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THE BIGGEST HUNGER STRIKE IN HISTORY

The biggest hunger strike in history
8,000 men and women protest against injustice

In 1922 and 1923 over 14,000 Irish republicans – men, women, boys and girls – were arrested in all parts of the country by the King of England’s Irish tools, without any charge, and were kept in the prisons and internment camps without trial, and under conditions that were unbelievable then and would be unbelievable now.
In the Autumn of 1923 the conditions grew worse and the prisoners in Mountjoy and Kilmainham were being systematically treated as convicts. To end this and to make the only protest in their power against injustice and to draw public attention to the cruelty and duplicity of the “Free State” Government, the prisoners went on hunger strike on October 14, 1923. Five days later the men and women in the other prisons followed their example, although the original intention was that only a selected comparatively small number should take the offensive in this drastic way and continue to the end, whether that end was death or victory.
Every mean device was resorted to by the “Free Staters” to break the hunger strike and in many of their tricks and schemes they were successful. Men were induced by lies, and by forged orders supposed to have come from superior officers, to come off the strike and take food. Then when they discovered they had been fooled, they were ashamed to go back again. Thousands broken in health by long imprisonment under the worst possible conditions were unable to hold out more than eight or ten days, and collapsed completely, in some cases falling into such bad health that they never recovered.
Those who remained on hunger strike were treated with a savagery beyond belief. They were left to lie in open sheds in the depth of winter, with insufficient clothing, and with practically no medical attention. Nurses from outside volunteered to go into the prisons and camps and care for the men, but he offer was refused by the “Free Staters,” many of whose own medical men were only touts who did their best – and worst – to break the strike. There were honourable exceptions who did all in their power to relieve the sufferings of those who had adopted as a last weapon this most terrible form of warfare, and who endeavoured to get clean clothes for them and as much warmth as possible, but they did this at eh risk of losing their positions.
The strike lasted for 41 days. It had claimed two victims, Denis Barry, of Cork, and Andy O’Sullivan, of Mallow, two brave and loyal soldiers of the Republic. The Bishop of Cork, Most Rev. Dr. Cohalan, refused to allow Denis Barry’s body to lie in any church in the diocese and ordered all his priests to keep away from the funeral. It was only Denis Barry’s body that was subjected to this un-Christian cruelty; his martyr soul was already, with God’s help, in Heaven, in the company of Terence McSwiney, another hunger-strike, at whose funeral Dr. Cohalan and other bishops had officiated a couple of years before. “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”


Deed of horror

We record here the death of Joe Bergin, of the “Free State” Military police, because we and others experienced kindness at his hands during the Hunger Strike of 1923, when he was stationed at Tintown 3 on the Curragh of Kildare. We record it also because it illustrates the savage methods employed by men who allowed themselves to fall into the power of the English and then struck wildly at all but their captors. We have said elsewhere that the combined influence of the Catholic Hierarchy and of the I.R.B. carried the Treaty of Surrender. That is quite true. The I.R.B. was made use of later when the “unauthorised murders” came to be committed. It is even to be feared that there were two sections or cliques of the I.R.B. within the “Free State” Army. Joe Bergin believed there were. He belonged to one of them and fell under suspicion because he was kind and helpful to republican prisoners and carried messages from them to their friends in Dublin. He was watched and followed. He was seen to enter a house of a republican in Dublin City. Certain men from the Intelligence Department of the “Free State” Army were sent down by car to intercept and “interrogate” him on his way back to Camp. They met him, questioned him, tortured him, mutilated him, then tied ropes round his body, which was still alive, and dragged him along the road for miles, the car travelling at top speed. Then they riddled the poor body with bullets and threw it into the canal. That was on December 13, 1923. A man named Murray, attached to the “Free State” Intelligence Department, was found guilty of the murder and condemned to death in 1925. The sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. A witness at the trial volunteered the information that Murray “knew something” about the murder of Noel Lemass. So did “some person or persons unknown” higher up than Murray, who was a scapegoat. It was a similar type of murder. Murray was out of the country for two years after this deed of horror had taken place, but his pay was given weekly to his wife during all that time. And these murderers were the “Christian Soldiers” of a “lawful Government.” There was no condemnation of this terrible deed.

An article from the Wolfe Tone annual of 1937 with particular reference to Co. Kildare in December 1923.


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