods without charge or trial. At first glance, the event in Cork prison did not seem too significant. However, in the quickly-shifting landscape of revolutionary Ireland, events were occurring which would stiffen the resolve of the prisoners. One of those seeking the status of a political prisoner was Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork. His friend and predecessor, Tomás MacCurtain, was assassinated by the RIC in March 1920, and the sitting Lord Mayor of Limerick, George Clancy and ex-Mayor, Michael O'Callaghan were both killed by the Auxiliaries, on March 7 1921. On 9 August 1920, 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 and substituted military inquiries for coroner's inquests.


Western Road, Cork, the location of Cork prison. Image courtesy of Cllr Kieran McCarthy, http://www.corkheritage.ie.

Hunger Strike


Michael Fitzgerald, O/C of the First Battalion, Cork Number 2 Brigade and an organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, had been held without trial for a year for his role in an ambush on British soldiers in which one had been killed. Fitzgerald and two others signed a demand for unconditional release and issued an ultimatum. Sixty-five prisoners started the strike on 11 August, and prison authorities were given orders to quickly transfer many into English prisons to try to break up the strike. MacSwiney was sent to Brixton prison but remained on hunger strike. The court martial of the Ballylanders men was scheduled for 18 August - the military claiming that they had always intended to try the men quickly, which is supported by the court martial files - but postponed when it was apparent the men could not appear. 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 of Folkstown, Thurles, suspected of participating in a raid in his home town; 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, Co. Cork, one of whose seven children was born in September 1920. Upton (known colloquially as "Christ", according to his granddaughter) and MacSwiney also had young children.


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.


Primed by a very active Department of Propaganda in Dáil Éireann, the presence of Dáil diplomats in Europe, 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, favoured this. In August, the British administration in Ireland established a Public Information Bureau to attempt to sway public opinion. [7] On 6 September, the Washington Times reported that British authorities had placed a ban on prison officials reporting on MacSwiney's condition. 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]


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.

Decline


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." Rumours were put about among the press that the men were secretly fed; this was denied by the doctors supervising the fast and by the nuns at Bon Secours. 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 due to weak circulation. Finally, on 17 October 1920, after 67 days on hunger strike, Michael Fitzgerald died at the age of 38. On 19 October Terence MacSwiney became unconscious. On 25 October, MacSwiney (41) and Joseph Murphy (25) died. At MacSwiney's inquest, the military pushed for a verdict of suicide - not only for immediate purposes of propaganda, but because, under English prison law, it would allow them to retain the body for burial and prevent a public funeral. However, the jury's finding merely reflected the medical evidence. (Dying, death and hunger strike, p.307) 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." (Irish Examiner, 31 December 1920.)



Recovery


Drs. Battiscomb and Pearson oversaw the care of the men until late December, when they returned to England. Food craving returned once the strike was ended, and care had to be taken to prevent the men from overeating, and they were given small, easy to digest and nutritious meals at intervals of about two hours during daytime. 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 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 older than the other men, was taking longer to recover. None of the men were able to stand at that point. 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.


Queen's College, Cork, now University College, Cork. This was adjacent to Cork prison and Bon Secours hospital. Image courtesy of Cllr Kieran McCarthy, http://www.corkheritage.ie.

The men were taken into detention on Spike Island and Bere Island, islands off the coast of Cork on which military encampments and prisons were located, and which Britain retained as outposts until 1938 as a means of retaining its strategic influence in Ireland. They were then tried in batches by British army court martial. At Victoria Barracks in Cork on 2 June 1921, Michael O'Reilly, John Crowley and Peter Crowley were found guilty of firing at police and sentenced to 2 years hard labour on Spike Island. Christopher Upton was found not guilty and released. In November, they were transferred 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.


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

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 doctor told a reporter that while seven of the men could be restored to a tolerable state of health, they would always carry traces of their ordeal; two would likely remain invalids (The Guardian, 13 November 1920). This prediction seemed to be borne out in subsequent years. Seán Hennessy died suddenly on 11 March 1947 at the age of 46. Michael Burke died in a nursing home in Clonmel in 1953, aged 55. [10] 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 relative recalls that he kept greyhounds to race. [11][12] 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 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.

The end and the beginning


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. [13] Due to their increasing years and the possibility of accidents, O'Reilly's was the last funeral at which the firing party which was accorded to War of Independence veterans was composed of Old IRA comrades. [14] From then until the death of the last veteran in 2006, the national Defence Forces provided firing parties. 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. Michael's widow Bridie died shortly before Christmas in 1968. 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 was an organiser sent by GHQ to Munster and took a leading part in the attack on Ballylanders Barracks.


Mural depicting the ten hunger strikers who died in 1981. Image by Hajotthu at Wikipedia Deutschland under GNU licence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:GNU_Free_Documentation_License)

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 series of articles published in Irish Freedom in 1911-12, were published posthumously in book form by the Talbot Press in 1921, and were read widely. In India, where fasting was practiced, particularly in Hinduism, 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. Hồ Chí Minh was quoted as saying "A nation that has such citizens will never surrender." 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, and not a geographic, 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 much different 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] 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

[2] 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.

[3] Records indicate that nine children were born to Michael and Johanna O'Reilly, with the youngest, Denis, born in 1907. The 1911 census indicates that there were six children in the O'Reilly household, but this does not include the eldest, Mary, who, though only 16, may already have emigrated to the United States, as she married in New York in 1916.

[4] 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 findmypast.ie.

[5] From a comment by Clare Cronin, a granddaughter of Joseph Kenny, at https://siulach.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/a-small-puzzle-about-possibly-the-longest-continuous-hunger-strike/

[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 findmypast.ie.

[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: http://doras.dcu.ie/23299/

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

[9] Mike Hennessy, https://siulach.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/a-small-puzzle-about-possibly-the-longest-continuous-hunger-strike/

[10] Comment by Deirdre Dempsey, Michael Burke's daughter, at https://siulach.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/a-small-puzzle-about-possibly-the-longest-continuous-hunger-strike/

[11] 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).

[12] From a conversation with Margaret Guerin. Her mother, Bridget O'Dwyer, Michael O'Reilly's first cousin, married a War of Independence veteran from Tipperary. The Tipperary man had first become friendly with the O'Dwyer family during his involvement with the Ballylanders and Kilmallock barrack attacks.

[13] 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

[14] Ballylanders War of Independence Commemoration booklet


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